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May 3, 2012

When Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty argued that academic economists had failed us and posed his intellectual equivalent of Delia Smith's "let's be having you" to social scientists, Andrew Gamble felt compelled to offer a defence.

Writing on the British Academy's Policy Perspectives blog, Professor Gamble, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, rejects Mr Chakrabortty's view that "taxpayer-funded intellectuals" were "fiddling while Rome burns and missing the historic opportunity created by the financial crash to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics and fashion a new alternative".

"Chakrabortty should get out more," he writes. "The session at the Political Studies Association conference in Belfast on the UK political economy, which he mentions and to which I contributed, was packed out, and provoked strong and passionate discussion.

"There are many excellent multidisciplinary research centres...producing original and innovative research about the causes of the crisis and what should be done, organising conferences and public events, and publishing a stream of books, articles and reports."

Citing institutions, programmes, papers and reports "examining major current policy issues, analysing the assumptions underlying them", Professor Gamble calls Mr Chakrabortty's comments misinformed. "He focuses on particular disciplines, but the real action takes place between disciplines, and not just in universities but in the engagement of academics with the wealth of institutions, media and thinktanks which constitute the public sphere."

He says Mr Chakrabortty is naive to believe that if social scientists focused their debates on the financial crisis, the concrete effect would be immediate.

"Producing ideas is one thing. Changing the ideas that govern policy is very different. It concerns power, and politics," Professor Gamble says, adding: "Academics as public intellectuals have a role in helping build that coalition [of interests that can force change], but ideas by themselves are never enough. We need politics too."

Away from academic recrimination, we sometimes forget that university employees are "real" people with feelings and emotions. Carolyn Fowler, Durham University's registrar, offers an insight into inter-institution relationships at a UK university. In a post on her durhamregistrar blog, she writes about "the relationship between registrar and vice-chancellor".

"I have concluded that in its ideal state it is like that of Chief of Staff to the President - Leo McGarry to Jed Bartlet as it were," she writes, referencing The West Wing. "Two professionals with shared values and common goals, the Chief of Staff co-ordinating the internal politics and backroom stuff which allows the President to get out there and secure results on the national and international stage.

"Alas, reality more often feels rather more like Kermit to Miss Piggy. Piggy, secure in her stardom and suffering not a moment of self-doubt, performs with single-minded determination regardless of whatever chaos might be going on around her. Meanwhile the Registrar-Kermit desperately tries to keep Piggy and everyone else happy at the same time, his only fixed point the knowledge that the show must go on."

Who says people who work at universities are fusty?

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