Archive for the ‘university’ category

The campus free speech struggles, and litigation

October 16, 2017

You may well not have heard of Mr Richard Spencer; at any rate I hadn’t, though I must admit I don’t think my life was the poorer for it. So, to introduce him to you, let me tell you that he is president of the National Policy Institute, an American white supremacist ‘think tank’. The reason why he is making an appearance in this blog post is because he has developed a habit of getting himself invited, or inviting himself, to universities to make speeches or take part in debates. His modus operandi appears to be that when these universities cancel his appearances, he sues them, claiming that his freedom of speech has been violated. Indeed he makes some money that way, as universities have been known to settle with him to escape his litigious attentions.

Let us not spend much time on Mr Spencer. This post has another dramatis persona, in the form of Mr Briscoe Cain. Mr Cain is a lawyer and a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives. He is 32 years old, and I suspect he is on the look-out for higher things in the world of politics. He calls himself a conservative, and goodness knows what that actually means these days in the somewhat convoluted politics of the United States, but let’s say the label won’t please some students and others should he seek a university as a location for his oratory; which is what he has done.

Mr Cain appears to have been invited to address an audience at Texas Southern University (TSU). It is what is often referred to as a traditionally black university. Mr Cain was invited by a local chapter of the Federalist Society, an association that believes in the merits of ‘principles of limited government’, to deliver a speech on the campus of TSU. When the day came – and it was last week – a group of students from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement objected to his rhetoric, on the somewhat complicated grounds that Mr Cain was known to oppose public funding of sex reassignment surgery. The university cancelled the event, claiming that his invitation had been irregular since the Federalist Society was not appropriately registered and recognised administratively by TSU.

So, Mr Cain is now proposing to sue TSU and its president and maybe some students. I suspect that the whole thing will become a topic of interest to radio talk show hosts and others wanting to work up a nice lather of indignation at this latest egregious violation of freedom of speech, maybe in between arguing the case for removing broadcasting licences from TV stations that are hostile to the current US administration. Let’s just say that Mr Cain won’t be deprived of support from various commentators.

But here is the problem. You and I might not be booking our seats to hear Mr Cain. But as far as I can tell, the good Texas Representative is not on the same level of unacceptability as Mr Spencer, for whom I would certainly be more than reluctant to provide any kind of platform. Briscoe Cain is just an attention-seeking conservative Republican, and while I might not like his outlook I strongly believe in a competitive political forum in which all legitimate views should be given a hearing. According to media reports, Mr Cain’s attempts to speak were drowned out by student chants of ‘you don’t get a platform here’.

Right now universities in the United States, and some in the United Kingdom, are being criticised for their failure to protect the right to free speech; and some students may sometimes appear to limit free speech to speeches that they agree with. This is something we must be vigilant about. Unpopular views must indeed sometimes receive special protection, so that we never slip into a society in which oppression becomes easier because we have all paved the way for it.

I have no particular affection for Briscoe Cain. But he should have been allowed to speak.


Higher education leadership – for sharing?

September 25, 2017

Shared leadership has become a popular (if not always well understood) concept in recent times, and has been a topic of analysis within higher education. The academy was traditionally seen as a collegiate body in which a ceremonial primacy was granted to one of its own in return for collegiality in decision-making and governance. But that social contract came under stress some time ago, particularly as universities started to see themselves as business entities that needed to be competitive; and a whole new framework was constructed around that assessment, with corporate leadership at its pinnacle.

Of course every such trend produces a backlash, and in this case a tsunami of critiques crashed in rejecting the marketisation of higher education and the corporate practices thought to accompany it: dictatorial leadership, unresponsiveness to dissent, bad communication, over-valuation of managerial status and responsibility. And here is where, for some, the answer to all this is the idea of ‘shared leadership’, in which governance and decision-making is informed both by managerial judgement and an empowered wider body of people. This position has been developed in an interesting report sponsored by the American Council on Education (Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice, by Adrianna J. Kezar and Elizabeth M. Holcombe, University of Southern California) . The report suggests that organisations with shared leadership are ‘better able to learn, innovate, perform, and adapt to the types of external challenges that campuses now face.’ The key elements of such an approach are listed as ‘team empowerment, supportive vertical or hierarchical leaders, autonomy, shared purpose or goal, external coaching, accountability structures, interdependence, fairness of rewards, and shared cognition.’

Conceptually this isn’t easy. For those strongly dissenting from the strategic direction of an organisation, it is much more attractive to call for an ‘off-with-their-heads’ approach to unresponsive leaders, although such calls rarely lead to actual revolution and are more likely to result in truculent disengagement. For those at the top who have been persuaded that they are strong leaders, sharing their power with others can look like weakness. And then there is the lesson of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose desire to share leadership with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia ends in tears.

Higher education has changed fundamentally since it ceased to be something that catered for the formation of social elites, and it cannot return to the forms of governance of that era. But shared leadership may offer a formula of success for the present age, dispensing with the idea of a ‘leader-follower binary’ and focusing instead on ‘how those in power can delegate authority, capitalize on expertise within the organization, and create appropriate infrastructure so that organizations can capitalize on the leadership of multiple people.’ This is a model universities and their leaders should consider much more seriously.

The mysteries of academic recruitment

September 11, 2017

I have no idea on how many occasions I have set on university selection panels to fill academic or other vacancies, both in the various universities in which I have worked and in other institutions. Nor, to be honest, am I sure how often I personally got the decision right or wrong. And yet, these decisions change people’s lives and the destiny of institutions.

There are two key elements in staff recruitment. The first relates to the job specification – i.e. the particulars that are published describing the post and the attributes of the ideal candidate. The second is the selection process, including shortlisting and interviews. Both of these are critical: they contain a vision of the institution and of people who can help it to thrive, but that vision may be faulty, may be affected or undermined by bias or prejudice, and may be applied without proper expertise by those making the selection.

Mostly those taking part in faculty and staff recruitment do so with great care and with a real intention to be objective and fair. But that may not always be enough. Research in the United States has looked at some common criteria used in recruitment and assessed whether they are as helpful as people often believe; and has suggested that at least the early stages of selection (like shortlisting) might be conducted ‘blind’ – i.e. without knowledge of the candidate’s’ names, background and previous educational or institutional affiliations.

For those (like me, as I must admit) who have not tried this approach it may be worth a go. Selection for a university (or any other) job will never be a perfect process in all circumstances, but it should be as fair, transparent and objective as possible.

Making the grade too easily?

August 21, 2017

It’s mid-summer, and so of course it’s the time of year for breathless comments about grade inflation in universities, and particularly about the number of students being awarded a top grade in their final examinations and assessments. This year again we are told that ‘one third of UK universities and colleges awarded the top grade to at least a quarter of their students.’ Indeed English universities are to expect the British government to initiate ‘a crackdown on the rapidly increasing proportion of top degrees being awarded by universities’.

Grade inflation, in so far as it is an issue, is not restricted to any particular country or system; indeed whatever grade inflation there may be in these islands is not so significant when compared with grade inflation elsewhere. And as it happens, some of the most serious grade inflation, over a protracted period of time going back to the 1940s, has been in the United States, and is continuing into the present time). Indeed this has reached a point where some American educators are pointing out that there is no longer any objective way in which the grades of really excellent students can numerically be distinguished from those who are merely good, because an increasingly large percentage of results is clustered around the top of the range of marks.

In reality this does not particularly tell us that unmerited grades are being awarded, but rather that there may not be an adequate consensus around various pedagogical issues including assessment methods and outputs. Should grades reflect performance, measured as objectively as possible, or should they separate a top-performing elite making up a fixed percentage of students (say, 10 per cent) from everyone else, regardless of the extent to which all these students meet any criteria for excellence?

In the end, the noise in the system around grade inflation may encourage us to ask more significant educational questions about what exactly it is we want a university education to provide and how we want to assess their performance and skills. If that is what we get from all this it will be a good thing. But if we remain stuck in the groove of claims and counter-claims about trends in examination results we are unlikely to address the real pedagogical issues. What we probably need least of all is politicians declaring from outside the system how many students (whose performance they have not seen) merit a top grade.

Universities and political elites

July 24, 2017

Politicians, as we discover from time to time, on the whole like social cachet. For men and women ‘of the people’, they often have backgrounds and enjoy privileges that the ‘people’ don’t always get close to. One way of assessing this has often been by looking at what (if any, of course) universities they attended. While the proportion of MPs in the UK House of Commons who are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge has been declining, it is still an extraordinary 23 per cent.

Interestingly, no Scottish constituency returned an Oxbridge-educated MP. A significant proportion graduated from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but it is not a outrageously disproportionate number.

For someone looking to pursue a career in politics in the UK, it still seems to make sense to apply to a handful of universities generally (button usefully) described as ‘elite’ universities, That should not be the case, and candidate selection needs to be more focused on this issue (amongst others)

I might add in parentheses that one university that seems to be getting closer to the people politically is Trinity College Dublin, who have recorded their first graduate as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. I might suggest that a Dublin City University graduate should be next, and maybe that the next First Minister of Scotland should have studied in Robert Gordon University; but those might not be objective thoughts.

All dressed up?

July 10, 2017

For the remainder of this week, I shall be enjoying my university’s graduation ceremonies. I share with my Chancellor, Sir Ian Wood, the task of presiding over these events (we divide them up between us), and I speak at all of them. Over the years between Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University, I have presided at maybe 170 ceremonies and shaken some 31,000 hands in the process; often experiencing the sensation and occasionally the pain of the graduands’ hand jewellery, and always marvelling at the improbable footwear in which amazingly many of them manage to negotiate their way across the stage. But no matter how often I have done it, the spirit of these occasions always carries me along.

Ten years ago in DCU one of our academic colleagues made a formal request to discontinue, for staff at least, the requirement to wear academic robes for graduations. He argued that this was an outdated practice not in tune with the times or indeed with the ethos of the university. We had a lively debate on the DCU Academic Council (the final decision-making body for academic matters) and the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. While the proposal didn’t cover students, I canvassed their opinions anyway and, again, found the mood totally hostile to any relaxing of the rules. What I did change in DCU at the time was the somewhat strange and certainly sexist requirement (generally applied in Irish universities) for women only to wear mortar boards at graduations: in DCU it became optional for both men and women.

So, even in universities such as RGU and DCU, which build their strategies on a non-traditional outlook, formal dress at graduations is still seen as not just appropriate but necessary. This in turn reminds us that rites of passage are rites, or rituals, which need to generate a sense of occasion and emotion. Higher education is changing rapidly; the ceremonies that mark each student’s success probably not.

Exploring discriminatory language

July 3, 2017

I want to raise something here without suggesting what the appropriate response should be.

Let me take the report from the Daily Telegraph:

Cambridge University examiners are told to avoid using words like “flair”, “brilliance” and “genius” when assessing students’ work because they are associated with men, an academic has revealed.

Lucy Delap, a lecturer in British history at Cambridge University, said that History tutors are discouraged from using these terms because they “carry assumptions of gender inequality”.

“Some of those words, in particular genius, have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male”, she said. “Some women are fine with that, but others might find it hard to see themselves in those categories”.’

I have absolutely no doubt that a fair amount of language used ostensibly in an impartial way actually conveys discriminatory assumptions, and sometimes intent. It would be very difficult to argue otherwise. A couple of years ago Liverpool Football Club issued a list of unacceptable words and expressions as part of the campaign to drive out sexual and racism from football. Most of these words are easily recognisable as unacceptable. Would the same be said readily about Lucy Delap’s short list? And if not, how do we know where the line is to be drawn between expressions that are acceptable (even if sometimes controversial) and those that are not?