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Understanding Academia and University Organization

Perhaps the most depressing maxim of the normally upbeat philosopher Daniel Dennett is: ‘A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.

The quote perfectly captures the feeling that a lot of us may fall prey to in our dark moments, the suspicion that academia (and even science) is only a self-perpetuating game, played for kudos by adults who never left school.

To combat such worries, it can be useful to go back to basics and re-address some questions that those of us newly immersed in the bowels of the ‘machine’, or inured to the status quo around us, can take for granted. Questions like: How did research in higher education come to be organized as it is now?

And what is the rationale for the way that things are currently set up? These questions also now have a sharp practical import because so many established academic practices are being probingly tested by new digitally-based ways of doing things, a theme that runs through all the chapters in our main book.

Disciplines and universities have tended to give severely deficient answers to these queries, answers that are both rather myopic and self-serving. The official responses often focus on (myths of) their own history and development, and on tendentious ‘fairy tales’ of influence that exaggerate each institution’s, discipline group’s or subject’s role and salience.

Consider, for instance, two sharply contrasting ‘mission statements’ by two astute twentieth-century intellectuals. For the sciences advocate Alfred North Whitehead (1938, p.171):

‘The task of a university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation can affect the issue’.

But for the conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott (1962, p.194):

‘A university is … engaged in caring for and attending to the whole intellectual capital which composes a civilization. It is concerned not merely to keep an intellectual inheritance intact, but to be continuously recovering what has been lost, restoring what has been neglected, collecting together what has been dissipated, repairing what has been corrupted, reconsidering, reshaping, reorganizing, making more intelligible, reissuing and reinvesting’.

Notice that here innovation is almost completely absent in Oakeshott’s antiquarian (almost anti-scientific) listing of university tasks, whereas for Whitehead that is what universities are all about. But both hugely overstate the importance of universities in securing a ‘rational’ future or ‘the whole intellectual capital’ of a civilization.

In modern society, civilizational components and rational thought are created and built up by myriads of ‘knowledge workers in the professions, businesses, cultural and media organizations, governments, civil society groups, and independent writers and researchers.

Their combined roles far outweigh the ‘civilizational’ roles of universities. After a brief ‘golden age’ of academia’s predominance from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s charted by Regis Debray, many key motors of knowledge advance have long since passed beyond academia, as the development of technology, media, culture, design, and the internet constantly remind us in recent times.

None of this is to deny the importance of university science and technology as motors of contemporary advances, nor the salience of scholars in contemporary society. But both the limits and the successes of universities are grounded in their complex development, prestige systems, and governance.

The post-war growth of higher education, and the development of globalization up to 2016, have meant that universities and academic life have been transformed. Compared with conventional businesses, universities have achieved extraordinary relations with their ‘customers’ (students) and ‘ex-customers’ (alumni), creating loyalties of enduring strength and intensity that few firms can imitate.

Over long periods alumni and other donations have built up gigantic endowments of shares, property, and land for some established universities (like Harvard, Oxford, or Cambridge) that provide a level of long-lived economic security that few capitalist corporations can emulate. The biggest players in the university world are still not multi-national but grounded typically in one main location.

Yet they are nonetheless large economic actors now in terms of their assets and the scale of their capital investments. Major US, UK, and European universities, command ‘brands’ with multi-million dollar commercial values.

Above all, while the fortunes of business corporations are pretty volatile, all 2,500 universities work towards the goal of becoming very long-lived, perhaps ‘immortal’ organizations, a status that some top universities seem to have attained already.

Accordingly, universities tend to take a long view of their activities, investments, and reputational development, despite the increasing levels of staff and student transfers between them, and the growth of stronger international competition for students and sources of finance.

Paradoxically, however, despite these many successes, outside critics (especially in business) have often portrayed universities as weakly run and led. Most universities apparently have only a tentative handle on shaping how their staff conducts their teaching.

And the doctrine of academic freedom implies that they cannot (legitimately or easily) direct how their academics choose to allocate their research time.

Because of the strength of academic collegiality and professionalism, the governance arrangements of higher education institutions can seem to be (and often may in fact be) exceptionally decentralized and loosely integrated. They also have many complex (seemingly Byzantine) features.

To grasp how the academic and external impacts of university research mesh with these background factors, both as they are at present and as they may be in the near future, it is important to consider some complex and long-term influences that shape how contemporary scholarship and academia operate.

Even most people long used to academic life can have only a fragmented view of how it operates, and how universities work and are governed — typically one shaped most by their own experience of a given discipline and of the universities where they have worked.

Most Ph.D. students, and many early career researchers, have to focus so hard on their primary research that they have not thought that much about these issues.

All this is by way of introduction to a series of six more posts coming in the next few weeks called The Foundations of Academic Organization

All the posts seek to establish some foundations for newbies and even perhaps established researchers to think in a better grounded or more disciplined way about how academia works, the roles of disciplines and universities, and the operations of academic careers.

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