Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Is academic collegiality out of date?

One of the things scholars across the world whinge about is the loss of their authority in universities. To many, it seems universities retained this collegial structure for a thousand years but in the last thirty have, in many western nations, they have somehow decided it is unnecessary.

Is collegiality necessary? In 2008, as I've written before, the Federal court (rightly, in my view) declared it is. Collegial structures permit academic freedom. Academic freedom protects the integrity of university knowledge - the research released to the public, the material taught to our students. Unless scholars can collectively make the decisions of the university, they are subject to the vested interests of governments, bureaucrats, industries, churches...etc.

Of course universities must listen to and respect those interests, but collectively their job is to guard, protect, discover and teach reliable knowledge, pursuing knowledge as best they can, regardless of the pressures of others.

The problem is, since universities have decided they are vested interests themselves, any remnants of collegial government seem as often abused as they are used. This is because, I think, of both the erosion of the elements of collegiality that would have prevented this and also of the growth of a culture of competitive grab-what-you-can (the latter I've written about too, but it is complex).

It is time for scholars to set our own house in order to regain trust that will allow us to put collegiality to the work it was intended for.

And of course to figure out a few new things, such as:
- how do we structure systems that protect knowledge, based on scholarly protection of the integrity of knowledge (the purpose of collegiality), in these now very large institutions with many levels of accountability to the regulatory state?
- how do we have a fair division of responsibilities and respect between academics and the now highly trained professional non-academic staff (many of whom are trained as highly as academics of earlier eras), so that the question of scholarly collegiality does not become just another power struggle within the universities?
- how can we develop collegial government that does not keep perpetuating the structures of self-interest (mini-empire building, jealousy of other parts of the university, attempts to direct resources from elsewhere to ones own area for no other reason than that it is yours)?
- how do we prevent collegial structures from being abused - how can we reward honesty, integrity and humility as members of a scholarly community, rather than the kind of arrogance, greed and egoistic dominance that it seems too often to manifest?

I don't see the elimination of collegiality as a good option, though I don't romanticise the ways it has been realised in the past or in the present.

But nor is the university like any another kind of organisation, either public or private. In fact, when we start to think it is, we might as well pack the whole thing up. We might as well turn everything over to commercial research & development and private and public training colleges.

Universities have been remarkably resilient, extraordinarily successful in making good, solid knowledge available for students and the public, in ever-increasing ways especially in the twentieth century. They did this because of the special character of collegial structures, putting scholars in systems of obligation to one another (NOT to money) that compelled them to pursue knowledge doggedly and with structures that assured a special independence and reliability.

We have hard work to do now, I think, to figure out how to do this.

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