Inner life of don-dom

March 22, 1996

Inundated with information about nearly every aspect of higher education, we lack sustained discussion of the changing inner culture of universities.

There are several good starts, however. Tony Becher's discussion of disciplinary cultures in Academic Tribes and Territories (1989) supports observations that academic loyalties have moved resolutely across institutional boundaries. Ted Salter's and Brian Tapper's study of the fiscal and organisational changes at Oxford and Cambridge (1992) documents how much the colleges have lost as loci of intellectual activity. Important decisions affecting teaching and curriculum have even moved outside the traditional "schools" to research units and programmes, and college loyalties are weaker than at any point this century. In the 1960s the Bridges report indicated that about 40 per cent of Cambridge teachers had no college affiliation. This was regarded as a cause for alarm, but Combination Room backchat may no longer possess its historic charm.

In The Decline of Donnish Dominion (1992), A. H. Halsey traces the gradual disappearance of grassroots management of the interior life of universities. University novels provide inspired parodies of academic frustration, pompous self-seeking and sexual yearning. The combination of professional and personal concerns permeates Kenneth Dover's autobiography, Marginal Comment (1994), and he offers an astonishingly candid self-portrait in print wholly unusual for academics. Laurie Taylor's impertinent satires for The THES reveal a growing managerial culture, jargon-ridden and disingenuous, performing for the present what F. M. Cornford's bitterly ironic Microcosmographia Academica (issued in two new editions) did for the Edwardians. Cornford's attack was largely confined to the smug inner life of academic politics. Taylor's is more wide-ranging, indicating the intricate entanglements between outside and inside. It is not that such interplay was formerly unknown, only that it was less paramount.

The inherent dynamic of knowledge production, new technologies and the pursuit of institutional and personal income are transforming academic values. All levels register the impact, but current alterations may be more significant for research universities as generally the most protected of the species in western Europe (France excepted), Britain and the United States. Other segments have either lost their independence or have never known the fleshpots of high academic life: sabbaticals, limited undergraduate contact, outside income, security of employment and guild traditions of self-regulation. Perhaps only a third of American community college teachers have tenure, and a movement has now commenced to bring other higher education sectors in line, following the lead given by Mrs Thatcher. Most US instructors are a free-floating body of low-wage labour. The adjunct professor phenomenon, which has served professional schools like architecture, law or medicine so well, has spread to many of the autonomous disciplines, fortified by early retirements, the "surplus labour" of academic spouses and downsizing. Part-time teaching has notable virtues, especially as a supplement to income. It is furthermore friendly to family life. But it also reduces professionals to the status of employees.

Guild traditions decline with each passing year on both sides of the Atlantic. How widely regretted is by no means clear since so many career paths co-exist. Judged by previous standards, today's universities are bustling market towns. Open Joseph Romilly's diary and notice how a don amused himself in 1842: a miserable rainy day in February, he scribbles, but an excellent dinner with venison. Archdeacon Hoare is fond of rhyme and jingle, the queen is looking pale and ill, and, by the way, the college has met to revise statutes but not seriously. He saw an old washerwoman hunting for her spectacles and can find no one at home in Trinity College. A Don's Diary perhaps, but Romilly had little else to do even though he was the Cambridge registrar.

Today's ambitious academics operate within numerous professional constituencies. Campus administrations have learned that a busy faculty can also be kept at bay if preoccupied with routine tasks, especially where the agenda is more or less drawn up by office staff. Nevertheless, while committee work is universally disliked in academia, the failure to involve faculty in daily trivia leads to cries of administrative tyranny. Professors can still be a nuisance for administrators. Yet the real academic influence is not collective but an individual's threat of exit, and single negotiations are always simpler for university leaders than confrontations with peccant monks.

Assessment and evaluation exercises have enhanced executive authority in Britain for any number of reasons, one of which is needed to combat funding council and Government policies perceived as inimical to the best interests of universities. Since vast academic disunity exists at the bottom levels of institutions, it is not surprising that conditions are perfect for the exercise of imperial leadership.

In a much-maligned scenario, C. P. Snow attributed academic disunity to "two cultures", later amended by him to three. There are many more such cultures today. But a special dualism, long in the making, has also emerged, not based on disciplines but on attitudes regarding community and authority. The division is between those who value the collective character of academic life and those who are enamoured of efficiency and productivity. No discipline, whether pure or applied escapes. Nor is the division simply between administration and everyone else. Even within highly traditional departments (no longer so universal) discrepancies in personal style, connections and institutional values are rampant. The singular differences that separated universities from other institutions are disappearing. Former university researchers sometimes, even find other environments more congenial.

As in any period of change, there are trend- setters and detractors. The first say that universities must be in step with society, and they are certain of what "society" means. Universities must meet all demands, stimulate even greater demand, find jobs for graduates and attract revenue. Like any business organisation, they need the flexibility to retool at a moment's notice, shedding employees and reshuffling personnel according to management priorities. Academic guilds are only self-interested monopolies equipped with sophisticated methods for turning potential colleagues into second-class citizens. They are culpably indifferent to actual threats to university health.

Detractors deplore the arrogance of the bottom-liners. Universities have their own history and ethos, they should set the standard for generosity and breadth of outlook. All disciplines share some intellectual features with one another, and they can be joined together in civil discourse, a common love of learning and respect for variety, a respect deriving from the belief that even opposing value systems can learn from one another. Creating winners and losers serves no larger social purpose.

At its core the debate over internal academic values is moral. Like all other critical debates at the end of a century in which universities rose to national importance, the central question is how we are to structure working relationships and arrive at viable conceptions of a life worth living.

Is this a question that interests the Dearing review? Should the issues be debated openly on campuses, or will historians of the future have yet another carcass to peck at?

Sheldon Rothblatt is director of the Centre for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

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