Changes

Almost exactly 40 years ago I was sitting my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days the finals were in September, which made it really difficult for some who needed their results rather earlier when making job applications. Anyway, I had, very late in the day, decided to pursue an academic career, and from TCD went on to do a PhD in Cambridge. I then returned to Dublin and became a lecturer in Trinity College. And on from there.

Those of you who read the North-East Scotland media will already know that, with effect from the end of this month, I shall be leaving my position as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, a post I have held since March 2011. In fact I have spent nearly half my academic career leading two universities consecutively. That’s probably long enough.

However, I shall not be losing interest in the academy, and am already doing work for two books I am intending to write. And this blog will continue. But as I look back, what perhaps strikes me most is that my career never followed a predictable path. I left school in 1972, not intending to go to university at all. After two years in employment, I changed my mind, and went to TCD, intending to be a barrister. As an academic, I expected to be a researcher (and was for a while), but became a university leader instead. There is no such thing as a reliable career plan, and indeed this is more true now than it was then. And for me, there may be one more opportunity to do something completely different. We’ll see.

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14 Comments on “Changes”

  1. J Doyle Says:

    Best of luck with the “something completely different” (I see the former UL president qualified as a silversmith, for example, one of the few Irish smiths these days) but delighted the blog, which has provided some mental stimulus for years now, will continue. The news did not reach the papers in Dublin but Wikipedia has kept right up with it (great that you have an article, poor Danny O’Hare is MIA and Ed Walsh has just a few lines). An important point too, especially these days, about the sharp turns careers can take. So Scotland, Ireland, England, where next in Brexit Times? Go n-eiri an bother leat!

  2. Vince Says:

    Onward and upward !.


  3. Good luck at whatever you choose to do now, Ferdinand. Can I ask if you feel you may be able to be a little more frank in your comments about higher education in the future? Do you at all feel that when you are in the system you have to be somewhat careful about what you say for fear of offending those you work with or those who fund you?


    • I have tried not to restrict myself in what I write, but I guess I haven’t written on some topics at all because I would not wish to damage my institution or hurt my colleagues. Over time I think I’ll probably be more direct in the blog. I’ll also be welcoming others to contribute, preferably with a wide range of views.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    As Churchill famously put it in the Commons: “To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.”
    His inspiration was Cardinal John Henry Newman who wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”(Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845).
    Timeless wisdom, I say.

  5. Tim Wildon Says:

    Very best to you and your family, as you perhaps move to warmer climes, at least Dublin, if not farther west. Please do keep up the Diary. We need all the insight we can get, in a shifting future. I agree with a past diary entry, most jobs won’t vanish yet, but old-style “physical” universities must change.

  6. Brigid McManus Says:

    Best wishes , Ferdinand, for the next phase, and for new opportunities.

    Brigid McManus

  7. Wendy Says:

    Belated congratulations and good wishes on your (semi-)retirement! I hope that you will spend at least some time on more leisurely and less academic pursuits.

    Though since you mention that you do intend to continue writing and contributing to debates on the nature of academia, I would like to encourage interest in a couple of areas:

    1: the continuing growth of precarious work. When I was still in academia, close to half the workforce was on fixed-term or casual contracts in the UK, and if there has been a change since, it’s to make things worse. In Canada, less than half of PhD graduates can expect to find an academic position, and many of those who do get work in academia are in precarious and low-paid positions: postdocs, research associates, adjunct professorships and so on. The idea of a “career structure” exists only for those with tenure and the very, very fortunate (or well-connected). And yet, of course, universities still encourage people to come and do PhDs, and do little to prepare them for the post-PhD labour market. I meet some of these disappointed PhDs in my job, and have to start by helping them to discover how their skills and knowledge could transfer to the non-academic world – something I believe that universities should be doing.

    2: the continued existence of bullying and intimidation in academia. It was rife when I worked in the area, and played a huge role in my decision to exit (and I have zero regrets, though that’s not the case for others who have felt forced to walk away for the sake of their mental health and self-respect). My experience, and that of others I’ve talked to, both in the UK and Canada – in my professional capacity I’ve also met ex-academics who let for similar reasons – university managements do nothing to prevent this kind of behaviour, and some go further by protecting the bully. It isn’t just individual departments/schools which close ranks, as mine did, but HR departments and academic hierarchy. This prevalence isn’t just my experience; it crops up again and again in the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous section; it’s been the subject of books (the specific text and others listed below; there are multiple blogs, conference papers and even scholarly articles on the subject. I’d describe it as an open secret – everyone knows it happens, but no-one will do anything about it and there is plenty of denial and victim-blaming.

    Sure, you can find this kind of behaviour in many workplaces: the shouting, the exclusion, the undermining of confidence, the whispering and rumour-spreading behind your back, the unfair allocation of work, the badmouthing in front of colleagues or even students, and other such tactics. But many private-sector companies are now confronting that kind of behaviour and making it easier for employees to report it – and except in a few occupations, it’s relatively easy to walk away and start again somewhere else, Apart from the poor job market in academia, it’s also very difficult to find another job because of the ease with which the bully can destroy a reputation.

    (Yes, I do feel rather strongly about this issue, and not only on my own account).

    I look forward to seeing what you will do next!


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