It's time to treatise myself

Preparing to retire after 16 years as a v-c, John Craven is dreaming of a new philosophy - and being a student again

June 7, 2012

Vice-chancellors generally give a lot of notice before they retire, and recently it has been my turn to announce that I will be standing down from my role at the University of Portsmouth in July next year. This gives my board the space to find a successor, and it gives me plenty of time to plan - and possibly to change my plans - about what I want to do after next summer. I am contemplating becoming a student again.

A master's course in philosophy beckons. Why? Sixteen years as a vice-chancellor, and a decade before that on the slippery slope to full-time management as a dean and pro vice-chancellor, have left me too little time for scholarship.

Some parts of philosophy are close to what I once did when I was a real academic. I wrote about social choice - a subject that to me, a mathematically inclined economist, involves trying to make decisions about economic policies that reflect the potentially diverse preferences of individuals. To a political scientist, it is the theory that underlies electoral systems and the extent to which they can be manipulated by tactical voting. To an ethicist, it includes John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971) and it links "good choices" to individual circumstances. I recommend Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice (2009) - or several of his other magnificent works. Or you can go back to Adam Smith, as we economists usually do in the end.

Much of economics studies how the price system rations and distributes goods and incomes. That system does not always work, or gives such unfair results that we expect our governments to intervene and make things better. But government intervention is usually piecemeal and often has unintended consequences. That is clearly the case with the welfare system, which gives people like me free winter fuel and which has been known to leave vulnerable children without support.

Social choice tries to give a rigorous basis to ethical interventions. But philosophers have been doing this for ages, and I need time to benefit from their thinking for the personal ambition of developing my own. To me, the study of ethics represents charted waters, and I plan to deepen what I know and reflect on what I learn.

When I scan the websites of philosophy departments, I find other exciting things to explore. Some of them build on the inevitably eclectic experience of a vice-chancellor's life. I listen to fascinating lectures on all sorts of things and ask aspiring professors to explain to me, usually as a layman in their subject, what they do. Portsmouth's wonderful cosmologists, for example, do this well with diagrams and simple explanations - but I can go only a limited way in understanding the physics (which is really what they do). So my thoughts wander into the implications of what we can and cannot know, and how Newtonian certainties give way to relativity and quantum theory. A course on the philosophy of science has immense attractions.

In my time as a vice-chancellor, the internet has taken off, the letter has been replaced by the email and the tweet, and legal issues around privacy and access to information have been redefined. This poses interesting questions, too. How can an individual protect their privacy when a million people tweet their secrets - and does a cheated partner have a right to know what goes on behind a super-injunction? In my university, the question of who owns and controls emails sent on our system has several times been a live topic: how does it relate to the definition of academic and personal freedom? I will try to find a course that helps me think about these things - albeit too late for the next disciplinary hearing or grievance.

I shall detract from the employment statistics of the department I join, and I do not expect the government to pay for the chosen pursuits of a well-pensioned citizen. But perhaps I can persuade ministers to say more often that education has value in its own right, not just as an engine for prosperity.

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