Distractions of saving the worm

January 13, 1995

The Christmas break is now the only time when a university comes to a halt. The contrast between this all-too-brief few days and the rest of the year is all the more marked because the intense, often frenzied, pressure at other times does not even abate noticeably at Easter or in the summer as it used to, even, I am told, for vice chancellors, as recently as 20 or so years ago.

So this opportunity to take a slightly less immediate view of events is particularly valuable, and I found myself musing, not for the first time, about how often an externally imposed agenda, frequently one which will be forgotten even before the required response has been submitted, distracts the attention of all of us, teachers, researchers and administrators alike, from the real tasks involved in running a university.

We have recently been called on, for example, to devote considerable time to submitting details to the Higher Education Funding Council for England of the early retirement arrangements for a small number of former colleagues.

Perfectly standard packages, with a few years pension enhancement paid for by leaving the posts vacant for a while, exactly as had been made available to many hundreds of others over the years. But because clinical professors earn more than an arbitrarily chosen threshold, these arrangements have had to be exhumed, and reported in immense detail -- but to what end? The reason for the exercise is clear enough that everyone must now respond to the hysteria of the moment but its purpose is not.

As I mused, I was reminded of an incident a year or so ago when a group which was to perform at our student union was allegedly going to eat a live worm during its act.

The telephones were hot with media interest, and senior colleagues spent 36 hours in breathless contractual negotiations on behalf of our student union to save this poor worm's life.

When, finally, they triumphed, and the massacre was averted, our press office tried to report the happy outcome to the same public as had, apparently, been bursting with curiosity just hours earlier -- but to no avail.

Sadly, interest had moved on, but the time that had been lost could not be retrieved.

The serious point, of course, is that it is exceedingly difficult in prevailing circumstances to focus consistently on long-term issues -- and yet universities are above all long-term institutions.

Students are rarely with us for less than three years, while major research projects, whether in physics or philosophy, often last considerably longer than this; and our libraries and our laboratories should, with appropriate renewal, last for decades.

Of course, political and economic change cannot and will not pass universities by, but it does require all available talent and energy to preserve and protect what is valuable in the face of these changes. Distractions, from whatever source, only serve to make this central task more difficult.

It was my New Year's resolution to focus with my colleagues on strategy, and to leave others to deal with the diversions. What odds on my succeeding?

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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