Sighs on the prize

Anachronistic academic awards for students can pose headaches for long-suffering staff, writes Adrian Furnham

September 22, 2011

There are various ways in which people attempt to cheat death. There is the religious solution: adopt a faith that promises eternal life. The biological solution is easier and more fun: have (lots of) children and pass on your name and genes. Botanists and zoologists, meanwhile, may have plants named after them, and astronomers planets.

Another solution is economic: give money so that your name "lives for ever more". The Nobel prize, the Rockefeller Foundation, Wolfson College (Oxford and Cambridge) - here you buy eternity, at least for your name. At a less rarefied level, however, this solution can result in an annual headache for examination boards charged with distributing ever more pathetic prizes to students in memory of dead, white, male professors.

Such prizes, often set up in grateful memory of faithful academic service, pose various problems. The first is due to inflation. A £50 book prize just after the Second World War could purchase a year's worth of textbooks. Today, some amounts (£20, for instance) seem so pathetic they become insulting. Even if well invested, the initial prize pots are reduced to paltry sums of cash from which to fund rewards.

But by far the most interesting parts of the process are the "conditions" of the award. There are few problems with prizes for the "top student" or the "best essay", and not that much difficulty with the "student who showed the most sustained effort". Prizes for the most "creative" student or those who show "most ability" can lead to complications but they are usually surmountable.

The real headaches are caused by such prizes as "top female student" or "best student from the British Dominions". How about "best Protestant student from colonial Africa" or "most improving coloured student"? They do exist. And boy, can they liven up examiners' meetings.

Every so often, a spot of "house-keeping" is performed and it is minuted that the "Professor X Prize" is to be discontinued. No one on staff can remember the old buffer, and the size of the prize is at any rate pretty demeaning.

However, difficulties arise if the prize has real money attached to it or if the benefactor is still alive.

The classic case is that of the "top female student" (never, it should be noted, the "top male student"). Often the prize money was left by a very successful (or rich) female academic in what seemed at the time to be an uncontentious attempt to encourage others of her gender.

Today, such a well-intentioned benefaction can result in accusations of sexism and calls for the prize's abolition.

The proposed solution might be to give the prize to the best student, irrespective of gender. But what if there is already such a prize? Wouldn't it be ironic if the "best female student" award was turned into the "second- best student" prize? Glee for a few old chauvinists there!

Such a solution can also be scuppered if there is paperwork about the origin of the prize, particularly if "gifted" by a particular academic or their family. And it becomes even more of a potential minefield if decent sums of money are involved.

So the head of department or some other bureaucrat has to write to the benefactor or their relatives asking permission to change the terms. And if they say no? There have been several interesting cases where this has happened.

The result is generally an insulted benefactor, angry staff, stressed university administrators and students deprived of prizes - definitely material for a campus novel.

Of course, there are those who object to any form of prize on principle: those who despise conscientiousness, who see intelligence as a form of social inequality that needs to be neutralised. They thrived in the 1960s and some still follow this philosophy.

The moral of the story? Beware the seemingly kind gesture from an old don put out to pasture. Establishing a prize in their name may lead to problems for your colleagues in the future. As Henry Kissinger, himself a recipient of many prizes, once observed: "Prizes are dynamite."

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