The world needs academics more than ever

If anyone should be leading the charge to tackle the world’s biggest issues, it is academics. But toxic debates are derailing them from their original purpose

December 13, 2018
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The end of the year looms, holidays await, and university staff the world over are sharpening their keyboards to type that all-important “out of office” message.

Academic OOOs are often more interesting than they have a right to be. How about this one: “I’m unable to respond to emails today since I’m taking leave from work to take part in a civil disobedience event to raise awareness of the total failure of the political classes to respond in any way adequately to the looming global disaster of climate change and related environmental depredations.”

There is no arguing with that. I mention it not to poke fun but because it is a reminder that if anyone should be leading the charge to tackle the big issues facing our planet, it is academics. That is the raison d’être of the profession, even if efforts are more typically channelled through teaching and research.

But are such noble aims still front and centre – or is far too much bandwidth now being exhausted on unmanageable workloads, competing demands and rage about managers and managerialism? Twitter suggests the latter.

Perhaps this is inevitable, given that it is Twitter – a platform not known for nuance. All the same, it is sobering to have followed academic debate on the social networking site over a period of many years, as it has slipped from hopeful engagement to mistrust to bitterness and rage.

This year seems to have been worse than ever for the toxic idea of “them and us” that characterises much of the debate about academic life and university leadership. As 2018 winds down, it is as good a time as any to reflect that this is catastrophic for universities as collegial organisations, as places to work, and as forces of positive change.

It is also catastrophic for the public perception of universities.

The reasons for the low morale and mistrust in UK universities are numerous, and have been rehearsed so many times before that I will spare you a repeat on this occasion.

Instead, consider the opportunity cost of so much time and energy being spent on internal strife, when the world needs academics’ strategic purpose and vision more than ever.

Speaking in London recently, Ihron Rensburg, former vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, offered a reminder that a major change of trajectory was needed in the decades ahead.

“Consider that Africa’s population will double by 2050 and double again by 2100. If Africa was to follow the industrialisation path of Europe or China, consider the impact on the planet. A sick planet will become a crushed planet,” he said.

“We need a different world. The path of the last three centuries is not the way forward…The challenge for academics is not to look the other way [but] to enter in dialogues and conversations: self-reflective, improving conversations.”

Asked to comment on how universities could help society to navigate a way through the “fake news” and “alternative fact” age, he continued: “Our challenge as intellectuals and academics and teachers and scholars is to make apparent the virtue of the university.

“Because the virtue of the university is not entirely self-evident. Therefore we get pilloried. We can be dismissed. What separates universities in my humble view is that we deal with facts, not opinion.

“It is not only the most conservative who have their myths and misrepresentations, equally the most Trotskyite of movements have their own language, myths and misrepresentation. It is our duty as academics and scholars to help find the way through this.”

Academics who feel let down and boxed in by managerialism and the policy environment are not imagining it or making it up. Their concerns are based in the reality of their working lives.

But the toxicity of the debate is entrenching opposing sides in polar positions rather than finding a way forward. And it is doing nothing to keep the “virtue” of the university in the public mind.

This cultural breakdown risks taking academic inspiration and innovation out of office on a grand scale, just when we need it most urgently. A return to collegiality, to respect and to genuinely constructive dialogue is long overdue.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Return to the big issues

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