A Don's Defence

published in Oxford, November 1999

When I was elected to a fellowship, forty odd years ago, I felt that I had tenure. Of course, in point of fact, I had not. Things could, and did, go wrong, and during my many years as a tutor, I held my fellowship only for a limited term, and was subject to periodic re-election. But for practical purposes I could be confident that provided I was not scandalously negligent of my duties, I could remain a don until the retiring age.

It had an important bearing on how I used my time. It was open to me, I realised, to enjoy the fruits of my good fortune, and eat, drink and be merry, but then, when I came to die, I would know that I had wasted the opportunity given me, the opportunity of trying to discover some truths, of passing on to others some of the things that others had passed on to me, of making some contribution to the continuance of great institutions which had lasted for centuries and might last, with my help, for many centuries more. It was up to me. I had the freedom. I had the responsibility.

It is different now. There are forms. Dons have to justify their existence, and need to give an account of what they have done and what they will do to prove that they are not being idle and incompetent. I was naughty: I did not tell any lies, but was economical with the truth. The pressure to go along unprotestingly was great: failure to put one's best feats forward for scrutiny might mean that the faculty would only get a five instead of a five star, and this could lead to a cut in funding. One owed it to one's colleagues to blow as big a blast on one's own trumpet as one plausibly could, in order to maximise the chances of a favourable assessment. It was disloyal, and counter-productive, not to play the assessors' game.

But it was even more disloyal, and even more counter-productive, to play it. It shifted responsibility. Instead of being responsible to himself, who is necessarily in the best position to know what he is doing and might hope to achieve, the academic is under pressure to account for himself to others, who do not know the intimations of something significant lying on the horizon of his understanding. Hunches cannot be justified in advance. If an academic feels he has to seek approval for what he is going to do, he will lower his sights and aim for what can be articulated in HEFC prose. Many years ago I was interviewed by a bevy of Vice-Chancellors for a prestigious fellowship to take me to America for a year. I wanted to go to Princeton, and study Gödel's theorem, which I thought might have important implications for the philosophy of mind. I was asked if I could be sure that it would: might it not prove a mare's nest? I confessed that it might prove a mare's nest, and knew at once that I had lost the fellowship. I went to Princeton with more exiguous funding, and wrote a paper in consequence. It is on my website (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/mmg.html), and is viewed by around fifty people a week.

What strengthened my stand was a certain ethos, an ethos engendered by the college system of Oxford and Cambridge, an ethos which encouraged me to be my own man, and not to kowtow to Vice-Chancellors or anybody else. It has supported me on many other occasions. For most of my life my thinking has been against the current of philosophical thought in Oxford and elsewhere. Although sometimes I have found crocks of gold at the end of rainbows, often there was nothing when I finally got there. Will o'the wisps have led me meandering astray over many years. ccording to current orthodoxy, one ought to be depressed, and in order to avoid depression, one should play safe, and only attempt what one can be fairly sure of achieving. But the mood of Oxford is different, optative rather than indicative, and supports a different attitude, laying greater store on aspiration than achievement.

The ethos of independence is under attack. Universities must be accountable, it is said; their performance must be monitored to ensure that the privileges of academic life are not abused, and that sub-standard operators are weeded out; it is good for academics to be subjected to the normal disciplines of business life, to have clear goals and objectives, and to recognise firm criteria of success and failure; and anyhow, in this egalitarian age, it is a jolly good thing that the toffs of high table should be cut down to size.

Universities must be accountable. They receive public money; Oxford and Cambridge have large endowments. We may ask what they do with it, and whether they use it well. We may ask. But we have to be careful what questions we ask. Physicists are familiar with the fundamental fact in quantum mechanics that if we ask one sort of question, e.g. where a subatomic particle is, we cannot ask another sort of question, e.g. what its momentum is. But the same is true generally. We can require someone to account very carefully for every penny and every minute, and sometimes it is right to do so, especially if we do not trust him. But in thus circumscribing his own liberty of judgement, we preclude his being able to aim higher or achieve great things. The Higher Education Funding Council would have found much to deplore in General Wolfe and General Grant when they assessed their performance, and would have given higher ratings to more reliable operators, who were indisputably not mad and not drunk. Dupont knew that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted, but knew also that he could not know which half. HEFC cannot know the true academic merit of different universities or different departments. Who is to judge? Whose judgement is to be believed? Perhaps in a hundred years' time, when hundreds of independent judgements have confronted, corroborated or controverted one another, we shall be able to make some general comparison between one university, or one subject, and another. Perhaps. Per-very-haps.

Defenders of HEFC concede that their methods of assessment are not perfect, but they are being refined, and are better than nothing. But they are not. Much as economic indicators become increasingly unreliable once they are known to be used, so HEFC criteria become more useless once they are known. At one time the citation index may have been significant: but once it was known to be studied by assessors, decent dons put in extra references to their friends' work not in order to help the reader but to boost their friends' ratings. Once, when dons only published what they thought their readers would benefit from reading, a tally of what was actually published might have some relevance to the academic merit of the don: but now . . .? I used to think that one of the unrecognised debts of gratitude my colleagues owed me was for all the articles which I had not published, and for which, therefore, they did not have to feel bad at not having read. But now I should feel obliged to push into print anything that might obtain a favourable glance from an assessor, and thus improve our collective rating.

Damage is done to the morale of academics. The modern regime of forms and appraisals conveys in innumerable subtle ways the message that the academic is a hireling of no great value in the eyes of his bureaucratic masters. I remember once when I was chairman of examiners being required to fill in a form to show the number of candidates who in the two preceding years had been placed in each class. No doubt it was to enable a bit of monitoring to take place---to check whether we were giving an inappropriate number of firsts, or thirds, or two-twos. No doubt, also, it was very convenient for the monitors to have the figures readily available in front of them. But the message to me, fairly tired after trying to discern the difference between an alpha beta and a beta treble plus in many scripts, was not only that my time was cheap, and could well be spent digging out figures from previous examiners' reports, but that our judgement was suspect, and in need of checking against some statistical norm. Perhaps I was too sensitive. But many of my scientific colleagues have owned to a similar irritation at having, at HEFC's behest, to copy out the names of all their co-authors on a form designed to enable the form-filler to overturn the presumption that he is no good.

We need to ensure that the privileges of academic life are not abused, and that sub-standard operators are weeded out. But do we? Admittedly, the rosy picture I have drawn of what the aspiring academic hopes to do is not borne out in reality. The vision fades, and sometimes the tired pedagogue loses interest in his subject, devotes his energies to the wine committee, takes up academic politics. True, but rather few actually go to seed. Academic life is not confined to making great discoveries. Making small discoveries is also valuable, and disseminating knowledge and intellectual aptitudes is an integral part of the life of the mind. Contrary to much modern opinion, teaching and research are not necessarily two competing claims on a don's time but two complementary activities. Although not many undergraduates attended my lectures, I invariably attended them myself, and learnt a lot. I have many pages of notes made after tutorials, sometimes of points made by pupils, sometimes of points I had to make in order to get something across. And dons who devoted themselves to college life or enabling the university to function smoothly are making a valuable contribution too. Giles Alington of Univ set me an example I could never emulate but would always admire. Although it is given to few academics to make a great contribution to their subject, it seemed to me that in my time the number of those who were no good and did not pull their weight in any way was equally small: around 5% in my estimation. A friend from Redbrick suggested 25%. He could be right, though when I was in Redbrick I found my colleagues dedicated to their thinking and teaching and ready to shoulder their share of administrative chores.

If the number of no-goods is relatively small, do we need to weed them out, or should we heed the parable of the tares? Universities differ from hospitals, air lines and firms of solicitors in that the pearls are of great price while the damage any don can do is small. It follows that in the terminology of the theory of games we should follow a maximax strategy rather than a prudential maximin one. With doctors the first rule is non noceri, not to harm the patient; we do not want fighter aces piloting jumbo jets. But universities are remembered for their best members, not their worst: I have never heard Konigsberg evaluated according to HEFC criteria. Good ideas are hard to conceive ab initio, but, once thought of, easy to reproduce. A system that encourages people to set their sights on the stars is better than one that ensures that nobody gets away with not pulling his weight.

The maximax argument is conclusive in so far as universities are seen as research institutions, but not when they receive money to teach. If they take money, either from undergraduates or from public authorities, to teach, then they are under an obligation to teach well, and their teaching performance should be monitored to make sure that they do.

Up to a point. There are minimum standards which pupils and the public are entitled to expect, and which should be enforced. Tutors and lecturers who fail to turn up, who abuse those committed to their charge, who never give advice on reading, or criticism of work done, ought not to be tolerated. But there are ways of dealing with them. Fellows can be deprived of their fellowships for neglect of duties or gross bad behaviour. What is in issue is not getting rid of the scandalously bad, but easing out the not very good---the dull, the uninspired, the out-of-date, the bad communicators, the unsympathetic. And although it might seem a good idea to do just this, the reality is very different. For all tutors are bad, and in one way or another fail to provide their pupils with what they want and what they need. One pupil of mine wrote that the only reason he could think of why he had not got a first was that I had failed to set essays on the actual questions the examiners were going to ask. He was right: I had. Many go to university in order to get through exams, and expect their tutors to do whatever is necessary to bring that about. Tutors also fail in that they cram their pupils, and do not force them to think for themselves, but just tell them the conclusions they need to regurgitate in due course. They fail in not being interested in their pupils as people, but only as recipients of knowledge, and they fail by taking too intrusive an interest in their pupils' lives, and not letting them make their own mistakes. The good college don is watching rugger cuppers, and fails to alert those with specialist interests to a course of lectures by a visitor from abroad, while his colleague who turns up in Schools at 5pm has failed to show solidarity with the second torpid. The secret of Oxford is not that it has ideal tutors but that it makes do with actual ones, who may be good in some ways, but are sub-standard in others.

Undergraduates are---nearly, at least---grown up. They can, most of them, cope. Of course it would have been better if one's own tutor had given one that crucial reference which the tutor in Holy Innocents gave to one of his people. It would have been better if one's own tutor had spotted the occasion when one was in big trouble, and spent the hour sorting one out properly, as did happen with one's friend in St Judas. These are real gripes, not to be ignored, but to be set in context. Many Oxonians remember occasions when their tutors came up trumps. Even if one's own tutor was unsympathetic and uninspired, there were other sources of help and inspiration. Some times I sat on a committee awarding senior scholarships, and we noticed how often good candidates in a particular subject came from a college where the tutor was notoriously bad. The explanation was that the undergraduates soon came to know that this was the case, and set to work to make up the deficiency by going to lectures, using the lecturers' reading lists, asking their friend in other colleges what the OK opinions were. In the broad run of cases undergraduates forgive their tutor his many weaknesses, enjoying his foibles and appreciating his strengths. Bad tutors are indubitably bad, but not altogether bad. It is better to have real dons with genuine strengths as well as genuine weaknesses than to imagine that there is some uniform pattern of teaching excellence and that all tutors should be made to conform to it.

It is good for academics to be subjected to the normal disciplines of business life, to have clear goals and objectives, and to recognise firm criteria of success and failure. But universities are not businesses. Of course, they have their business aspects, and we ought to be businesslike in respect of them: we ought to answer letters punctually, prepare budgets, know under what financial constraints we operate. It is sometimes illuminating, and often amusing, to think of Oxford plc., as it is sometimes illuminating and often amusing to talk of a college as HMS Merton or the Worcester Light Infantry, the humour arising from the manifest inappropriateness of the comparison. Businesses have clearly defined aims. They provide goods or services to willing buyers, hoping to make a profit thereby. Universities are not in the profit-making business; they do not produce goods but ideas, and whereas goods can be handed over to others in exchange for money, ideas are of the wrong logical shape to be traded---my new exegesis of Plato's theory of forms can be passed on from pupil to examiner with no money being paid to me or to anyone. And although a college may charge a tuition fee, to be a member of a college or of the university is not primarily to be a recipient of services but to be incorporated in a society that cherishes certain values. An employee of a business does not work for love, or because he has a great yearning to have all the world use a certain sort of soap powder: he works for the business because he is paid to, and it is reasonable to have a contract of employment which spells out what his duties are and what reward he should have for their satisfactory discharge. But my relationship to Oxford was necessarily less clear-cut. It was not just for the money---if I had come into a great fortune, I should not have resigned my fellowship. Although I had some clear-cut duties---to give a certain number of lectures, attend certain meetings---most of my obligations could not be spelled out in any useful way. Only I, and not the University of Oxford, can know what research I should be doing, and although in the later stages I may be able to specify a goal---to write intelligibly about modal logic, say---often I do not know what I was looking for until I have found it. The whole mind-set of business management is inappropriate to university life, and if we try to understand our activities in business-management terms, we not only waste a lot of money but actually impede our self-understanding by asking the wrong questions about activities that have been misdescribed.

Oxford has many enemies, many detractors. All through my life I have been told how it is going to the dogs, and no longer an institution to be proud of. When I was young, I was worried, but after I found exactly the same being said in the 14th century, I felt able to take a longer view. The determination of HEFC to make Oxford mediocre is not to be taken lightly; it has the power of money and is supported by a large sector of public opinion. But the power of ideas is also great, and can win the minds of people at large, if they are thought through honestly and expressed clearly. And the ability to do that is---traditionally---the great gift that Oxford gives to its alumni.

I am grateful to Dr R.C.S. Walker, of Magdalen, for helpful criticisms of an earlier draft.


Return to home page


Return to bibliography