Dead Wood

from The Oxford Magazine, Fourth Week, Michaelmas Term, 1995, p.5.


Coming out of the University Sermon I was I was taken up on my lordly disdain of assessment. It was all very well in most cases, but what about the really bad ones---Professor X, who had been imported from Cambridge, where he had shamefully neglected his duties over many years, and was now neglecting them in Oxford until he reached retirement? I could not deny the facts; indeed, I have a little list of my own, and I believe most of us can call to mind a number of colleagues who never will be missed so far as the discharge of their duties go. Still, I defended myself. I cited the parable of the tares---my interlocutor was a clergyman---and claimed that although there were undoubtedly a few among us who were idle and grossly negligent of their duties, they were not very many of them---not more than 5%, I opined---and that the cost of cutting out the dead wood would be greater than any savings thereby secured.

It was a good argument, but did not carry complete conviction. Perhaps on the Day of Judgement the idle don would get his comeuppance, but who knew when that would be, and could we wait that long? I persisted with my prudential argument about how Oxford could best serve its own interests, not how to secure that the undeserving got their just deserts. So far as that is concerned, of course, in a sense they do. They may seem to have taken us for a ride, in drawing a stipend and doing nothing in return, but in the final reckoning, they are themselves the losers. They were given an opportunity which they did not take: no great discoveries, no deep understanding for those who do not apply themselves to thought; no intellectual friendship, no stimulus from the lively young for those who neglect their pupils; no corporate identity, no sense of shared achievement for those who do not identify with college and university, and do their bit to maintain the fabric of corporate academic life.

But still, is it really in our interests to do nothing about those who do not pull their weight? We have our little lists, and they may extend over more than my 5% estimate. True. But again, they may not. Often we do not see the whole man. Adverse judgements I have sometimes passed on a colleague's uninspiring teaching, or uninteresting ideas, have had to be withdrawn when I have come to know about devoted service on tedious committees, or come across some lame dog for ever grateful for timely help over an otherwise insurmountable stile. No don can do all that is expected of him, be an original and creative thinker, an inspiring teacher, exercise a pastoral ministry to the young, be a reliable colleague and a willing work-horse for getting unappealing chores done. We all neglect some duties---we all must---and fail to meet the requirements of the job, and it would take lengthy, expensive and bruising investigation to make sure that there was no count on which someone turned out to be doing a good job. If we really tried, we could cut out some dead wood, but would be likely to trample many green shoots in the process.

Academic life is importantly different from life in public life, or as a a doctor, or solicitor. However bad I am, I cannot do much damage, and it is just possible, if I were really good, that I should make a great contribution. It follows that Oxford should pursue a ``maximax strategy'' in the terminology of the theory of games, not the maximin one that is appropriate in other walks of life, where the most important thing is to ensure that the worst that can happen is as little bad as possible. If my lectures are dull, nobody need waste time attending them. If I am sufficiently obtuse and tiresome on committees, I will not be asked to serve. In one college many years ago there was one tutor who was notoriously bad, being completely out of touch with his subject (though I learned later that he did yeoman work in organizing the entrance examination). But the schools result in that subject were exceptionally good, the reason being that the undergraduates, knowing that their tutor was no good, took it upon themselves to organize their work.

There are limits, of course. A malevolent or sadistic tutor could wreak havoc on the psyches of the vulnerable young. A corrupt examiner could destroy the repute of our public examinations. Specific dereliction of duties may be too serious to be ignored. We need to consider what we cannot afford to tolerate, and to be prepared to enforce minimum standards. But these should be minimum standards, based on the need to preserve the fabric of university life, not to keep dons generally up to the mark. Such standards should be clear and definite, easily adjudicated and reasonably necessary to protect university or college. Beyond that, freedom should be the watchword. It will sometimes be abused, but much more often the means of facilitating good work in a variety of different and incommensurable directions.