Posted tagged ‘hierarchical’

Tradition, deference and collegiality in universities

December 1, 2011

When I was a student in the mid-1970s, I was elected class representative and had the pleasure of attending staff meetings in my department. This was an era that still had traces of the spirit of 1968 and student revolt, and I saw my role as being one of asserting student rights and generally questioning tradition. So what struck me most immediately when I attended my first staff meeting was the extraordinary level of deference and formality. The head of the department was addressed by all staff by his surname and rank, and indeed occasionally just as ‘Professor’.  When he showed a desire to speak everyone else fell absolutely silent. When he declared (as he sometimes did) that ‘I think we have now decided this issue’ (when, more often than not, there was nothing resembling agreement) everyone murmured assent, even those who moments earlier had expressed a contrary view.

When I became a lecturer a few years later my experience was similar, though it has to be said that my head of department did not particularly expect deference or formality – but he often got it anyway. Much more striking still was what happened when the head of the university – the Provost – appeared: there was a hushed silence, and it would never have occurred to anyone to address him as anything other than ‘Provost’.

Recently I attended a meeting in another university and was astounded to find these traditions still in good health: formality and deference were still much in evidence; except that now there were signs of a cynical undertone that accompanied the deference.

In my own case I strongly discourage anyone from addressing me as ‘Principal’, and indeed was equally discouraging of the address ‘President’ when I was in charge of DCU.  If we are to be a real university community we should not maintain such symbols of hierarchy. In any case, formalities and rituals may also be signs of a dysfunctional organisation, in which outward deference masks inner hostility, and in which tradition hides interpersonal strife and aggression. A senior academic in an English university has pointed out that, in their own interests, university communities need to get better at recognising the legitimacy of the roles played by their members, including senior members. He then adds:

‘If that also means a little less phoney deference and a little more genuine dialogue then that might also be the sign of universities maturing into the 21st century. The alternative – an increasing polarisation that leaves us ever more vulnerable to external intervention – will make it much more challenging for us to nurture those values that brought us into academe in the first place.’

Universities need to recover their collegiality. Or perhaps more accurately, they need to discover it, because I am not convinced it was ever really there in the first place. Not really.

Academic hierarchy

January 29, 2011

About a year ago I was at a dinner in another Irish university and sat next to a very distinguished senior academic from that institution. The conversation was lively and interesting, and amongst other things we talked about the changing circumstances of academic lives and careers. My friend expressed the view that one of the things that distressed him in the modern university was the erosion of what he called ‘the deep-rooted democracy of the academy’. I had to pause to think about that, and on reflection I told him I couldn’t agree that ‘democracy’ had ever been a real feature of university life; or not, as I suggested somewhat mischievously, unless you took the view that pre-liberation South Africa was a democracy.

My own academic career began in 1980, and my early impressions were of an extraordinarily hierarchical setting. Most departments had one professor, and this professor was God. His (invariably ‘his’) word was the law. Departmental meetings involved discussion, but rarely decisions taken by a majority of those present. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy, and as it happens my Professor and Head was actually an extremely civilised man whom I owe a lot. But it sure as hell wasn’t a democracy; nor was any other department of which I had any knowledge. In fact, having experienced life as a bank employee a few years earlier, I can say with some emphasis that it was far less hierarchical than life in the academy; which is saying something, as banks were notoriously old-fashioned back then.

I mention this because, in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, there is an article by John Warren, a lecturer in Aberystwyth University, in which he muses nostalgically about an bygone era when fewer people were professors and when this title was reserved for those somewhat older academics who had experienced ‘many years of scholarly endeavour’. The tendency to give the title now to ‘youthful high-flyers’ appears to be something he finds regrettable. I can’t say I agree.

In this blog I have on previous occasions drawn attention to the proliferation of professorial titles, and the decision by some universities to award them to all academics, whatever their precise grade. It still seems to me that, if this were done everywhere and across the board, it would not be such a bad thing. It would help overcome the sense of hierarchy that has been part of university life. It would still be possible to recognise exceptional academic achievement by having different grades of professors (such as Assistant, Associate and so forth), but it might bring to an end the kind of personal deference that was a traditional feature of the academy.