Archive for the ‘university’ category

Professorial elitism

February 24, 2015

An interesting study undertaken recently in the United States found that over half of all tenured university lecturers in a very large sample were graduates of just ’18 elite universities’ (which in the US would be a tiny proportion of the university sector as a whole). The study concluded that access to higher education was firmly established across the country, but:

‘… Most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting PhDs at all?’

There are various observations and assumptions in all of this, and they are worth analysing. First, the assumption is that people who do PhD research are generally intending to be academics. Secondly, the study observes that a small number of elite universities educate most academics. Finally, this means that the academy, as distinct from the population it teaches, is hugely elitist.  If these assumptions are correct, and moreover if they are also correct for other higher education sectors beyond the United States, they should give us some cause for concern.

I am not aware of any similar study in the UK or Ireland, but it would not be excessively difficult to undertake. I would not claim to have done anything scientific, but I have taken three universities, two in the UK and one in Ireland, and have looked at a sample of their academic staff to see what the position might be. My initial impression (and I can hardly claim more than that) is that we don’t have the same phenomenon this side of the Atlantic. All three universities would be considered to be in the middle range rather than ‘elite'; in all three a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in, followed by a group who are graduates of what one might call similar institutions. Of the 100 academics I sampled across the institutions, only three were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact Harvard and Stamford were better represented.

What am I concluding? First, that it might be interesting to do a more scientific study of our universities. Secondly, that if the higher education sector is to have any kind of cohesion and if it is to be successful at underpinning a reasonably egalitarian society, there should be a reasonable spread of universities whose graduates teach and research across all institutions. This is so in part because any move towards elitism will not just stay as intellectual elitism, it will quickly be social (or socio-economic) elitism also.

This is an issue to watch.

So what makes a university?

February 17, 2015

As Ireland continues to struggle with the not very well thought out idea of ‘technological universities’ – now under fire because the somewhat daft requirement for candidate institutions to merge with others first is producing unexpectedly high costs – and England works on for-profit university institutions, new universities are also being created in the United States. The latest upgrade is what was the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, now to be Stockton University.

What is interesting about the announcement of its new status is that it is being described as a ‘comprehensive’ university, which in turn is explained by the institution itself as follows:

‘Comprehensive universities emphasize teaching, as opposed to research universities, which place more emphasis on faculty members’ research being published in refereed journals and books for promotion and tenure.’

So what is it that makes a university a university? If Stockton College continues to do as Stockton University what it did before, what will be the significance of the change, and how is its appropriateness assessed? And to what extent do we (or should we) regard research as the calling card of a university?

It is not just in America that the answers to these questions may not be altogether clear. And of course there is no reason to think that only one model of university is legitimate. Nevertheless, if we are to protect the concept and brand of a ‘university’, we need to have a clear idea of what that is. And I’m not sure we do.

Defending the university library

February 10, 2015

Whatever challenges we may face in this part of the world, we are unlikely – or so we hope – to experience the destruction of our libraries through book burnings. However, not everyone in the world can be see confident: throughout the second half of 2014 the jihadists of Islamic State, who had captured the Northern Iraq city of Mosul, have been burning all non-Islamic books in the local university libraries. And before we get to feel superior, we must of course remember that in the 20th century this happened in Europe also. And even more recently in America, though admittedly for different reasons: in Missouri a university librarian destroyed 188,000 books because he felt they were moldy and damp.

Libraries face all sorts of challenges: they can be the first to feel the impact of budget cuts, they can experience the uncertainty some university leaders feel about whether traditional library materials are still needed or a good investment, or they can get into the news for the wrong reasons, as some students are found doing things there they shouldn’t be.

In a world in which learning methods and indeed learning habits are changing rapidly, in which demographic trends are changing many of our former assumptions, in which electronic materials are replacing hard copies, it may be difficult to develop and promote sustainable library models. But it seems clear to me that we must do so, because in the end the library is, more than anything else, the key symbol of the academy – where the source of knowledge is contained and its analysis facilitated. No matter what happens to the technology, libraries will become neither less relevant nor, it has to be said, less expensive. Universities need to ensure that they survive and prosper, not just on electronic servers, but as places in which scholars can be scholars.

How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?

February 3, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has, particularly after the dust settled a little, prompted (as some might have expected) more detailed debate about the nature and limits of free speech in a liberal democratic society. Some of the debate, as we’ll get to in a moment, concerns free speech in an academic or university setting. But let us look first at the wider issues.

Immediately following the events in Paris there were demonstrations all over the world to reaffirm the right of journalists and commentators to offer their views, however uncomfortable or indeed offensive these might be, without having to fear for their lives. Je suis Charlie became the banner of this movement.

But not everyone joined in. The journalist Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, questioned the credentials of ‘free speech fundamentalists':

‘None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.’

So is free speech protected only to the extent that it is not prohibited or discouraged, as that quote would suggest? If that were so, would it amount to much? And in particular, who is the arbiter of ‘taste and decency’? Is my objection to someone saying something enough to put that statement out of bounds? Do I have, as has been debated for a while now, a ‘right not to be offended’?

For those of us working in higher education, this raises particularly complex issues. Most of our institutions have, thankfully, students and staff from a large number of countries and cultures. While inviting them to learn and to engage with scholarship, we also try to present them with an hospitable and supportive environment. People away from home can be particularly vulnerable, and we should recognise that. But again, what does this mean when it comes to the substance of debate, in particular where that substance may be uncomfortable to some?

The website Spiked Online has now produced a league table of UK universities that ranks them according to their attitude to freedom of speech and to censorship. It suggests that 23 universities (including mine) have a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’, 45 have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, and 47 have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’. Those universities that do not, in the view of the compilers of this survey, support free speech have in many cases banned offensive speech or taken similar measures, such as excluding speakers from the campus where their views were not considered appropriate.

It is easy to feel that universities must not allow students and others to be made uncomfortable on the campus when others attack their beliefs or their ethos. On the other hand, universities are places where knowledge should be pursued regardless of whether that knowledge pleases or disturbs people. Censorship on the campus in one context may undermine scholarly integrity in another.

It is easy to agree with Mehdi Hasan, as I do, that some lines should not be crossed by considerate people. I would hate to offend someone’s deeply held convictions, assuming these convictions are within the law. But I would also hate to be part of something that confines academic investigation to things that do not bother anyone. Censorship on the campus is not something we should want to see grow, not least because the expression and the challenging of our opinions and views is, fundamentally, the thing that matters most in scholarship.

Handling dissent: making a meal of body language?

January 27, 2015

Universities are, as we all know, places in which a variety of different opinions can be found, often strongly expressed. At any rate, that is how it should be. Of course there needs to be strategy and direction, but there also needs to be sense of exploration and critique, in an environment that recognises this as helpful.

So what are we to make of the case where a senior academic, Professor Docherty, was suspended a year ago by Warwick University when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, he deployed such tactics as ‘sighing, projecting negative body language and making “ironic” comments when interviewing candidates for a job…’? Indeed according to another report he had even been sarcastic. The university’s contention was that he had thereby undermined the position of his (presumably also present) Head of Department.

It is of course dangerous to comment on such matters without having full inside knowledge of what happened or in what context events took place, but universities need to be sensitive to expressions of dissent, even in the form of body language, without taking dramatic actions in response. Equally, academics (and others) need to be aware of the fact that their actions and their conduct can come across as aggressive and bullying. Because universities are a forum for the exchange of ideas, they must be prepared that this involves transactions that are not always polite; but equally must try to ensure that interactions don’t become oppressive to some participants. It is a hard balance to strike.

Professor Doherty is well known for his views, many of which are highly critical of current trends in the management of universities. The university has emphasised that there is no connection between his views and the actions that were taken; this at any rate is important, because academic freedom is a vital component of university life – and so there should be, as one commentator put it, an academic ‘freedom to sigh’. Therefore it is also good advice to any university to say that where you find an academic to be sighing and projecting negative body language, the best response is probably not to suspend him or her.  Probably. But none of us get it right all of the time.

Submerged in email?

January 6, 2015

In 2008 the journal Times Higher Education reported on some research commissioned by HEFCE (the English higher education funding council) which suggested that there was an ‘overbearing email culture’ in universities and that this was undermining internal communications. The researchers questioned a number of university heads, as well as directors of communications and directors of human resources, and found that the heads (Vice-Chancellors) were very upbeat about their communication strategies, while the various directors were not. The directors were also apparently of the view that academics were worse communicators than administrators.

The view that university staff of all categories are overwhelmed by the volume of email and are in consequence not able to digest the information they contain may have a grain of truth in it. On the other hand, I remember the pre-email era well enough, and I don’t believe for a moment that communication strategies were more effective back then; whereas it is quite possible that we have information overload now, in past years we often had no real communication at all.

What this tells us, on the whole, is that a university (like most other institutions) needs a proper communications strategy. And it would be foolish to deny that, very often, we don’t get it right. I have myself, during my years as a university head, used email fairly regularly to communicate news or other issues, but I know that this is not always the best way; but it is tempting to use it because it is so easy. But more generally, email exchanges in universities often disregard some basic rules of email use; one department in North Carolina State University has issued some very sensible guidelines on email etiquette.

RGU has been working on its communications strategy, and I hope that we will find a way to allow information to be both accessible and easy to find, and to make it easy for colleagues to ask questions, find answers and make comments, in a safe setting. I must look more at how others have done this, particularly those institutions where staff are satisfied with the strategy. Pointers are welcome!

Brand new brilliant idea. Not.

December 17, 2014

Goodness, here we go again. A few months ago my former university, known throughout the world by everyone as Trinity College Dublin, thought it needed a new name, for reasons that baffled everyone except the consultants who had invoiced the college for coming up with the new brand. It was henceforth to be known as ‘Trinity College the University of Dublin’. Except that nobody thought this was a great idea, and so the college cut its losses (€100,000, reportedly) and kept the old identity.

Bad ideas are never killed off quite as easily as that, however. So now, another institution with a globally recognised brand and a huge reputation has decided that it, too, must pay someone (£300,000 this time, it is claimed) to come up with a daft new name. King’s College London, a genuinely renowned university, is to be called just ‘King’s London’. At least Dublin’s proposed TCTOUD would still have told you what kind of place it was. King’s London could be anything. And don’t even get me started on the grammatical implications.

The proposal sparked a rather amusing sequence of suggestions on Twitter for other name changes based on this model. But more seriously, nobody anywhere in the world needs to have it explained to them by way of a name change that King’s College or Trinity College are not some obscure secondary schools. Trust me on this. And that advice comes for free.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 827 other followers