Do we need Academic Caesars or Servant-Leaders?

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Steve Fuller, professor  of social epistemology at Warwick, writes today in the Times Higher Education that we need Roman-style dictators to lead our academic institutions in the current cultural moment and political climate:

This probably sounds vaguely threatening and, to a certain extent, it is meant to be. In the first instance, a Caesar of university leadership must be a proven academic who can command the respect of other academics (just as the Roman dictator had to command the respect of the other magistrates). But academic Caesars must also be consummate politicians. They must know the strengths and, especially, the weaknesses of their colleagues, so that they can divide and rule, impose their will and get some radical things done.

Yes, it sounds threatening. It also sounds utterly pragmatic. And it sounds like a place most of us wouldn’t like to teach.

Some of Fuller’s goals (financial stability, enfranchising alumni) are very attractive, even in my own, relatively small theological training institution. But surely there are wiser, more principled – and more theologically reflective – ways to proceed.

Fuller’s points about knowledge for the ‘public good’ and even the ‘vulgarisation of knowledge’ are surely worth considering, especially when we’re talking about Christian theology and Gospel ministry. But I’m sceptical of the values driving his strategic vision for increasing access to knowledge and re-imagining university level education in this country. Moreover, there are cautions here for theological college and church ‘leaders’ – I’d suggest Caesar is not the first-century ‘king’ we want to emulate.

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Teaching academic writing

adult-1868015_1280Ben Brabon of the Higher Education Academy (UK) has recently written about ways to help students master academic writing through creative, consistent support. In his post on “Writing in the Mouth” he writes

By facilitating opportunities for students to read, write, structure, critically analyse and revise together (using collaborative technologies such as Peerwise), academic writing skills can be positively nurtured.

Administration and the “fallacy of accountability”

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In Bill Reading’s analysis of the “posthistorical” university, it is “the administrator rather than the professor” who is the “central figure” in what is fast becoming a “transnational bureaucratic corporation.” William Deresiewicz calls this “administrative elephantiasis.” Similarly, Benjamin Ginsberg, in the The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, writes,

‘Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are filled with armies of functionaries – the vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants – who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.’

Particularly striking is Ginsberg’s analysis of universities’ strategic plans which, rather than identifying unique strengths and future directions, are nearly identical. He concludes that the point is “not the plan but the process”: an “assertion of leadership” and the erosion of the power of the faculty. It is the appearance of process that counts. Stefan Collini comments that the “fallacy of accountability” is “the belief that the process of reporting on an activity in the approved form provides some guarantee that something worthwhile has been properly done.”

 

Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 4-5.