Posted tagged ‘Steve Hedley’

Academic freedom: response to IUA statement (Paddy Healy)

February 12, 2011

Last week the Irish Universities Association issued a statement on academic freedom, reproduced in this blog. Paddy Healy, Convenor of the Gathering for Academic Freedom, has now issued a response (below). There will also be a meeting on ‘academic freedom and campus dissent’, addressed by Paddy Healy and others, Tuesday, February 15 2011, in the William Jefferson Clinton Auditorium, UCD, Belfield.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) issued a statement on February 4 in response to a call to defend the principle of tenure on which academic freedom is based. This call, signed by 160 academics, was published in the Irish Times on January 20.

We note that the IUA has no authority to speak on behalf of Irish universities. It is a private company of which the seven university presidents are directors.

In its response, the IUA could have given clear assurances that it was opposed to any changes to the relevant clauses in the Universities Act. As the law of the land trumps industrial relations processes, we would have taken considerable comfort from such a declaration.

As it is, however, the IUA makes no such declaration. Indeed,  the IUA statement is replete with ambiguity and dissimulation. Most remarkably, it suggests that the principle of tenure might be seen as protecting academics from dismissal for misconduct  though this is not the case.

The IUA statement is causing increased concern in the academic community.

Steve Hedley, Professor of Law at UCC and a signatory to the call, has given a detailed reply to the statement on the blog Ninth Level Ireland.

The IUA states:

‘What we must do as a foundation for that defence [of academic freedom-PH], is to distinguish between freedom and licence. This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.’

It should be understood that the contract to which the IUA refers is not the existing contract but a new contract to be put in place pursuant to the Public Services Agreement (Croke Park Deal).

Stephen Hedley comments:

‘The other, and more pessimistic, interpretation [of the IUA statement-PH] is that academic contracts are to be read as limiting the guarantee in the Universities Act – in other words, that academic freedom should only exist to the extent that each academic’s contract allows for it. This is extremely worrying. Academic freedom is, in large part, freedom from university management – and so is not worth much if it can be removed by a simple clause in an employment contract, drafted by that same university management. I don’t know what is intended here; and I certainly hope that this reading is wrong. But if the object of the statement was to reassure, then it has failed in its object.’

On the question of tenure the IUA states:

‘Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract … However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.’

Stephen Hedley comments:

‘With that introduction, the IUA statement gives a number of reasons why tenure is positively undesirable. Tenure is an “amorphous concept which somehow subsists in a parallel realm” to the rest of employment law; this “creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct”. … The solution is “to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract”. This seems to mean that tenure, properly understood, should only mean that each academic’s contract lasts as long as it lasts – in other words, that “tenure” is to be all but meaningless, adding nothing to ordinary employment rights.’

To be clear: the signatories of the January 20 letter never suggested that tenure could or should preclude disciplinary procedures in cases of misconduct and/or breach of duty. Academics have never been ‘unsackable’ on foot of such allegations as some commentators and propagandists have claimed. Nor have they been absolutely free to exercise their academic freedom (or responsibility?) to defend academic values without fear or favour. As a number of documented Irish cases show, some of them have been subjected to harassment and intimidation for speaking out in defence of academic standards and intellectual integrity, even if they haven’t been subjected to the ultimate silencing, namely redundancy.

It is because tenure confers immunity from this ultimate abuse of power that it is internationally recognised as essential to academic freedom by UNESCO and by other international bodies such as Education International. And it is because academic freedom as currently protected by Irish law is such a fundamental principle of democracy that all repressive regimes have sought to eliminate or to limit that freedom.

Instead of allaying the concerns that we expressed in our original letter, the IUA response has heightened them.

Following persistent work by the IFUT Branch, the Board of Trinity College has already issued a declaration in support of academic freedom and tenure in December 2010

We therefore call now on the governing authorities of all academic institutions to dissociate themselves from the IUA statement and to issue a similar declaration.


Is there such a thing as a ‘university’?

January 14, 2011

Professor Steve Hedley is Dean of the Faculty of Law in University College Cork, and a highly respected academic expert in private law. As I suspect many Irish readers of this blog will know, he is also the owner of the invaluable academic news resource, 9th Level Ireland. He has also written about management styles in universities, and in one article he suggests the following:

‘… Most departmental members have little interest in making the university run like a well-oiled machine, especially as that vision consigns them to the role of mere obedient cog. Viewed from the departmental level, both the perspectives and the loyalties are very different – which gives the university much of its character, and makes it so hard to govern. As a generality, the academics’ viewpoint and allegiance will be discipline-based rather than tied to the particular institution. Fidelity to the university as a whole may be weak, or indeed (if it conflicts with fidelity to discipline) hardly discernable at all. In principle, we might expect institutional loyalty to be stronger in Ireland than in (say) the U.K. or the U.S., given that job mobility is lower. In practice, this does not seem to be so: each academic’s detailed knowledge of the university is typically about their own department or related departments, their contact with the rest of the university being less frequent and typically purely social. Their loyalty is owed to the people they know and whose activities they understand, not to others, with whom they might occasionally compete for parking space but whom they otherwise ignore. And whatever rationality and purpose may inhere in central university processes is very probably not apparent from the point of view of typical department members. This limits the influence that central university management has, or can possibly have, on the individual departments, and hence on the university’s activities as a whole.’

The point made in the above passage is of great interest to anyone who has ever been involved in developing a university strategy. In fact, the first question that often precedes any actual strategic formulation in a university is whether an institution-wide strategy is even possible. I distinctly recall at one meeting of university presidents, when I suggested to the others that we should issue a joint statement on a matter of common concern to all of us (and, I felt, to the entire academic community), that one president argued that he could not sign any such statement, in the sense that he could not sign any joint statement, regardless of content. He could never speak on behalf of his institution, he said, because there was no such thing as a policy or position that it could adopt (as distinct from one of its constituent departments). The university did not have a sufficient corporate existence to be able to have a policy; or at least that is what most of its staff would believe.

It is indeed true that most academics believe they are part of a department or school or maybe Faculty, and part of a discipline. Their relationship with the university that employes them is often thought to be like that of an English barrister with her or his chambers: they provide accommodation and a degree of work planning, but not a corporate identity. Universities, the view might be, are communities of scholars, not corporations, and the scholars must, for the sake of their intellectual integrity, maintain a significant degree of autonomy from their institutions.

Before saying anything else, it is worth suggesting that this is not altogether an absurd position. One of the imperatives for academics through the ages has been to defend intellectual independence and to avoid being corralled into positions that are informed not by the search for truth but by the imperatives, compromises and whims of temporal power. Fidelity to the discipline provided some protection from undue influence.

Three things have made this position difficult to maintain. The first of these is that universities have moved far beyond teaching, and the demands (including the material and financial demands) of modern scholarship require a process of management. Institutions (rather than individuals) now usually compete for resources, connections and advantages, and they need to be able to plan their moves, like other organisations.

Secondly, knowledge itself has changed, and the demands that society makes on universities to solve problems in culture, society and industry require the engagement of interdisciplinary techniques and partnerships. In a university setting, disciplinary units have often felt their primary task was to defend their departments from the encroachment or financial profligacy of other departments. Now such barriers stand in the way of both teaching and research, and universities need to be able to organise themselves.

Thirdly, whether we like it or not, society (and that includes our funders) has become tired of the old academic order and has started to equate it with under-performance and inefficiency, and the taxpayer has punished universities financially in consequence; this is a trend that, if continued, has the capacity to destroy higher education altogether.

The trick – and who knows whether anyone has yet got this right – is to develop universities that respect intellectual integrity and freedom and can harness academic coordination and collaboration: knowledge organisations that are also efficient and effective. We can no longer afford to be institutions that have no institutional order. But equally we cannot just be organisations based on command structures. Overcoming this apparent conflict successfully is the holy grail of modern higher education, and a conditions for its success.