Posted tagged ‘dissent’

Value in bad-tempered dissent?

April 7, 2015

A few years ago I was visiting an American university as the guest of its President. We were having a cup of coffee in a faculty cafeteria when a middle aged man walked in. The President turned to me and whispered, ‘This man is the scourge of my life. He publicly states his disagreement with everything I say and do. He turns up at every meeting and criticises my plans. I have devoted more nervous energy to this man than to the entire university community put together; and I resent it.’ It was a very striking and passionate statement from what I had hitherto experienced as a very even-tempered man.

But actually the President’s nemesis was not that unusual a member of the cast of dramatis personae of the academy. In fact, a whole article has recently been devoted to the ‘curmudgeons’ of higher education (in this case American community colleges). The author defined curmudgeons as follows:

‘They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.’

Respondents in this study overwhelmingly found the influence and impact of such curmudgeons to be negative. Some curmudgeons themselves argued otherwise, suggesting that they played an important role in restraining institutional heads as they sought to implement every new flavour of the month (or the ‘latest snake oil’ as one put it).

Of course, any university head who is honest will accept that there is genuine value in dissent, not least because it sharpens up strategy and ensures closer analysis of plans and strategies. Dissent is also in the end part of the intellectual academic tradition and should be recognised as such. However, in some cases curmudgeons, seeing the stress they can cause, become self-important and, occasionally, bullies. Some begin to see causing offence as the end rather than the means.

It is important that universities accept, respect and encourage critical thinking, when applied to corporate strategy as much as when applied to intellectual propositions. Curmudgeons, on the other hand, would do well to show respect to fellow members of the university, even where they disagree with them.


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.

What to do with all this dissent?

June 19, 2012

Last month the Irish Times published an article by Tom Garvin, a recently retired professor from University College Dublin, in which he suggested that Irish universities were being destroyed by an ‘indescribable grey philistinism’. He concluded:

‘An anti-intellectual and pseudo-commercial bullying has attempted to replace intellectual freedom, a freedom that the nation itself desperately needs, whether or not it realises it.’

Actually Professor Garvin had been down this road before, in an article published in the same newspaper two years ago. And he is clearly not alone, Both then and last month his pieces were followed by letters to the editor that largely agreed with his analysis.

Nor is this just an Irish phenomenon. The website Inside Higher Ed recently reported that a professor of Georgia Southern University had circulated an email to all faculty in which he described his university as dysfunctional and as being led by administrators disconnected from academics and students. I suspect that if I trawled a little more I would find other examples of such dissent.

What does all this tell us? Actually, that’s hard to say. A lecturer from University College Dublin recently told me that such views are, as he put it, the property of an older generation of academics who find it hard to adapt. He suggested that many of these dissidents are uncomfortable not just with new management practices, but also with new technology, and sometimes with the new practice of involving students in decision-making. They are, he suggested, out of touch with a younger generation of academics.

On the other hand, in my recent role as chair of the Scottish review of higher education governance I came across a good few examples of dissent from academics who would not fit into such a category. So what do we do? One of the key requirements of a successful academy is collegiality. This cannot be a substitute for strategy and action, but it should be an accompaniment to it. Universities cannot return to some allegedly golden age of the 1970s or earlier – there wasn’t such a golden age anyway; they must deal with the financial, quality and accountability issues that they now face. But university leaders must also remember that their plans and methods must carry consent, and they must find ways of harnessing that as effectively as possible.

I don’t agree with Professor Garvin. I think he has misunderstood a good deal of what universities now have to cope with. But I believe that he, and others who think like him, should be encouraged to take their case into the heart of the university, and should be allowed to stimulate discussion and, where appropriate, re-appraisal of policy. Universities would be strengthened by this.

Handling dissent

April 13, 2012

In 1985, as the opening up of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was gradually being wound down, the Vatican imposed on the Brazilian priest and liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a one-year sentence of ‘obsequious silence’. While I adored the term, and have often been tempted to find worthy subjects for such an order, in reality I was horrified by the idea that curiosity, analysis and open-ended thought could be stifled in this way.

And of course this particular approach to theological dissent has not gone away. In recent days the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a vaguely Orwellian sounding body) has newly silenced an Irish priest known for his (relatively) liberal views, Father Tony Flannery, and has restricted the freedom to publish of the editor of a religious magazine, Father Gerard Moloney. Fr Flannery has now also been told to get himself to a monastery to reflect on his unorthodox views and (presumably) come up with something more on-message. The views he is expected to lose include support for married and women priests.

It is tempting, at any rate for me, to find this development appalling.  For anyone who is committed to a search for truth and for open-minded analysis, the idea that a group of elderly (and clearly out of touch) men in Rome could order someone – anyone – to stop all this open thinking is simply abhorrent. The consolation may be that the Vatican’s move seems to have unleashed much wider dissent in the Irish RC church.

But nevertheless, let us for a moment look at it from the perspective of the elderly men in the Vatican. For them, the church never changes. Of course in reality it has changed often and will do so again, but the institutional culture is that absolutely no change can happen or even be discussed until it, well, happens. So for them, the issue is simple enough. Fr Flannery is a Roman Catholic priest, and in that capacity he has signed up to a number of key doctrines, and as priest he needs to represent these to the faithful. The church is not a debating club, and while its members may turn ideas around in their minds, the clergy need to be steadfast.

Nor is the Roman Catholic Church alone in having such issues. A few years ago the then Dean of Clonmacnoise in the Church of Ireland, Andrew Furlong, declared he did not believe Jesus was the son of God, and expressed other views incompatible with the creeds to which Anglicanism and other denominations of Christianity subscribe. He was suspended from his ministry and eventually left the priesthood. The point made then was that you could not expect to be paid as a priest if you disagree with the central tenets that you are supposed to represent.

Perhaps the key to all of this is that while Dean Furlong was pretty far removed from almost any principles of Christianity as commonly held, Fr Flannery is looking to have some organisational rules of the church reinterpreted in the light of spiritual reflection, while holding on to the key doctrines and principles.

Dissent is an important support in any search for the truth. Dissent offered from within the fold, from someone committed to the life and health of the institution, is an asset rather than an impediment. A culture of blind obedience, or of ‘obsequious silence’, is far removed from today’s values. If the church is to thrive in the future, it needs to show an understanding of this. In short, Roman Catholicism needs to rediscover the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Supportive spammer

January 19, 2010

Someone trying to sell property in an overseas location attempted to spam this blog today. I won’t give you the spammer’s website details – the location of the property is not somewhere you’d want to invest, at least not wisely – but I thought you muight like to read his or her upbeat assessment of this blog anyway. The comment was posted allegedly in response to the last post on the value of dissent. Here it is:

Your blog is very good to see it got some amazing stuff in this blog. No dissent needed. I have a draw on your pictures I feel very Ace ………….. Please don’t dissent, everyone say ‘Oh yes, good good blog’. Ace, really ace…….

Now who could disagree!

The value of dissent

January 19, 2010

In her post for this blog yesterday, my colleague Helena Sheehan set out her own personal record of dissidence, in her life and in her work as an academic and as a public intellectual. For those readers who may not know Helena personally (though I know there are many who do), I can pay her a personal tribute by saying that she embodies the academic values of critical analysis and curious inquiry, and that she combines scepticism of establishment views (which perhaps with justification she also attributes to me) with personal courtesy and collegiality. She represents many of the values that should make the case for a critical, detached and intellectually driven academy.

In fact, dissent is at the heart of scholarship. Real learning is about the pursuit of truth, and a reluctance to treat received wisdom as that truth. Truth in turn is most easily discerned, if often through a fair amount of mist, where contrary views have been put and debated and assessed. In that sense, dissent is at the heart of that process, because once we have an established viewpoint with no opposition we lose the benefit of critical inquiry. Furthermore, dissent should have an audible voice. There are in fact organised locations on the internet for dissent from prevailing orthodoxy, such as the website Dissenting Voice.

In a university, the culture of critical analysis including dissent should also be presented to students as a positive value. My generation of academics, who were students some time in the 1970s or so, sometimes feels that students have become respectable labourers for a qualification that will impress the establishment. That is often an unfair and in the end inaccurate assessment; but maybe it makes the point that intellectual skills are not best practised by learning to accept and agree with whatever is put in front of you.

However, dissent as a state of mind can also acquire its own sense of orthodoxy. For example, a Marxist critiquing capitalism in, say, 1975 would generally have been putting up one orthodoxy against another. Neither side would probably have embraced the possibility of being persuaded by the other, so that there might not have been much critical inquiry in the debate. Furthermore the Marxist dissident back then opposing the capitalist culture in, say, New York might not have seen any value in allowing capitalist dissent in a debate taking place in Moscow. To be wholly valuable, dissent needs to be conducted with some openness of mind, or else it may just be a playground game with all the intellectual sophistication of name-calling.

But true dissent has real value. I probably do hold what some might describe as establishment views, though I would like to think that these have a critical and questioning underpinning and also have elements of dissent. So I believe that the modern university needs to be engaged in society, including the economy, and needs to channel the benefits of its activities to support social improvements and economic growth and cultural benefits. I suspect that the traditional model of a detached academy is no longer viable, in part because nobody is now willing to resource it. But I also believe that the modern university needs to nurture within it a counter-culture that is sceptical about these aims and provides a critique of them, and it needs to allow that counter-culture to influence reviews of what the university does and why it does it. Even in the more networked state of today’s university there should be no room for an unquestioned orthodoxy.

Guest blog: Dissidence

January 18, 2010

By Helena Sheehan

Until her retirement last year, Helena Sheehan was an Associate Professor in the School of Communications, Dublin City University. Her personal website can be found at

When Ferdinand asked me to do a guest blog here, it was to provide a dissenting point of view. This has provoked me to reflect on the subject of dissidence.

The image of the dissident is either that of the heroic critic of dictatorial regimes who may be martyred or imprisoned for their outspoken views or else that of a cynic or crank who is weary of the world and would never be satisfied with anything. However, much dissidence is neither. I want to focus not so much on the grand gestures, but on the everyday reality of dissidence, dissidence that is serious, rational, engaged with the world, not dissenting for the sake of dissent.

Let me take three broad areas in which thinking and engaging with the world has forced me into a life of dissidence.

1)    Religion. I am an atheist. Although I was once a fervent catholic, my philosophical development led me to consider the arguments for the existence of God, to reject theism and to come to an alternative view of how the world came to be. For decades now I have lived in a world in which theism was routinely assumed. In Ireland this has been particularly acute. It is not as bad as it once was, but it is still a problem. The existence of God is enshrined in our constitution. The angelus on RTE, although now more artsy and multicultural, still puts it in your face every day, as do phrases routinely pronounced on auto-pilot such as ‘God bless’ and ‘God willing’ in daily conversation. During the holiday season just past, there were once again the references to ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ and the constant presence of songs asserting a particular origin myth as if an agreed story of the history of the world. When and how to dissent is a question posed to me and to many others every day. If someone I hardly know in a shop, says ‘God bless you’, I let it go, but when a colleague in a university constantly says it, I sometimes do say that I think not. Some years ago, a university president habitually said ‘God willing’ at academic meetings and in individual conversations. I once pointed out to him that it was inappropriate to assume such a shared belief in an academic environment. Trinity still confers its degrees ‘in the name of the Most Holy Trinity’ in a way that is insincere and  objectionable, as it does not reflect the actual beliefs of many involved. My PhD was conferred in such a way as was the BA of my son and we are both atheists, as have been many others so conferred. Does it matter? I think that it does. Otherwise, words lose their meaning and gestures lose their point. Much of religious speech and practice in Ireland is hollow these days. Many come to church only for baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals without ever giving a thought to the belief systems underlying these rituals. I have to let much of it pass, as I don’t have the time or the power to contest every inappropriate practice or assertion. I can’t accost every parent on the street asking them what they think they are doing dressing their daughters as brides and telling then that they are eating the body of a dead god.  Nevertheless I do feel called upon to take every appropriate opportunity to speak up and to act. I have joined Atheist Ireland, which is campaigning for a secular constitution and against the new blasphemy law. I make my argument on the media and in classrooms and in publications as opportunities arise. For example: on Christmas day in 2008 I was on radio engaged in a panel discussion with clerics on the truth status of biblical stories. I have written the story of my disbelief in Portrait of a marxist as a young nun.

2)    Politics. I am a socialist. Day after day I listen to a discussion of the current crisis that fails to engage in any kind of systemic analysis, that incorporates all of the assumptions of capitalism without articulating them or scrutinising them. The crisis has resulted in an intensified redistribution from below to above, as private debts are converted into public obligations. There is fury at the greed of bankers and property developers and the complicity of the politicians and regulators. Many see how the government is using the state as the instrument of an oligarchy against their own interests. What is not so widely perceived is that it is in the nature of the system. The greed and the complicity are not simply matters of individual immorality (although they certainly are that too), but they are bred and sustained by the system itself. What to do about it? As do many, I often feel quite powerless in the face of these forces. However, I take every opportunity to speak, to write, to demonstrate (and in the cold and dark and rain of December, it was not easy). Has this made any difference? Not that I can see. Still what is the alternative? If I didn’t do the modest bit that I can do, there would be one less voice saying what I believe needs to be said: that capitalism can be transcended and that there is still a case to be made for socialism. Perhaps occasionally I plant some seed somewhere, so I have to keep trying.

3)    Academe. I am a marxist. I am opposed to many of the current orthodoxies dominating our universities. Philosophically I engage in critiques of both positivism and postmodernism. Both inhibit systemic thinking. These days they do so in a way that is so taken-for-granted. There was a once – in my lifetime – strong and impassioned debate between conflicting paradigms. There were well articulated rival theories regarding questions at the theoretical foundations of most academic disciplines. Today this has nearly disappeared. It is not as if all of these problems have been solved or that the current orthodoxies have won in intellectual terms. It is a matter of power and not of knowledge. Universities have become ever more closely harnessed to the dynamics of a system that does not call attention to its nature as a system. The ethos of commercialisation that has overtaken our universities does not serve the advance of knowledge or the good of society. On this too I have been a dissident. It has been hard here too not to feel powerless, but the fact is that academics do have power, not to immediately defeat this trend, but to query it, to undermine its hegemony, to articulate and live by alternative values. Academics have power to oppose the commodification of knowledge in how they teach their courses, in what they write in their publications and how they address the direction of universities in many fora. I took every opportunity to do this in my years at DCU, primarily in teaching and publishing, but also in debating the president on the commercialisation question. For Ferdinand’s position, many entries in this blog give expression to his point of view, the dominant position. For my arguments, see Are the humanities threatened by the increasing commercialisation of universities?

In the autumn I was at several events at Harvard or Boston University where students asked such eminent radicals as Howard Zinn ‘What should we do?’ as if some guru from dissident movements of the past could give them the answer, could give them the key to unlock their frustration and powerlessness in the face of a world order alien to their emerging sense of things. Another person on a panel, Chris Marin, a producer on the history channel, told them not to expect some master answer from a sage, but to focus on what they care about, who else cares about it, what they can do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  Wise words, I thought.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.