"The Polity of Academe"

by

J.R. Lucas

Henry Rosovsky, a former dean at Harvard, sings a paeon of praise to American Highest Education.1 He cites from The Asian Wall Street Journal a list of the ten top universities, which puts Harvard first, followed by a place called Cambridge/Oxford, a number of American universities, Tokyo, the Sorbonne, Cornell and Michigan. Tokyo and the Sorbonne are, he thinks, mentioned among the top ten only as a consequence of excessive Oriental courtesy.

It is salutary for Anglophone academics to realise that neither this list nor anything like it would be produced by many respectable academics in many parts of the world. When I was visiting in Sao Paulo, neither Harvard nor Cambridge/Oxford loomed large in the intellectual landscape. France pre-eminently, and then Germany, were the influential countries there. The Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Louvain, and other European universities were the places where the action is going on, and British and American universities take their place well down in the international league.

Nevertheless, many American universities are good, and have made a great intellectual contribution. But Dean Rosovsky is wrong in his explanation of that excellence. He attributes it to the fact that American universities are tightly controlled by a President under a Board of Trustees, and that they are highly competitive, with star salaries for star performers, much job mobility, and stringent reviews on the way to promotion. I see these as great handicaps; it is surprising, and greatly to the credit of American academics, that they have succeeded in being good in spite of bad institutions and adverse pressures on real creativity.

The presidential system is a good one for taking tough decisions, and in a business tough decisions have to be taken if the business is to remain economically efficient and survive. But academic efficiency is an elusive concept. It certainly is not the same as business efficiency, and every suggestion that it is weakens our hold on the ideals we ought to set ourselves. Tough decisions inhibit rather than stimulate intellectual growth. As we prune out the dead wood -- and of course it exists -- we turn the thoughts of others from Byzantine Iconography or String Theory to the more immediate question of whether they may not be eliminated next, and if so, what is to be done about the mortgage and the children`s schooling. Rather few tough decisions need to be made in the academic world. Even if they are the right decisions, which often they are not, the cost of grasping the nettle is usually greater than that of leaving the nettle ungrasped, to die away in its own good time.

The presidential system is good for securing uniformity. But uniformity is not much needed in the academic world. A decentralised system, though not yielding uniformity, allows much more feedback, and thus better-informed decisions. In American universities one often comes across the go-getting academic who has the ear of the President or the Dean. He is seldom rated high by his colleagues, but their judgement does not enter into the decision- making process, and he is the one who gets the grants rather than the more retiring academic who merely enjoys the esteem of his peers. It is not that Presidents and Deans don`t try. I say this, not just because I have found them courteous and receptive, but because American colleagues testify that when they get through to the top they are well-received and attended to. But it is difficult to get through. There are layers of underlings who do not want to be bothered, and who regard faculty members as mere employees. It happens, all too easily, everywhere -- even in Oxford. But in Oxford and Cambridge the faculty member is not just an employee but also a trustee, and a secretary who is minded to treat him like dirt soon experiences a radical reappraisal of priorities. It is over innumerable petty issues of this sort that American academics become alienated from their administration, whereas fellows of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges identify strongly with their institutions in spite of their manifest imperfections.

Identification is crucial. Competition, as practised in American academic life, militates against identification. Dean Rosovsky acknowledges this, but fails to recognise how corrosive alienation is. He thinks that competition is the only antidote to complacency. "Oxford is not obliged to compete," he quotes. Of course, if Oxford becomes complacent or fails to take note of what other universities are doing, that is bad. If we fail to teach our pupils as well as Yale, if our mathematicians have nothing to say that is of interest to the mathematicians in Moscow, if our philosophers are failing to address themselves to the questions that worry philosophers in Paris or Cracow, we need to look to our ways, and try harder to make better use of our opportunities. But competition, important though it is in business affairs, has entirely the wrong overtones for academic aspiration. I ought not to want to be better than Plato or Aristotle, or Russell or Ryle, but to rejoice that I can enter into their insights, and hope to be able, in my own way, to pass on their insights to others together with whatever I have to contribute of my own. I see myself as a cooperator, not a competitor, and I want to cooperate not only with philosophers down the ages but with workers in other disciplines in my own institution, To be able to identify is one of the great supports of the intellectual life, and the structure of American universities makes that hard. It is not only that they are not responsible to their faculty members, but that the whole pattern of job-seeking and tenure separates the individual academic from his university.

Most academics worth their salt do not go for the big money, and time and again I have shared confidences with those who have turned down $100,000 pa elsewhere in order to do their own thing in their own way. But money talks. Even dedicated academics sometimes wonder whether they do not owe it to themselves or to their families to move to where the grass grows lusher or at least give the home farm the opportunity of offering more silage. My experience as an elector to an Oxford chair is that when we offer it to an American, we are in effect dealing him a card which he will play to extort the maximum possible rise out of his present university before deciding whether or not he really wants to come. But once he starts bargaining with his university, he ceases to be part of it. The "star" system whereby universities compete for what they take to be stars, and each academic does best if he is foot-loose and always striking the best bargain he can, pushes him into the position of mere employee, highly paid no doubt, but with minimal commitment to the university, minimal participation in its decision-making processes, and so minimal identification with it.

It would seem like a good idea to monitor efficiency carefully, and to be very, very careful about granting tenure. In fact both are counter-productive. We cannot sensibly monitor efficiency, because we do not know, cannot know, what academic efficiency really is. Although we can be fairly sure that some people -- usually those with tenure -- are not pulling their weight, and know for certain that others are, it is impossible to draw a line that represents the real truth. If we try to, we first of all waste a lot time, and secondly distort our apprehension of the truth. In the mid-semester break I came across a hard-pressed colleague, not getting on with his book, not preparing his courses, not reading or refreshing his mind, but writing an appreciation for a four-year review of a col- league. Missives constantly come over to Oxford pleading for time-wasting help in equally futile exercises. Not only is it a great waste of a scarce resource, but it leads to false emphases. Academics are pressured to be productive when often a little bit of silence on their part would be good for them and welcome to their colleagues. Publishing is not the be-all and end-all of academic life. teaching, thinking, talking to colleagues, just reading, are also important. There are, in fact, wonderful teachers and good colleagues in American universities, and it was my good fortune to come across some of them. But they exist in spite of the system. They lose out in the money race, and do not carry as much clout as those who churn out articles that can be listed in a vita. Teaching and -- equally important -- the pastoral welfare of students are given too little weight in the competitive arena because they are difficult to measure, and the pursuit of efficiency is concerned only with what can be assessed in quantifiable terms. Many universities, especially some of the more prestigious ones, seriously short-change their students on this score. Talk of efficiency leads to a cult of "productivity", which leads in turn to a high noise/signal ratio in the Republic of letters. If we are serious in not wanting to cut down forests, a first step is to discontinue academic review.

Tenure is normally given to American academics in their late thirties or forties, when it is too late to do much good. During their most creative years they lose much sleep worrying about their future, and spend their time doing the sort of things that are likely to win approval. And although it seems like a good idea to have someone around for several years to size him up carefully before granting him tenure, there are great costs. It destroys collegiality. I cannot be perfectly frank or fully friends with someone whom I am going to judge or who is going to judge me at a later date. Moreover, tenure decisions are much more divisive than those about the appointment of an outsider who has not eaten anyone`s salt. When I was considering spending sabbatical leave in the US, I ruled out certain East-coast universities because they were reported to be riven by disputes over tenure, and I wanted to be somewhere where I could be friends with everyone. Although granting tenure to an outsider on appointment at a young age is risky, it costs far less than deferring a decision until it is much more difficult to take and will do much less good.

Academic appointments are risky. Academics go off, get stale, run to seed, fail in innumerable ways to fulfill their early promise. But not to run the risk is to forgo the chance of success. Many years ago I was in for a Commonwealth (now Harkness) Fellowship, and was being interviewed by a board of British academic administrators. They wanted to know what I wanted to do, and I explained that I wanted to go to Princeton to learn about Gödel's Theorem, which, I suspected, had deep metaphysical significance and a bearing on the freedom of the will. One member of the board asked if I could be sure I would succeed in doing this, and I answered that I could not, and it might all turn out to be a mare`s nest. I did not get the Fellowship, but got to Princeton on another, followed up my hunch, and in due course published the result. I have not succeeded in persuading the majority of my colleagues of the validity of my argument, but some are convinced, and scarcely a year goes by without some further discussion being published. To demand certain success in appointing academics is to diminish the chances of getting it.

The academic world is very different from that of business. Competition is of limited value in the world of ideas. The important thing is not to worst one's rivals in the race for the top jobs, but to better one's own previous best in understanding, insight, honesty, accuracy and incisiveness. It is a first-personal standard, which cannot be monitored third-personally. The best that third persons can do is to facilitate: to provide the security and conditions that enable academics to devote their energies to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge, and to foster the institutions with which they can identify and cooperate. Although American Universities are much better run than those in the Second and Third Worlds, their system of governance and competitive ethos cannot elicit the best from academics, who need to be treated not as football players, but as partners in a joint enterprise, to be backed from an early age, given reasonable security, an effective voice in their own universities, and encouraged to teach and think and talk, as well as write and publish; in short, to be rather than to compete.


1. The New Republic, July 13 & 20, 1987, pp.13-14.

Mr J.R. Lucas is a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He recently visited Notre Dame, and Campinas, Brazil. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Return to home page