The price of life in an academic Eden

Human serpents are lurking in the undergrowth at every university, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

August 14, 2014

There are serpents in every Eden. The Eden Project is a stunning example of egregious ambition rewarded with success, but marred by rivalries. Tim Smit and Jonathan Ball, by visionary commitment, unremitting work, and unexcelled ability to mobilise collaborators, turned an old Cornish clay pit into a living theatre of the planet’s environments, in geodesic domes that would have made Buckminster Fuller gasp. It has been one of the world’s most successful tourist attractions, invigorating Cornwall’s economy, but its beauty eclipses its utility, and it is worth more to education than to entertainment. Eden is, perhaps, too presumptuous a name for it, as God did an even more comprehensive job of uniting diverse species in one spot, but the place is a kind of paradise: a garden of stunning exoticism, which ought to do the spirit good.

Grand and gorgeous settings, according to every principle of architecture, landscape gardening and urban planning, ought to breed beautiful thoughts and generous dispositions. But when I read The Other Side of Eden, Jonathan Ball’s account of his struggle to get his share of recognition, I was astonished at how fragile were the friendships and partnerships among co-workers, how intense and costly the rivalries, how deep the disputes, how abrupt the tergiversations, how ruthless the back-stabbing.

I suspect that however honourable and well-intentioned individuals are, institutions can turn them into enemies

There was never any question that Ball was a co-founder of Eden, and that his work was vital, not only on the design of the project and the architecture of the domes, but also in galvanising support and raising finance. Yet he found himself first marginalised, then excluded; first unpaid, then underpaid. He had to go to court, jeopardise his livelihood, sacrifice his family’s peace of mind, and endure years of litigation before he got the money due to him. He never ceased to support the project. His bonhomie, his passion, his Cornish patriotismo chico, and his unfailing sincerity overspill the book. So what went wrong? He is candid, even excoriating, about some people, but too discreet – or perhaps too baffled himself – ever to explain the deepest reasons for the rupture of good fellowship among participants. Perhaps there were no real reasons; certainly, there seem to have been no good ones. Perhaps the breakdown of working relationships was systemic. I suspect that however honourable and well-intentioned individuals are, institutions can turn them into enemies. Apart, perhaps, from family life, or confinement in prison, barracks or monasteries, nothing displays people’s faults to each other more irritatingly than a working environment.

The internal dynamics of the Eden Project were exceptionally difficult, because of an uneasy and constantly changing balance between aesthetic, scientific, economic, commercial, political and practical objectives. To some extent, we have to teeter among the same range of hazards in universities, where further obligations – responsibilities of pastoral care and tensions in teaching and research – complicate life even more. In most walks of life, turnover of personnel provides relief, but universities nowadays have unusual rates of staff stability, at least in academic departments. In some activities people come together only for short, intensive stretches: theatre, for instance, can nurture its notorious luvvie culture because companies break up after a few weeks or months. Most workplaces impose high levels of interdependence, so that workers have to choke back or live with their dislikes and disagreements. In universities, especially in the humanities, we can hoe our furrows without bothering about the next field; and even in the sciences, people choose their teams and can avoid having much to do with outsiders. Venom abounds not because universities breed or attract vipers, but because we can indulge in hatreds and rivalries without causing fatal disruption.

In the University of Oxford, I could never get used to the griping and grudging, the mutual denigration, the delight in others’ failures and the glee with which colleagues did each other down. I thought it was all part of the price of academic freedom in a privileged place. For universities are – or can be – approximations of paradise, where one can enjoy a fruitful life in a lovely environment. But those human serpents are always lurking in the undergrowth.

When I first went to the US, I was astonished to see how students’ freedom to study what appealed to them and teachers’ to teach what they liked stimulated achievement and satisfaction. But it did not make people nice to each other. I once gave a dinner party to which I invited some colleagues, only to discover that two of my guests had not spoken to each other for 20 years. In my first permanent US job, at Tufts University, everyone in my department behaved impeccably – but we had a safety valve: with the distractions of metropolitan Boston on our doorstep, and innumerable events at neighbouring universities, we could all see as little of each other as we wished. Now, at Notre Dame, I am lucky to work with colleagues whose kindness and forbearance seem inexhaustible but I am aware that not every department in the university is equally blessed. I should be able to overcome my surprise at what Jonathan Ball experienced: readers of this column will know of comparable trajectories, equal innocence and similar sufferings, in their own Edens.

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