The more chairs, the merrier

December 24, 2004

Only self-serving Professor Welches have anything to fear from new university chairs, says Chris Hackley

The boom in the number of chairs in British universities has been seized on as a sign of dumbing down. But on the contrary, it could be driving standards up.

Enriching the professorial gene pool with a greater range of accomplishment will reduce the influence of a damaging form of academic psychopathology - the Professor Welch syndrome.

This baleful condition blights our universities, draining goodwill and deepening cynicism.

Professor Welch was, of course, the hypocritical pseud who blocked lecturer Jim Dixon's career aspirations in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim .

Fortunately, all the chairs I know are of the very highest pedigree, but arguments about maintaining standards seem bizarre when I also recall the old-style Professor Welches I have encountered in the past.

He may be a comic composite, but as academics and students we have all met him and suffered his arrogance and incompetence.

He is not burdened by an inspired intellect or a passion for pedagogy. He is disdainful towards students and junior colleagues, ingratiating towards senior colleagues and old mates. His bearing is supercilious, his discourse banal.

He exploits the work of junior academics and destroys hopes and careers as if by right, as Superman. But he is more Machiavelli than Nietzsche since he has no ethical vision: he understands only the doctrine of pragmatic self-interest.

I've fallen foul of Welch-ist practices a few times in my own career (or possibly more, for you rarely detect their hand on the tiller).

I've heard them insist that PhD students put their name on publications to which their name was their only contribution.

And when colleagues plead for promotion, I've known Welches to list their own shortcomings and then attribute them to the poor supplicant, rightly calculating that the Under-Promoted One will be so astonished at this peerless display of hypocrisy that they will have left the room long before uncontrollable anger wells up.

Strangely, I admire Welches for their breathtaking cynicism. You have to hand it to them.

Of course, Welch-ist practices are not the norm. Nor are they confined to professors.

But their existence undermines academics at every rank who are conscientious teachers, passionate researchers and empathetic colleagues.

Welch-ism - and the corresponding chronic and inexplicable underpromotion - thrives when chair appointments are conducted rarely, and in secret, by easily manipulated committees.

But the recent rising demand for chairs can make life more difficult for such individuals.

Universities under pressure to appoint are forced to question received wisdom on professorial standards and to look beyond the whispered advice of a small, mutually connected group.

More chairs can increase job mobility for all grades, opening up new academic career paths.

But do they pose a risk to standards? Let's not kid ourselves - there has never been an absolute professorial "standard".

One cannot be imposed and need not be sought.

A more open and fairer recruitment process can do a better job of encouraging and finding able candidates.

The wronged hero in Amis' novel ends up berating academe for submitting earnest students to the Welch regime of intellectual neglect and self-serving humbug.

The proliferation of new chairs will hardly result in a revolutionary wave of Jim Dixons renewing higher education's sense of purpose and reigniting its engagement with students.

But the problems of the sector cannot be set at our door. And if they prompt the demise of Professor Welch, they might even do some good.

Chris Hackley was appointed the first chair in marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, in September.

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