June 16, 2009

VC's headline Lecture at the Festival of Social Studies

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/festival/events/tuesday/tardeabstract.pdf

It was brave. The speaker was Professor Nigel Thrift Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick and he was going to make a speech on the early French Sociologist http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Tarde.

However, as wikipedia makes clear (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vice-Chancellor) a Vice-Chancellor is a universities' Chief Executive. So it is not unreasonable to compare his choices of actions with those that would or should make during these times of economic crisis by the Chief Executive of any other large organisation. Would they follow up an announcement of a requirement to reduce spending in the next year by 5% with an academic speech?

I mean we have already got a good Sociology Department. (The sociology departmental website http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology proudly proclaims that the Guardian rates Sociology at Warwick as 3rd in 2009 and 2nd in 2010). So could one of them not have given a speech on Sociology? That would have freed our leader up to concentrate on the big financial, structural and organisation issues. Yes the event provided an opportunity for the Vice-Chancellor to 'meet and greet' shop floor academics. But maybe the opportunity cost for that return was too high.

Whilst listening to the speech, I made pages of notes, but hesitate to repeat or comment on the academic content of the speech (The Abstract is here http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/festival/events/tuesday/tardeabstract.pdf): I am a trained Mathematician now studying Economics and the speaker was a Geographer studying a Sociologist. And the cultural divide was just too large. i.e. I fear that any comments I were to make would mis-represent rather represent, confuse rather enlighten, lead to misunderstanding rather than understanding.

However a number of members of the audience asked questions referring to the speech as abstract and asking how it could be made concrete. And I similarly found myself thinking of more practical issues. At the last reckoning, whilst the 18 2nd year Economics PhD students have all got funding, shockingly of the 11 1st year Economics PhD students 6 have no funding. So it has to be a concern how many of them will still be at Warwick next year.

Will this pattern continue and result in a lost generation of young researchers? And what effect will that loss of intellectual capital have on both teaching and research? So yes this brave attempt would have made some contribution to interdisciplinary research that could both be of social value and lead to increased income for the University. But maybe it would be better to not focus on an expansionary approach and instead ensure the core strengths of academic departments are maintained.

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  1. Mark Harrison

    I would hesitate to liken our vice chancellor to “the chief executive of any other large organization.” Universities are large organizations but with a difference: their core business is to recruit, manage, and apply scholarly talent. For this reason I believe British universities should continue to be led by scholars, and that research universities should be led by scholars that understand research and have shown talent in it. It’s our good fortune that that has been the case at Warwick, and continues to be so now.

    One of the VC’s jobs is to ensure that the organization works and is maintained. But that can’t be enough. He (or she) also has a strategic function. He should be scanning the horizon. I also think that, if you employ scholars to manage, you also have to let them continue to be scholars. I did not attend the VC’s talk, but I think the fact he gave it is a good sign. It would be a bad sign if the VC lost interest in talking to other scholars about what is going in the world of scholarship.

    The university certainly faces severe constraints and challenges. Thankfully, I am temporarily out of touch with whether we doing the right things to face them. I think that is your main concern. You are right that a scholar’s vision does not count for much if the nuts and bolts come loose and the organization falls apart. What I am saying is that effective management and scholarly visiion are complements here, not substitutes. What we should expect of our university leaders is to combine nuts and bolts with vision—to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    17 Jun 2009, 08:48

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