File under - 'Silly comments by middle-aged university managers'


PRESIDENT'S LOG:Sexism is still thriving in academia – that’s why I’m making equal opportunities a priority for this academic year, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

Last week I was walking across the DCU campus when I came upon a frantic young man in a car who, as he told me, had an urgent appointment in the university but couldn’t find anywhere to park. On this occasion I was able to help him, but these days we have constant car parking issues.

In his book, The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr, the late chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, suggested that a university president has three key tasks that the institution’s main stakeholders will expect to see achieved: “sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty”. Only the last of these, Kerr suggested, presented a problem.

And it’s not just staff these days: increasingly students come with their own cars and create their own car parking issues. And in DCU, until we closed off access for these purposes we also had motorists unconnected with the university driving through the campus to find a shortcut.

Recently another young man decided to park his car outside my office building in such a way that he blocked the entrance completely. I happened to be passing and told him he couldn’t park there. This unleashed a torrent of abuse, and a statement that as a taxpayer he had every right to park there whenever he chose. He then walked off. Let us just say that, helpfully, I found a solution for his car that allowed him to supplement DCU’s income from the taxpayer.

Of course, I sympathise with colleagues and students who must rely on cars to get to the university, but I’m also delighted to see others using public transport or bicycles to get here.

Anyway, let me return to my walk across the campus and, indeed, to Clark Kerr’s little quip.

I came upon a small group of academics discussing the latest hot topic – recent comments on sex by Dr Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

Dr Kealey had been asked by the journal Times Higher Educationto write a short piece on “lust” (one of a series on the seven deadly sins as seen from a university perspective), and this is what he had to say:

“Most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do? Enjoy her! She’s a perk. She doesn’t yet know that you are only Casaubon to her Dorothea, Howard Kirk to her Felicity Phee, and she will flaunt you her curves. Which you should admire daily to spice up your sex, nightly, with the wife.”

His comments were, of course, picked up by a UK tabloid newspaper, and almost immediately Dr Kealey was at the centre of a storm. He defended himself by saying that his comments were satire rather than advice, and should be seen as a humorous device to identify conduct that isn’t in fact acceptable. Or something like that.

The academics I encountered were divided into two camps: those who believed Dr Kealey’s defence and who thought that it all just a silly fuss; and those who found his comments quite incredible and who feared they were symptomatic of a latent sexism widespread in academia.

In briefly joining the conversation, I tended to the view that Dr Kealey was naive and that his language was unacceptable, but also that we shouldn’t get over-excited about it.

However, while we should probably file Dr Kealey’s statement somewhere under the heading “silly comments by middle-aged university managers”, there are broader issues of sexism in higher education that do require our attention.

Universities are full of intelligent and liberal individuals who are at the forefront of the campaign for equal opportunities. But if we are honest, we have to admit that universities are also capable of fostering a culture in which equality does not flourish. While the ranks of junior academics are increasingly dominated by women, senior posts are disproportionately occupied by men.

Despite the apparent flexibility of working conditions, academics (and non-academic staff) with domestic responsibilities regularly find these difficult or even impossible to combine with their professional duties. And very often academic debate takes on an aggressive tone that doesn’t go well with a culture of equal opportunities.

I wouldn’t wish to paint too bleak a picture because things are improving, if slowly. But there remains a serious need to apply in the university setting the liberal and equality minded views we express in our academic output. So I think that I shall make further progress on the equal opportunities agenda one of my priorities for this academic year in DCU.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is president of Dublin City University