Disclaimer: I’m going to be making a set of generalisations here. There are, of course many exceptions to these, but I’m dealing in broad strokes.
I had a rather interesting day yesterday, waking up to discover a post I made last week regarding the threat to Classics at RHUL had been posted to the rather well-visited ‘Save Classics at RHUL group on Facebook. This blog gathered as many views in a day as it usually does in a month. A number of comments were made both here and on the Facebook page that suggested I’m some kind of clueless heathen monkey, and furthermore implied that I have no regard for Classics as a subject and should be disgusted with myself for putting students off enjoying Classics.
Now, I never actually said or implied any of those things – in fact they’re downright untrue. However, it intrigued me that the vehemence of these pre-formed arguments was thrown in my direction. Specifically, when did it become an expectation that someone from one subject would be out to belittle another subject? Then I got to thinking about it. The fact is that academics can sometimes be somewhat selfish; their primary concern is their own research, occasionally at the cost of anything else. Essentially, it can appear as empire-building. With regards to the Classics situation at RHUL I think perhaps the same problem exists – the academics within other departments see that cuts have to be made, so they keep their heads below the parapet hoping that their own subject and specialism doesn’t get noticed by the beancounters. In fact there’s probably a bit of them that imagined a big central pot of money which now has a few less people from elsewhere trying to dip into it, and therefore more opportunity for them to get some money. Ergo, I would suggest there may be a number of academics who are pleased to see the closure of another department.
If you step back from that for a second and look upon it with anything like an independent viewpoint it immediately seems ridiculous that academics in the same institution would behave in such a way. How did this become possible? What happened to our distinguished and open-minded centres of learning? Let me propose the following explanation.
As universities have grown over the last 100 years departments have been moved into their own buildings and staff numbers have been ramped up. The end result is departments and faculties where people do not necessarily know each other, let alone many people in other departments or faculties. That provides the social separation necessary.
We then have a funding system which tends to favour current popular trends (for example, speak to any earth scientist about the funding potential when you can squeeze a climate-related angle into your research proposal) and is not always supportive of blue-sky funding, and down-right negligent in the academia for academia’s sake type research. Perhaps the very worst example of this is that many research funding applications require you to fill out in detail a section asking what your findings will be.
In essence, we have been turned into a pack of hyenas. Departments are so worried about their own research and output that few are willing to stick their neck out to help other departments or researchers with whom they have little or no contact. The competitive nature of research funding across the board has generated competitive academics, at the expense of a cohesive academic body.
I don’t know if there’s a solution. It is bigger than an institutional problem – I think in some ways academics are pre-tuned to think in that way; they have got to where they are by being pre-eminent in their chosen speciality. They have spent years focussing only on what interests them. Many of them resent the bureaucracy they have to deal with simply in their own departments or with funding bodies; the idea of getting involved in things elsewhere in a university is abhorrent to them – or at least so far out of their usual sphere of influence that it would never occur to them.
So, many of the finest brains in the country are – in essence – sitting in their offices hoping the cuts-knife never darkens their own door. What an incredible force is being lost. What could a cohesive, organised, pan-curricula body of pro-active campaigning academics achieve? Probably more than they do at the moment at any rate.