Archive for the ‘university’ category

Starting off

September 17, 2018

In a number of countries, and in very many universities, the new academic year has been getting under way this month. For students who are now embarking upon their degree studies, this can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but for many it is also something unfamiliar and occasionally intimidating. It is every university’s obligation to ensure that students feel supported at this time, and that those who are not comfortable know who they can turn to for help.

Orientation for new students should always include information about the help that is available for those who feel the need for it. This can and should be communicated in readily accessible online information – such as this example from the University of Colorado at Boulder – but also in face-to-face meetings and in classes.

Right now there is also a growing and welcome focus in universities on mental health, which must be accompanied by appropriate professional support.

Overall, the message to students must be that they should never feel they have got to face problems alone, and that there is always someone they can turn to who will listen, help and make time for them. That is the key duty that all universities must meet.

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Protecting our honour

September 10, 2018

I’m about to make up a number here, but just work with me. Across the world in 2017, some 200,000 people were awarded honorary doctorates. A significant proportion these awards were handed to eminent academics, often at or near retirement, whose work was of real intellectual significance and produced wider benefits. Some were awarded to prominent people who showed their support for higher education activities and values. Some… – well some, you just don’t know why they got them.

I’m sure that it is not the most urgent issue to address in today’s global higher education, but I confess that, as a university head for the past 18 years, I was never absolutely sure how to handle honorary degrees. When I became President of Dublin City University I introduced a moratorium, and for the first three years of my tenure we awarded none at all. Then we carefully identified a small number of people with whose work and achievements we wanted to identify as a university, but we continued to do this sparingly and at most ceremonies there were no honorary conferrings.

I continued this approach in Robert Gordon University (and in fact had to deal with one honorary degree awarded before my time which we felt we had to revoke). While I feel really proud of ┬áthe honorary doctorates that were conferred in my time in both universities, I have never been quite sure whether my approach was right or wrong. It just seemed to me that the currency of these awards was increasingly debased across higher education because there were so many of them. I am absolutely not against recognising achievements, values and principles, and honorary degrees are a way of celebrating exceptional merit. This year for example, on International Women’s Day, RGU conferred honorary doctorates on three outstanding women, with very different backgrounds and profiles; it was a wonderful occasion.

But then again, is it right that a number of celebrities gather up a whole collection of awards that seem to recognise their fame rather than any merit? And still, some of these celebrities have done remarkable things to help others and uphold intellectual values. So what really is the correct approach?

I have no answer really, but would urge universities to make these awards signify something that supports and enhances the purposes and values of the institution, and to do it not so frequently as to obscure the special merit of each honour.

The need to address academic bullying

September 4, 2018

In my 38 years of management in higher education – in roles from Department Head and Faculty Dean to President/Principal – one of the most difficult tasks has been to confront those few people who were bullies and who were targeting more vulnerable or less powerful colleagues. Bullying is of course not unique to universities, but it can be particularly difficult to address in the academy, because it can appear to be tied up with academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.

It could be argued that this is connected with a wider problem in universities, in that academic discourse is occasionally conducted in an aggressive tone, because it is thought appropriate to defend intellectual positions in a robust manner. It is not too difficult for robust argument to morph into personal aggression. When this is experienced by someone in a more junior or vulnerable position than that enjoyed by an aggressor it quickly turns into bullying, and moreover can become a pattern rather than an incident.

The journal Nature recently published a commentary by an American professor in which she suggested that personal bullying can be an issue in science laboratories in particular, where postgraduates, postdocs and junior academics can be dependent career-wise on lab supervisors, and thus may not only be subjected to aggressive behaviour but may also find it hard or even impossible to resist or escape from the situation. And of course one would have to ask why they should be expected in the first place to escape in order to experience appropriate working conditions.

It is right to call time on academic cultures that subject people to personal distress. And it is right to emphasise that no amount of academic freedom can justify the mistreatment of colleagues. Each university should have not only a policy on this but also mechanisms to protect the vulnerable, and evidence to show that these mechanisms are taken seriously and work.

Changes

August 14, 2018

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.

A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?

July 9, 2018

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not been reluctant to enter contentious debate during the course of his term of office to date. Most recently, at the launch of the Cambridge University Press History of Ireland, the President offered the following view on universities as comfortable hosts for academic studies:

‘Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.’

The President has of course on previous occasions offered a similar analysis of the direction of higher education, and it is also clear that his view has support amongst a good number of academics; this article in the Irish Times is a good example. The English Campaign for the Public University also offers very similar views.

There is in such campaigns sometimes an element of irritation that taxpayer funding should come with strings attached, and in so far as this is part of the complaint it cannot easily be upheld. There are few areas of public life supported by exchequer funds that can still expect to be outside of value-for-money scrutiny, however lofty the objectives of the funded bodies. What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.

The resistance to outcome-driven funding as a matter of principle is, I would think, bound to fail: the spirit of the age is against such resistance. The better argument would be about what outcomes are an appropriate subject of targeting and monitoring. For example, is it justifiable to reject targets for socio-economic inclusion in higher education (the access agenda)? Should research performance be entirely a matter of individual choice? How much weight do we give student opinion on quality and content of courses?

These are complex questions, but probably not questions that should be dismissed with charges of a subversion of higher education by neoliberal ideologues. Rather they are questions of policy that have never got to be the subject of agreement between the wider academy, their leaders, and government. Universities will never be run again as they were in the late 19th century; nor should they be, as they catered solely for a social elite. So we need to find a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer. That is now the task.

President Higgins is right to raise these matters. But the ensuing debate needs to be conducted outside the trenches of hardened opinion. On all sides.

The mental health imperative

July 3, 2018

When I was a student in the 1970s, almost nobody ever mentioned mental health. And yet, I knew several students with anxiety and depression, who often found it difficult to share their problems with anyone, and who had pretty much no support they could call upon within the system. At least one of them was unable to complete their course, and struggled with these problems for many years subsequently.

Now, in 2018, the problem is at least increasingly recognised, though whether we are close to providing mental health and wellbeing care and support for all those in higher education is another matter. What is clear is that the pressures on students are increasingly intense and many find it difficult to cope. Staff on the other hand need what the charity Student Minds calls ‘mental health literacy’.

NUS Scotland has recently adopted a Charter for Student Rights on Mental Health. This sets out ten basic rights for students based on clearly identified need. Some of the problems identified by the NUS included the impact of internet trolling, inadequate availability of counselling, special problems encountered by LGBT students, and growing suicide numbers.

The NUS initiative is to be welcomed, and individual universities and colleges all need to prioritise mental wellbeing also. My own institution, Robert Gordon University, recently concluded a Student Mental Health Agreement with our Students’ Union, which will, I hope, provide an effective framework for support where it is needed. There is still much to be done.

The most important thing is not to ignore mental health and wellbeing, and not to let any members of the university community feel they have nowhere to go and nobody to support them. This is where we have to start.

Call the doctor

June 18, 2018

In the circles in which I once moved when I was still an active law lecturer, one of the regular questions colleagues from the United States of America would ask is whether, with a J.D. degree (‘Juris Doctor‘), they were entitled to style themselves ‘Dr’. This often led to long discussions about how academic qualifications should be used by their holders to declare their status.

I was awarded my own Ph.D. in 1982, and to be honest I immediately had my university letterhead amended to include my new title. And when I had done that I felt slightly sheepish, and for the rest of my career tended to avoid reference to my doctorate except in necessary contexts (as on my curriculum vitae).

Anyway, over the past few days there has been something of a Twitterstorm about academic doctorates. It began with the historian Fern Riddell, who last week tweeted as follows:

‘My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible. I worked hard to earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.’

This earned her a number of critical responses, some saying that she was arrogant and was holding herself out to be better than others. But Dr Riddell was having none of that, and started the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. So before you could say ‘trending’ her tweet produced a tsunami of others, mostly women, proclaiming their entitlement to publish their academic status. Though somewhere in there we also had a man – a surgeon – proudly proclaiming his status as ‘Mr’, which as you know is the title of qualification and honour for that profession.

So there are two issues caught up in this. The first is to do with recognising and proclaiming expertise; the second is about recognising women as equally meriting such recognition.

Regarding the first of these, I guess that someone with long training and established expertise in some field outside of the academy might ask why academics merit titular recognition where others don’t. This might be less of an issue in other cultures, where titles more routinely display status in non-academic professions: ‘Herr Direktor’, ‘Frau Oberamtsrat’. But in British (or indeed Irish) society, should academic qualifications uniquely be attached to a name, where other qualifications are not?

On the other hand, in the context of gender it has taken a long time for women to secure easy recognition of expertise and leadership in universities; even now it is not unusual for heavily qualified women to be treated unequally and unfairly- sexism in the academy is far from dead, as a previous post by guest blogger Dr Anna Notaro also found.

So, on balance, I say to the #ImmodestWomen, go for it, claim what is your right.