We Have Ways to Make you Talk!

Ferdinand von Prondzynski had a post on his blog lamenting the loss of university autonomy implied by HEA Head Tom Boland’s recent speech in which he proposed the now-infamous idea of “directed diversity” for our universities. Ferdinand summarised this idea as follows: “The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.”

To which I responded:

“Directed diversity” is no more nor less offensive in an academic context than is the notion of “strategic objectives.” . . . [I]t makes no difference to me as a researcher whether the bureaucrats interfering and attempting to “direct” my research are from the university bureaucracy or from the government bureaucracy. In other words, the discussion of “autonomy” never seems to get to the level where actual autonomy should be located: at the level of the individual researcher. . . . It’s supposed to be some great tragedy if the very university presidents who constantly attempt to deny my autonomy and direct my research somehow have their autonomy of action curtailed.

Ferdinand replied as follows:

I suppose it depends whether you think research was as good 20 years ago as it is now. On the whole the nature and quality of university research, in Ireland at least, is immeasurably better now than it was back then; in the sense that there was hardly any taking place back then. I agree that the integrity and independence of researchers is important. I’m less sure about ‘autonomy’, when historically that tended to mean that you didn’t do any.

It is no doubt true that Ireland produced less research 20 years ago than it does today. But should we be so confident that the research now is “better”? There’s more of it, to be sure, but is more better?

It is, however, false to say that nobody did any research 20 years ago. People were doing plenty of research when I came here close to twenty years ago. Probably enough research. Since then, the pressure to publish has increased (the more frenetically and thoughtlessly, the better), but I can’t say that the quality of the research is any better as a result. In my field, I’d say it’s worse. And quality is all that matters when it comes to scholarship and research. Quantity matters not at all. The only reason people care about quantity is because they are unable to judge quality.

The era where someone like Wittgenstein or Turing or Sraffa could be allowed the time to come up with truly important contributions is now gone. Today, his head of Department or Dean would be on his case to “publish more.” More’s the pity. Indeed, what suffers in this current dispensation is precisely the only thing that matters: quality, insight, ultimately genius. Is there any field of human endeavour where greater quantity results in greater quality? I think not. The best cuisine is not produced by McDonald’s. But this plank of contemporary ideology—productivism—is utterly foreign to intellectual life. It is an illegitimate importation from the world of business. It models the production of intellectual work along the lines of the production of interchangeable widgets.

If someone is not inclined to do research (or not yet inclined), what exactly is gained by forcing them to do it (now)? Here’s an unspoken fact: most research is pointless make-work and most “researchers” have nothing of interest to say or contribute (even though none of them believe that they are among that group!). The managerialist insistence on ferreting out the “dossers” and cracking the whip on them exacerbates this situation by forcing those not so inclined to engage in make-work or “perish.”

You can act as if this situation is somehow the fault of the researchers and that all of our universities should be staffed with nothing but active researchers with important contributions to make. That supposes that there is an ample supply of real researchers who have important contributions to make in every field and that, if only we got rid of the “dossers,” we’d have universities filled with nothing but the justifiably active. There isn’t such a supply. The vast majority of “researchers” should not be doing research (or “research”) and all you do by insisting that they churn out such “research” is superadd to the quantity of important research an extra mountain of unimportant research.

As for the particular pathology of Irish society whereby everyone attempts to get away with whatever they can: you won’t change it by assuming that everyone is always attempting to get away with whatever they can. You’ll reinforce it. You especially won’t change it if you assume that it is true even about the areas where people aren’t trying to get away with anything but have a real vocation for what they do. Instead of making that assumption, you should have confidence in your hiring procedures (and if they are inadequate, fix them) to get the best possible people for the jobs and then let them do those jobs. If they show promise, give them tenure and let them at it. And if it is their expert judgement that what they have to contribute to scholarship is modest (or even nonexistent) but that they really are very enthusiastic about teaching young people, it is not the place of anyone else to say otherwise and insist that they really must have something else to say. Like the forced confessions produced by waterboarding, the forced publications of academics in this situation will necessarily be worthless.

In any case it is rare in this day and age that someone who has managed to overcome all the obstacles to getting an academic job will not be dedicated to teaching or research or both. Too many sacrifices (including the sacrifice of potential income while in graduate school) are demanded along that path for any but the most dedicated to persist. But insisting that they do research under threat of sanction serves no one and certainly doesn’t serve humanity.

The next step contemplated by those who feel more whip-cracking is needed, then, is to start revoking tenure. That is also a mistake that, in addition to making it very difficult for Irish universities to recruit internationally also, again, results in nothing but the production of reams of make-work. Worse, it results in reams of make-work evincing nothing but groupthink because going out on a limb and doing research that might not be “successful” and have only negative findings will never be justifiable in the narrow sort of cost-benefit thinking that such an arrangement would impose.

All this is to say that on these matters Ireland and the UK and some parts of the US (although, notably, not the best private institutions) are going exactly the wrong way in their university policy. The old ways served us well and the burden of proof should be on those insisting that they be changed. Tell us in what way the achievements of university research in the 20th century were inadequate. Yes, a lecturer somewhere could conceivably have been getting away with something. But redesigning the entire institution to avert that possibility is perverse in the extreme and we will all be the poorer for it.

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7 Responses to We Have Ways to Make you Talk!

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » We Have Ways to Make you Talk!

  2. Tony Owens says:

    Your points seem to me to be reasonable at one level. But they ignore the reality of putting bread on tables. Your writing was a personal point of view but I noted it largely ignored people around you. The word that comes to mind is narcissism and the associated outlook is that of the skilled sole trader.

    Your institution is not an ‘asylum’ in the sense of place of refuge and contemplation. It is an international business one of whose goals is generating sufficient research output to boost brand and help persuade customers to part with a lot of loot and sign up for a PG or UG experience. (Another goal for stuffing UCD with govt money and turning it into a tech research factory is undoubtedly UCD’s role in attracting FDI firms) But this is now changing. To a slight extent now (~10% of annual budget met by its own resources) and a much greater extent in the near future your institution’s ability to ‘sing for its own supper’ will have a direct bearing on your own welfare. Perhaps you need to reflect on that.

    Your institution like many Irish 3rd level educators is over-administered and inclined to empire-building. In a private business this saps energy and ability to out-evolve competitors and ultimately kills – think of the UK’s Post Office/Royal Mail and Ireland’s ESB. Your institution is also indebted despite the corrective efforts of the leadership team which you helped to put there. You need to work with your colleagues to fix this and not allow it to recur.

    Rather than reflecting on research quality vs quantity issues and the pressure to produce periodic ‘thought leadership’ material in line with your contract, why not investigate ways to do so more productively? You will be aware that colloquia and syndicate groups of researchers in the humanities area can boost individual productivity and with a bit of lead time produce large amounts of significantly novel material (innovative, non-obvious and useful output). If mortification of individual ego’s is the price that must be paid for meeting individual expectations for quantity and quality of thought leadership material – so be it.

  3. Ernie Ball says:

    I disagree with almost all of this (with the exception of one statement), starting with the characterisation of universities as “businesses.” May I remind you that the university as an institution predates capitalism (even if it may not outlast it). That an attempt is now being made to turn it into the handmaiden of capitalism and to run the institution in harmony with neoliberal ideology does not change the fact that the university is broader than the narrow economic perspective that would enslave it. So when you write that I should think about how to be more “productive” in producing “thought-leadership material” [sic], I’m afraid I cannot agree as this non-thought is nothing but business thinking applied to a domain–mine–where it is entirely inappropriate. I’m not in the “business” of “production” for reasons made clear in my post: essays are not widgets. I’m involved in trying, in an exceedingly modest and humble way (despite how it appears to you), to get some small grasp on what it might mean and has meant in the past to be a human being. The world of business has a set of answers to this question but they are, generally, not well thought out and in any case occupy but a minuscule corner of this domain of study, which is why it is galling to have administrators and random blog commenters act as though business were the queen of the sciences to which all must answer. All of the questions that interest me are foreclosed by a view that treats business-thinking as the only reasonable way of thinking tout court.

    The point I agree with is that my institution is woefully “over-administered and inclined to empire-building.” Indeed, this was partly my point. Why autonomy for the managers and not the lecturers? Which group are at the heart of the institution? Which group is meant to serve which? But the idea that the current management team have made some sort of “efforts” to “correct” the institution’s indebtedness is laughable on its face. Who do you think ran up these deficits, spending millions at a stroke on for example a pharaonic Gateway Project that will never be built.

    Nor can I accept that my colleagues “helped to put [in]” the current management team. The fix was in on that hiring process and great efforts were made to keep academic staff largely out of it.

    Finally, with regard to “narcissism” and “ego”: this is a blog. It is mine. Therefore it has my thoughts published on it. I don’t know what “people around me” (there were none when I wrote the post) I’ve ignored but I always try to be attentive to others and I will strive to be better in this regard.

  4. Tony Owens says:

    I agree with all those points and had no wish to annoy you. In a nutshell I simply point out that there is a financial context to the work of the university and its thought leaders, including you and in a minor way perhaps even I. I acknowledge that those who see the university narrowly as an engine for manufacturing exportable services to foreign students and as a factory for poorly-matured degree-educated freshmeat for industry at the lowest possible cost per kilogram see one small corner of the whole.

    But in a disintegrating state that has few indigenous tradable goods (once the FDI’s pack up), at sea in a global economy that has very obviously hit its limits, this ‘small corner’ assumes undue prominence due to the increasing need to keep the community housed, heated and fed. To ignore this, or blame leadership or whatever does not solve the problem of departing postdocs and juniors. This in turn destroys the community and raises uncomfortable questions about the conditions of the residual tenured.

    What is needed is to nurture the community at large, however frustrating it may be to have to sustain large numbers of content-free senior administrators and overseeing public servants while doing so. And the only way open to most of us to make a contribution is to do great work and facilitate colleagues and ‘customers’ to do the same.

    Please excuse my remarks about narcissism – they were unpleasant and had no place.

  5. You’ve picked the wrong exemplars I’m afraid. Wittgenstein, Turing, and Sraffa made early and deep contributions in each of their fields. So they could easily claim to be working on something ‘fundamental’ and be left alone. Each was, in fairness, in their own way very productive and active within their own research (or intelligence) communities in other ways. My PhD advisor was a devotee of Sraffa when he took tea, for example. These were essentially mini seminars on Ricardo and classical economics. Turing was productive for most of his life, and Wittenstein, well, he was a law unto himself.

    I think your argument would be strengthened by thinking about the classic late bloomer in modern science, Erwin Schrödinger. In Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, Schrödinger appears as something of an anomaly. Here is a guy who produces nothing of worth until he is 39–a dinosaur in mathematical circles–and then constructs his famous equation for which he won the Nobel prize in 1936 (I think).

    Incidentally, Hardy credits Schrödinger’s success later in life as coming from an unusually erotic place. He was referring to the fact that Schrödinger had quite a few mistresses on the go at the time. So maybe there’s hope for all of us.

    Anyway, I’d say if you plonked Wittgenstein, Turing, and Sraffa into UL or AIT in their late 20’s, they would be fine and not fired for trying to reinvent their fields. Schrödinger would have gotten the bullet I think.

    • Ernie Ball says:

      I recently learned of another example, possibly better than all others: the recently deceased Sir Michael Dummett, who didn’t publish his first book until he was 47 or so and, before that, had only a handful of articles (including at least one on Tarot cards!).

  6. Skirmish says:

    T. Owens says: ‘Your institution is … an international business one of whose goals is generating sufficient research output to boost brand and help persuade customers to part with a lot of loot .’
    I’ve yet to see the enclosure of thinking and shrinking of imagination so definitively expressed, or with such breath-taking and wilful ignorance. if we truly believe this, then we should immediately cease putting public money into universities and fund research only where direct return on investment is provable.
    I definitely agree with respect to over-administration. That is down to the obsessive audit culture, which is a close relative of the push to monetise (and eventually privatise) education, and is making life hell for academics.

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