Why do we insist that an academic also has to be a fundraiser?

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 01:00

LEFTFIELD:AFEW YEARS ago the president of a Danish university stood up to address a large meeting of staff. He had successfully pushed through a managerialist restructuring of the college against considerable opposition from the academic staff.

He proudly listed all the good things that had happened during his controversial reign, including the achievement for the first time of a Nobel Prize by a member of the staff.

The Nobel laureate then rose to reply. In a calm and measured tone he outlined how, if the current managerialist regime had been in place when he commenced his pioneering research, not only would he not have won a Nobel Prize but he would not even have been allowed to begin his work.

He explained that when he started, there were perhaps three people in the world who understood his work, and not even they foresaw its potential relevance. It was the pure pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

I have always believed that one of the greatest strengths of the university is that it provides space and resources for people to seek answers to questions that society has not even begun to ask.

Ireland is, rightly, praised worldwide because we are one of the very few countries that embody academic freedom in legislation. If this freedom means anything, it means the freedom not only to be ahead of the posse but also, if it is necessary in the search for knowledge and truth, to be unpopular and misunderstood by those whose vision goes no farther than the next shareholders’ agm or the next live-register numbers.

That is why I believe that anyone who cares about our universities should be deeply uncomfortable with the fact that in Irish universities today the criteria for judging suitability for academic promotion include an ability to attract external private funds and a demonstration of the commercial spin-off of one’s work.

What are the chances of a pharmaceutical company financing a nonmedicinal cure for cancer? What bank or financial institution will endow a research project in social science aimed at creating models whereby poor and/or underdeveloped communities can be self-sufficient with less need for capital?

Don’t get me wrong: wonderful things are happening in our colleges. Even in the specific area (promotions) that I write about, there is much to make the spirit soar and the jaw to drop in awe. There are, in almost all promotions procedures, pages and pages of incredibly daunting standards in teaching and research demanded of anyone who wishes to progress up the academic ladder.

In addition – and for me the most inspiring and uplifting – there is an obligation on anyone seeking promotion to demonstrate that their academic life is plugged into and supportive of the holistic health and prosperity of the wider community. Academics are not rewarded for residing in an ivory tower. They are expected to be leaders of opinion and providers of the invaluable resource that is their lifework – knowledge, evidence and facts – to the benefit of all.

Why do we debase all of this by insisting that, to be successful, an academic also has to be a good fundraiser? Fundraising requires a specific and different set of skills. From time immemorial, the qualities required to fill a begging bowl were the ability to portray a convincing poor mouth and the willingness to tell donors what they want to hear.

Are these the virtues we now also require in our university teachers and researchers?

The pressure of teaching more and larger classes is placing ever-increasing strain on the academic system in our third-level institutions.

If the new mantra requires that lecturers and researchers become fundraisers as well, it is inevitable that overall academic standards will be threatened.

The very excellence that administrators and academics alike wish to maintain and develop will itself be seriously undermined as a consequence.

Mike Jennings is general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers

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