Archive for February 2013

Making sense of academic boycotts

February 26, 2013

In the United States last week, one prominent anthropologist resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest at the membership of the Academy of another prominent anthropologist. The field of anthropology is no different from many other subject areas, and there are different academic approaches, different political outlooks and of course different personalities. Often these differences do not encourage peaceful coexistence. In this case the resigning anthropologist – Marshall Sahlins – didn’t want to be in the same academy as newly arrived Napoleon Chagnon. His objections were to the latter’s work for the US military, and apparently also to Chagnon’s work on certain communities in the Amazon rain forest.

I’m not going to get into the substance of all that, but I am wondering here about the extent to which the academy, by which I now mean the whole academic community, can live with differences and contradictions, and at what point its members opt for exclusions and boycotts. Of course once you mention boycotts you are immediately drawn to various long-running campaigns to isolate academics from Israel. These campaigns in turn have divided the academy, with strong voices both for and against.

Partly of course these are really debates about ethics: at what point do you become so disturbed at the values associated with certain academics that you cannot in conscience be in their company? That in turn may prompt the question as to how sensitive your conscience is, and whether it perhaps gets exercised too easily at the point of disagreement.

I guess that for me academic freedom, encompassing very high levels of freedom of speech, investigation and analysis, must protect many of those whose views we find disturbing or even reprehensible. The late Christopher Hitchens argued that the generally discredited views of historian David Irving deserved protection in part because they were so universally rejected. I confess that I have found this particular defence difficult to accept. But then again, if academic discourse is the search for the truth then we must be very slow to shut out any contributions to that search.

Marshall Sahlins is absolutely entitled to disagree with Napoleon Chagnon. He may indeed be right in his disagreement. But he should conduct this argument as a debate, not as a boycott. And that, generally, is what I believe should be the position of the academy.

Higher education and academic migration

February 19, 2013

Professor Alfred Baird of Edinburgh Napier University is probably not a happy man. His university has just announced the appointment of Professor Andrea Nolan as its new Principal and Vice-Chancellor (and I wish her very well). Professor Nolan has been employed by the University of Glasgow since 1989, but before that she worked in England, Germany and Ireland. She is herself Irish, and she now becomes the second current Scottish Principal (along with me) who is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. All very good, you will undoubtedly think. But Professor Baird will not, because he has been arguing that ‘Scottish higher education is dominated by university leaders who are not born here’. In an article he wrote on the topic he continued:

‘If Scots did so much to invent this and that and the next thing, how come we are no longer rated competent enough to lead and manage our own nation’s universities? What does that say about the Scots? I think most Scots will agree that it would indeed be a sorry state of affairs if Scots were no longer leading any of Scotland’s universities, yet this is not far from the reality today, and the trend is rapidly heading towards that outcome.’

He went on to suggest that more generally Scottish academics were being outnumbered in Scotland’s universities by academic immigrants, suggesting that these migrants were doing work not sufficiently relevant to the country.

Of course I must declare an interest, being myself a German-Irish immigrant leading one of Scotland’s universities. But is Professor Baird right? Is it legitimate for a country to expect, maybe insist, that its academic leadership is indigenous? This, it should be remembered, is a question being asked of a profession that has, in many countries, strongly internationalised. And the question can also be asked in a different way, picking up one of Professor Baird’s themes: should universities reflect the ethos and needs of their host country?

Actually, these two questions are different. Many universities see themselves as international institutions, but they also recognise the strong responsibility they have to their own country and its priorities, and indeed to their region. What this requires of a university leader is to respect the country’s needs, while also reaching out to the international community of learning. But doing that does not particularly require them to have been born there.

The world that universities need to address is a globalised one, and they need to be equipped to make that work for them. This does not require that they be led by expatriates, but equally it does not suggest that there should be an expectation that university heads be locally born and bred. As for me, I see myself as leading a Scottish university, rooted in its country, but reaching out to the world.

Back in Ireland in 1977, the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) suggested in a famous political speech that some political commentators who had come from England were ‘blow-ins’ who could ‘blow up or blow out’. He lost the election later that year. In the end, a mature society in a country at ease with itself learns to respect the contributions of those who have come to make their home there.

Cities, out to sea

February 17, 2013

Many of the world’s great cities have a strong relationship with the sea through their ports. On a weekend visit to Dublin I recently walked along the Great South Wall pier on the southern side of the entrance into Dublin port. This has an atmosphere all of its own – and I am not talking about the sewage treatment plant you pass on the way. Well worth a Sunday walk.

Great South Wall, Dublin

Great South Wall, Dublin

Occupational therapy?

February 12, 2013

Just when you thought that all students these days are only focused on being respectable and preparing for their careers, along come the masses and occupy a conference centre in Sussex University. Actually I’m exaggerating just a little, the masses consist of at most 60 students. Still, they’re doing a sit-in, no doubt unleashing sighs of nostalgia in my generation. Back in the old days, your student body was pathetic unless it had at least occupied the administration building and the library four or five times a year. And the student restaurant, of course.

It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.

In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.

During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, here’s one to remind us. So then, what are the Sussex students doing this for? Well, their occupation is in protest at the privatisation of campus services, including catering and estates management. There, I bet you didn’t know that there was still any university that hadn’t outsourced catering.

Anyway, maybe 60 students is not a mass movement, but they’re making their case. This being the age it is, this has been organised around a blog, which you can find here. And they’ve got backers – rather more backers than actual protestors, truth be told – and you can find the list of 165 supporters here, including academics and various politicians and celebs. And of course you don’t need me to tell you there’s a Facebook page.

Leaving aside the issues that are the subject of this protest, there’s something rather pleasingly retro about this action, a reminder that the activist impulses of the past are not completely dead in higher education. But is the action itself well-judged? Does it make sense to try to prevent outsourcing?

I can make no comment about the merits or otherwise of the plans of Sussex University for catering and other services. I do not know what the quality of the outsourced service will be, nor how this will affect those working in the university now. But the idea that universities should continue to maintain all their own non-core services themselves as part of the organisation is not realistic, and is not usually value for money. But any plan for change requires careful handling and good communication, so that the benefits are understood and accepted; indeed also to ensure that there really are benefits.

In the meantime, the student activism visible in Sussex is interesting, if perhaps ultimately misguided. Though if I were them, I’d give the celebrity endorsements a miss.

Taking the news badly

February 5, 2013

In the course of a recent conversation if had with a group of students while visiting another town (which I won’t name), I suddenly became aware of the fact that none of them knew anything about a story that had been dominating the news headlines for about two days: the French military intervention in Mali. Some of the students knew it had happened but were rather vague on the context, and the others knew nothing about it at all. Indeed two couldn’t place Mali in the correct continent.

I guess we all see our own youth through our current lenses, and so my strong belief that I was constantly politically informed and engaged as a student may be what I want to remember rather than how it was in reality. But I still think I would have known something about Mali or its then equivalent. Perhaps it is more surprising that today’s young people are less tuned in to the news given that there is so much of it. Back then we had newspapers and radio (not much television for me as a student). Now the news are all over everything, from the broadcast media to the internet. In fact my car even tells me today’s news headlines on a screen when I switch on the engine. Nor is it just peripheral stuff. At the click of a mouse I can get detailed and intelligent and varied political analysis.

Does this matter? In fact, would you judge my recent encounter differently if I were to say that all my student interlocutors were studying science? Personally, I don’t think that matters. I believe that educating students means not just supporting them in building up expert knowledge, but encouraging them to see the context in which that knowledge has value. If nothing else, our increasing (and rightful) focus on ethics requires such an understanding. It may be time for universities to look at ways in which a knowledge of current affairs can be part of everyone’s curriculum. Online resources such as The Student Room in the UK provide very useful discussion forums that many students take part in, but they probably do not touch the majority, and maybe in particular those that need them most.

The again, maybe that’s just a patronising comment, and we should leave young people (and older ones) to find out for themselves what matters. And when they find out, they may discover that I know absolutely nothing about it. To my shame.