Pass the temazepam, please

January 1, 1999

Maverick of the Year Peter Knight mulls over why academics have become so acquiescent

An unexpected end to 1998. I have won a ballot for the distinguished title of Maverick of the Year. The title is in the gift of the slightly notorious Maverick Club, an organisation dedicated to celebrating independence of thought in a world increasingly characterised by dull conformity.

I am slightly ambivalent about this recognition. On the good side, I beat Emma Thompson in the final ballot. This has done wonders for my street cred among my daughter's 17-year-old friends but will probably further blight my chances in the dour corridors of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

The shame is that I have been trying so hard to conform. I have listened respectfully when auditors, who all appear to be about 13, indicate that civilisation will end unless we all immediately allocate at least a grillion pounds to curing the Millennium Bug. I even enjoyed the 11 years I have been a member of the audit committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

I was quietly confident that I had achieved that mystical state where my friends would describe me as "not unduly charismatic".

At last, I thought, my standing in the CVCP was likely to progress. Every time there was even the slightest sign that I might find myself believing in something I would stick my head in a bucket of cold water or attend a professorial selection panel (same thing) until any remnant of conviction had evaporated.

But all chance of quiet conformity disappeared when I decided to defend the inalienable right of the Institute of Art and Design at the University of Central England to have photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe of two gentlemen peeing on one another.

I quite like Mapplethorpe's photograph Jim and Tom; Sausalito, although it will be a while before it appears on the UCE Christmas card.

But what on earth has gone wrong with the country when the best "maverick" that anyone can find is a boring, balding, middle-aged academic? Have we all given up and surrendered our intellectual vigour, independence of thought or potential challenge to authority? Do I detect a spirit of acquiescence that is as demoralising as it is depressing?

I am not going to bang on about "political correctness". That seems just a symptom of a more general malaise. What is missing is the spirit of challenge, of argument for argument's sake. Depressing conformity has infected the normally bolshie higher education community.

We have lost something. As a 1960s student I can look back and celebrate the ideas and beliefs that epitomised university life at its best. That is missing - now we challenge perceived wisdom only if it does not offend anyone!

Perhaps uniformity was an inevitable consequence of the end of an elite higher education system. Only an elite has the luxury of dissent. The 1960s students were the last of a degenerate aristocracy. Students today are undoubtedly more able, committed, earnest and intense. But if only we could encourage more independence of thought, less acceptance of the status quo, more individuality, then we might have more mavericks and more fun.

But hope may not be lost. I may just be able to encourage my fellow vice-chancellors (all children of the 1960s) to rise up and lead us to enlightenment and a new dawn of excitement, freedom, challenge and argument.

Rise up! Rally to the flag! You have nothing to lose but the next HEFCE quality assessment visit! What? You cannot come because it is not in the CVCP corporate plan! I give in. Pass the temazepam.

The Last Maverick

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England. The views in this article are his own as nobody else would ever dream of agreeing with him.

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