Flick and press squeezes

March 29, 1996

Two issues discussed in The THES (March 15) come together, fortuitously but far from surprisingly, to raise difficult ethical questions: in one case the refusal of Cambridge University Press to publish an anthropological monograph, in the other the endowment of a chair at Oxford by a member of the Flick family.

Academics are very clever in debating such ethical issues but fascination with taking a position and standing up for what they perceive as right distracts in both these cases, and in the analogous one of the BAT endowment of a "Sir Patrick Sheahy Chair of International Relations" at my university, from a central fact which casts its shadows across both debates, namely the concentration of power.

In one case the power of CUP has arisen because it is a giant among publishers of monographs. In the humanities and the social sciences, in the Anglo-Saxon world, entire disciplines depend on the CUP as almost their sole outlet. It has also developed enviable qualitative prestige: merely to be published by them is a mark of high professional status.

But CUP's prestige also tells us that hundreds of talented people in specialised fields must be worried: they would not know where to turn if they felt moved or pressured to join a boycott, or that if they did turn somewhere else there would be the risk of second-best, of lost prestige in a profession where, material being what it is, prestige counts for so much.

Is it reasonable to react to the "Macedonian monograph war" by calling for more transparent procedures, wanting CUP to be a national institution at the service of pure knowledge and to act like one, as if it had no commercial needs? That is not a realistic solution: CUP must have clear procedures for judging quality, but to ask it to follow only academic advice, with no commercial or political judgement, is to ask for the impossible.

It is unfortunate that The THES should advertise an article on the Flick endowment at Oxford or indeed an article on any subject, as "the Jewish reaction", as if there was only one, or indeed as if that reaction had some sort of special status by virtue of the origins or belief of its author. But most unfortunate of all is the news that one of the world's most prestigious educational institutions is prepared to sell the naming of a chair in perpetuity for the annual salary of a moderately successful merchant banker (Pounds 300,000 plus). BAT paid more, but still not that much when measured by the same yardstick.

Harvard, I suspect, would charge a much larger sum, but its British counterparts are prepared more or less openly to admit that their bargaining position is weak in the face of big, even if not-so-big, money. To admit we are powerless is sad, but a necessary reminder of the response to those who would call on us to act high-handedly as if we lived in a world where power and money counted for nothing.

No one boycotts the RAE, not one vice chancellor has ever resigned in protest against the present financial bullying and denigration, exemplified yet again in Eric Forth's insulting outburst on the front page of the same issue. What right do we have, then, having failed to muster any professional solidarity when collectively threatened, to demand that individual or small groups of scholars make a heroic gesture by boycotting CUP, or Mr Flick, or BAT? So that we should rejoice in the sacrifice of our colleagues?

David Lehmann Centre of Latin American StudiesUniversity of Cambridge.

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