The View From Here

There are many dispirited academics in today's universities
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Academics have an image problem. To be more accurate: academics have image problems. I received a reminder of this fact recently which caused me a good measure of distress. "Academics!" snorted a parent on the occasion of his daughter's graduation last June. "Plenty of sex, plenty of travel, good wine and excellent holidays. I bet you never want to get a proper job, eh?"

I tried my best to look amused and remain polite, but it was far from easy. The memory was fresh in my mind of the shadowy university grandee who had informed an acquaintance of mine that: "You won't survive here if you persist in putting the needs of students before the needs of your department - you're here to serve us, not them." So there we are: to the parent I am a sybarite, to the academic boss I am a misguided Stakhanovite, and to myself I am just dispirited.

There are many dispirited academics in today's universities. Take the case of a woman who, after being invited by her born-again, male, feminist head of department to represent women on every key committee (while working herself into the ground attempting to keep a course on feminism going), was overlooked for promotion on the grounds that "you don't seem to write much nowadays, do you?" That must have been pretty dispiriting.

Take the case of the overworked lecturers, struggling to cope with a chronic teaching shortage, who were told that their new colleague, who "wished to concentrate on research", would still be "invaluable", because the person had a public profile and did "quite a bit of radio". That news, surely, must have been awfully dispiriting, too.

There have, of course, been academics before - some of them quite illustrious - who have felt dispirited. Take, for example, the Thirties' Oxford philosopher RG Collingwood. It was the "medieval" nature of academia, he complained, that forced him to choose between the active and the contemplative life. Part of him struggled against such an unnatural division, and whispered words of rebellion in his ear. Off he would slip, out into the country, addressing anyone who would listen, spreading the word. Collingwood's dissatisfied academic, a firebrand disguised by tweedy convention, dreamed of tearing down the college walls that symbolised his alienation from the affairs of practical life.

Others, however, have grown just as troubled by the subsequent, and somewhat perverse, change in the academic's relationship with that practical world. The college walls have not come tumbling down, but a rather grand revolving door has been inserted. Now one sees academics in defiantly non-academic contexts, such as atop motorbikes in the glossy Sunday supplements, or hosting television shows, or running their own publishing houses, or fundraising among the fat cats. Academic life goes on, of course, but now with an oddly distracted air about it.

The American sociologist Philip Rieff, writing in the early Seventies, foresaw the consequences. His memorable polemic, Fellow Teachers, was presented as a post-mortem letter to the dead, myself self-addressed among them. The teaching body, he said, was still alive - "hyperactive", if anything - but the teaching soul had perished. The old idealists, the "scholar-teachers" who still saw themselves as the servants of democracy, were now the downtrodden masses of the modern university, largely ignored by the powers-that-be in favour of the self-promoting gurus and entrepreneurs.

Has it changed so much today? Being a member of a British university today is rather like being a member of the BBC. Both institutions, in spite of their great and venerable traditions of public service, have been transformed by a spirit of crass managerialism. Both institutions have come to regard those of their employees who are the most loyal, the most dedicated and most idealistic with a meanness bordering on contempt, while those who are merely passing through, cynically using the cachet of their brief association with a prestigious brand name as a stepping stone to greater, more glamorous pursuits, are lavished with affection and held in high esteem. No wonder that, in both institutions, morale is so low.

Today, for the average academic, it is the "private" image that wounds. The honorable, industrious, responsible academics who are mocked by the general public can still work, still fulfil their role, and still take some personal satisfaction from doing so, but the honorable, industrious, responsible academics who are routinely mocked by their employers have no obvious future, and certainly no feelings of personal satisfaction.

We can live with all the Howard Kirks, all the Porterhouse Blues, all the caricatures and criticism that the non-academic feels inclined to bestow on us. We cannot, however, live for very long with the negative images being fostered on the inside. Academics who believe in their duty to students are not academics who have no interest in research.

Universities exist, primarily, to teach students. That is the oldest, the most obvious and the most important link between the academic world and the public world. Academics exist, primarily, to help students. If academics lose faith in that, then the public can be forgiven for losing what faith it may still have in them

Graham McCann lectures in Social Theory at King's College, Cambridge, and recently published his fourth book, `Cary Grant: A Class Apart'(Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99).