Thursday, 25 February 2010

Something's rotten in the state of academia

Being a 3rd year PhD student, I've spent a fair amount of space (on this blog and elsewhere) bemoaning the state of academia in this country: the under appreciation of academic culture, coupled with the totally inappropriate and frankly bizarre class snobbery lurking underneath the surface of much of the hostility towards academia in this country is something I simply do not understand.

At least, I thought, I'm fairly insulated from much of the drama at King's College - one of the UK's best academic institutions. Alas, the last few months have proved this assumption to be foolishly naive. With a horrid Principal, Rick Trainor, who cares more about the acquisition of new buildings and getting fashion designers to update academic gowns for graduation, rather than safeguarding the academic reputation of his institution by nurturing its departments and staff, things look more than grim for King's.

Trainor has claimed that the international academic community - who have mobilised to act vocally against the cuts at King's - don't understand the current financial situation and the pressure faced by major UK institutions especially after the financial fall-out associated with the baking bail out.

Does anyone else see a problem here? The government finds it perfectly acceptable to use a staggering £850 BILLION pounds of UK taxpayer money to bail out the banks, but can't be bothered to prioritise funding for one of its most important social institutions. The hypocrisy and carelessness is absolutely chilling.

And yet, Trainor could just as easily fight the government. He could be leading the way in calling for reforms to the projected cuts and protect the outstanding reputation of his institution. Instead, not only is he damaging its reputation, but his actions will quite literally damage its capability to produce outstanding new research. Not only will it be difficult to attract high-quality students to King's with a significant decrease to departmental faculty, but it will also make it incredibly difficult to attract (and even retain) new staff members as well - would you want to join an institution with so obvious a lack of concern for its faculty. Of course not.

What makes this all so laughable is that Trainor anticipates King's will receive £40 million less in funding from the government, which is approximately 30% of King's operating budget and the equivalent - according to Trainor - of about 700 lectureships!! It was only late last year that Trainor closed on an aggressive deal to purchase the East Wing of the nearby Somerset House for an estimated £20 million. The incredible cynicism of a College Principal in prioritising the purchase of an unnecessary building at the cost of 350 academic jobs is wholly and utterly inexcusable.

Yet another thing which makes the protest campaign so difficult is that the general public often misunderstand the concept of tenure and think academics have no right to bitch about the loss of their cushy 'jobs for life.' First of all, aside from the fact that tenure is increasingly rare in many Universities, which are now being run as if they were corporations with the sole aim of turning a profit, it also discounts the enormous amount of time and effort that goes into the obtaining of an academic job in the first place.

By the time you finally get a lecturing position - these days, anyway - most academics have completed a 10 training period - longer than most surgeons or lawyers. Also, unlike doctors or lawyers, professors are definitely not in it for the money. Just a brief comparison: our dear Rick Trainor receives a salary of well over £200,000 per year, while the average professorial salary is between £30,000 and £50,000. You tell me what's wrong with this picture...

Unlike Trainor, the vast majority of academics aren't in it for the money. Generally, academics work in Universities because the love knowledge and information and they care passionately about the discovery, analysis, dissemination, and safekeeping of this knowledge. As for tenure, think about the US Supreme Court. There are nine justices and each one is appointed for life. There's a very, very important reason for this: it's to avoid the politicisation of the law. The law is above politics and should not be corrupted/influenced by current social concerns of contemporary politics. Imagine if justices were subject to being fired by the President or a 2/3rds majority of the Senate: Roe v. Wade and Miranda v. Arizona would have most likely had very different outcomes were the justices subject to political pressure for fear of losing their jobs.

Tenure is the same concept only applied in an academic context. Tenure is the foundation which guarantees intellectual freedom in academic institutions and is absolutely necessary to maintain the ability of all academics to conduct research without fear of reprisals if the government or whoever disagrees with the results of a study or the conclusions drawn about a historical civilisation, etc. There can be no intellectual freedom without a safety catch: tenure is that safety mechanism. This is the whole point of research Universities.

You may disagree, but in my view the role of academia is to acquire, analyse, and disseminate knowledge and information. Unfortunately, this is simply impossible in a culture which demands not only the politicisation of such institutions, but the commercialisation of them as well.

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1 comment:

cprudhomme said...

The plight of academia is the same here in the states. Building programs and the expansion of enrollment are more important than research and quality education.