Vacuous value statements miss the point of higher education

The unfettered pursuit of knowledge is every university’s core value – even if management doesn’t always see it that way, says Dennis Hayes

May 9, 2019
Institutional values
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The lists of “values” that appear on many UK university websites often capture some of the fine qualities that their staff display.

But, despite the importance of “excellence”, “creativity”, “integrity”, “diversity”, “ambition”, “impact” and “professionalism” to daily academic life, none of these common buzzwords denote genuine values. Nor do “rigorous”, “people-orientated” or “high-performing”.

As such, the University of Exeter – which names “community”, “challenge” and “collaboration” among its corporate values – is right to worry that mission statements can represent a “meaningless set of words”.

Real values are those that are constantly fought for and defended, such as freedom of speech. They are not discovered by working parties and tick-box surveys, or through activities such as brainstorming with Post-it notes. If the superficial results of such exercises are imposed by management on compliant staff, the only “values” that are subsequently embodied are cowardice and disingenuousness.

Determining corporate values via committees and consultations also guarantees that no one owns them. As the product of bureaucracies, they are not even the vice-chancellor’s or management’s values, much less the academics’: they are “our” values. They belong to that abstraction, “the university”.

This corporate fiction is a very different entity from the conception of the university as a community of scholars – academics and their students – united, as it were, in dispute over different philosophies, beliefs and practices. It is not surprising that those who would manage such academic anarchy are attracted to the idea of imposing some coherence on seeming incoherence. But the reason that managers put so much time and effort into generating superficial corporate values is that they have forgotten the purpose of the university. They fail to recognise that anarchy represents the true value of their institution.

The university is a place for the pursuit of knowledge without fear or favour. A fearless and favourless pursuit will produce intellectual diversity and conflict. Academics are interested in what is true and this means that they will be logical, honest, rigorous, innovative and creative but, above all, will put everything to the test of criticism.

The University of Cambridge, to its credit, gets very close to recognising this. Its “core values” are freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination. Whether it can hold to both of these when some ideas are now said to be discriminatory and harmful is questionable – as highlighted by the recent controversy over the withdrawal of a visiting fellowship to controversial University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson after a photo emerged of the right-wing professor posing with a man wearing an anti-Islamic T-shirt. But at least Cambridge’s core values tacitly acknowledge that problem of squaring this circle.

Universities would be better off reflecting and discussing their real epistemological values rather than running with fads and fashions in an attempt to attract students or research and consultancy money. But academics have been remiss in their duty to defend those values. For instance, they have placidly accepted the recent increase across the sector in mandatory training on how to think. It used to be training in political values such as “equality, diversity and inclusion” but today it is often about “unconscious bias”. This is a dangerous project aiming to undermine the role of conscious, rational thought.

All such mandatory training is a threat to academic freedom, and academics used to have a moral and a legal right not to be told what to think. But our recent caseload at Academics For Academic Freedom suggests that the enforcement of groupthink is on the increase.

As a grassroots campaign group, our supporters have told us about the many quiet reminders they have received to adopt the behaviours expected by their institution and not to criticise it on social media. One supporter was even subjected to a disciplinary investigation for criticising the idea that the victims of alleged ill treatment should always be believed.

Instead of avoiding trouble. It is high time that academics started fighting back – and standing up for their profession’s real values.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby and director of Academics For Academic Freedom.


Print headline: Vacuous values help no one

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Reader's comments (2)

Mission statements are largely the product of consultants employed by Chairmen or Managing Directors who have run out of ideas. They are simply anxious to prove to their share/ stakeholders that they are actually having an effect, when they are doing as little as possible to take their organisation further or improve it. This avoids risking the criticism which might tarnish their CV.
This is an excellent article. It is scary to see how quickly the marketalisation of the HE and the rise of managerial culture supersedes and perverts traditional academic values. And how easily protecting the core academic values can cost someone their job security and career.