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16th October 2015

CDBU Public Lecture by Thomas Docherty

Filed under: About science,About universities,Diary — John Allen @ 1:54 pm
Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, and Anne Sheppard, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, and Anne Sheppard, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Thomas Docherty’s lecture on “Academic Freedom and the Social Responsibility of the University Institution” took place on 14 October 2015, at Royal Holloway, University of London. The poster advertised what amounted to a stimulating account of the necessity of academic freedom for any institution that qualifies, in my view, for the name “university”. Thomas also described current attacks on academic freedom, possible motives behind them, and their dire consequences for teaching and research.

I joined the Council for the Defence of British Universities on day one. It seemed, and still seems, to embody pretty well all the values whose implementation make universities essential to the maintenance of a free society. Last year I asked here What do universities actually do?

To my knowledge, those working at “change management” in UK universities have no answer. If we could inspect alternative aims and objectives then it might be possible to understand what exactly those currently on the rise are trying to achieve, thus to engage with them in useful dialogue. Thomas’s thesis, as I understood it, is that the aim of managerialism is precisely to prevent dialogue, and thus to silence dissent. Is there is an ulterior motive to that, or is the whole mess an unintended consequence of control having been acquired in some way by individuals averse to criticism, and hostile to public knowledge and social responsibility?


  1. Scotland seems to be considering legislation on university governance.

    It is managers who object, and they do so on the grounds of academic independence. This is disingenuous.

    Aberdeen seems to be a case in point. There is great disquiet over the recruitment of a “Senior Vice-Principal” in early 2015. I’ve met several Aberdeen scientists who are, frankly, scared – the word has been spread that the University of Aberdeen will have to close completely if there is not a cull of academic staff to save costs. And yet (a) this conclusion is not backed up by evidence and (b) individuals are afraid to ask questions for fear of victimisation. We may discern a recurrent pattern of behaviour.

    The new manager was not elected; he was appointed.

    By whom? And to whom is he accountable?

    Would legislation by the Scottish parliament curb this sort of abuse of the responsibility described by Thomas Doherty? Or would it make things worse?

    Comment by John Allen — 24th October 2015 @ 12:25 pm

  2. I think we are finally seeing, after 30 years, the fruition of the process started by Jarratt in 1985, which substituted unidirectional line management for self-government, and the loss of tenure in 1988, which undermined both job security and free speech by suggesting that “bringing the institution into disrepute” , i.e. dissenting from management policy, was a sackable offence. I don’t remember that universities at that time were notably inefficient (then as now they were less efficient than successful businesses but more efficient than any part of the Civil Service), nor that they were often slandered by their own staff. However the myths persist that academics lead lives of idleness and luxury, with occasional debauchery thrown in, and have no contact with the “real world”. I do remember that in the 1980s the system suffered death by a thousand cuts and that leading scholars, who would once automatically have taken the major administrative roles from Head of Department upwards, became reluctant to take on jobs which would have mainly consisted of the cheese-paring of resources and the sacking of their colleagues. Into the breach stepped an army of second raters, the academic equivalent of the 19th century postbellum “Carpetbaggers” of the USA, and now we have to live with them and their self-serving antics.

    Comment by David Bignell — 3rd November 2015 @ 10:22 am

  3. Sorry, a couple of small errors in the above. We might add marketisation to line management and loss of tenure as root causes of the current disaster. Even this was evident in the 1980s, when university press offices became public relations departments and subsequently the administrators of “Corporate Affairs”. That their propagandas focus so much on the “student experience” is presumably to disguise the fact that massive expansions of UG numbers must have reduced teaching quality although at the same time alleviating the scarcity of resources, at least temporarily. There is another myth, of course, which is that most university lecturers give bad lectures. The question is what should honest scholars do? We lack the power to overturn the system from the inside, but we can chip away at its worst aspects in the blogosphere and the public media with reasoned comment, short of slander. I think this works, but it’s sometimes hard to see the immediate results. But first we need to identify what principles are most valuable in our traditional system, and surely the right to dissent from conventional thinking, whether in scholarship or the way our universities are run, is at the top of the list. We may not get our small classes back, but without the freedom to choose what we teach and what we research, and the right to criticise our managers within a framework of reasonable discussion, higher education loses its point and we are just civil servants by another name, with poorer salaries and pensions.

    Comment by David Bignell — 3rd November 2015 @ 11:03 am

  4. Thank you, David. I fully agree. At the time of the Jarratt report, I was a lecturer in Leeds. Indeed I saw there evidence of idleness, luxury and debauchery, and I welcomed the accountability promised by Jarratt. “Accountable to whom?” was a question to which we should, perhaps, have paid more attention. Thomas Doherty suggests that there has recently been a marked decline in social responsibility, and , with it, accountability. I think he is correct.

    Comment by John Allen — 3rd November 2015 @ 10:26 pm

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