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Universities no longer encourage intellectualism.

By Donncha O’ Connell.

Academics exist professionally in universities and work within academic units, usually within one unit of primary affiliation like a Faculty, Department, School or Centre. Thus, after announcing that one is an academic, the reflexive, almost existentialist, response is: ‘What Department are you in?’ Immediately, one is defined by one’s departmental specialism, reflecting the organising principle of universities once memorably described as a series of independent sovereignties linked by a heating system.
Universities have for some time embraced what Anthony T Kronman calls a ‘research ideal’, founded upon disciplinary specialisation having moved from a culture of ‘secular humanism’, which itself had replaced an ‘age of piety’ and the scholastic tradition. It is arguable that the embrace of the so-called research ideal has entailed an abandonment of scholarship or, at least, a diminution in status of individual scholarship that is not quantifiable as research. How many times have you read university policy documents with phrases like: ‘The University is committed to inter-disciplinary, collaborative research on an inter-institutional basis while respecting individual scholarly endeavour…going forward’. For ‘respect’ read ‘tolerate’ and note the unsubtle construction of a new norm understandable by reference to the eccentricity that it replaces…going forward!
It could, of course, be argued that this ‘new’ research ideal involving collaboration across disciplines and between institutions is exactly what is needed to turn academics into higher functioning public intellectuals ranging freely across disciplines without frontiers, although no one would be so naive as to say this. To make such an assertion would miss the point of such research, as orchestrated through competitive funding bids, and would also miss the point of what it takes to make a public intellectual.
In Ireland, third-level research funding initiatives have been preoccupied with establishing and building a research infrastructure and contributing to ‘the knowledge economy’ or ‘the smart economy’. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. In fact, it makes good business sense to blue-skies philanthropists and, perhaps, to hesitant state funders. However, there is an undoubted bias in favour of natural sciences and engineering of various kinds in such core funding drives that confirms and embeds a pre-existing weakening of the humanities, broadly understood, in the third-level sector. The implications of this for the intellectual life of a university are obvious.
Irish universities and ITs have bought into an emphasis on added-value research – with all of the connotations of ‘excellence’, in the Orwellian sense, that this entails – leaving them open to the risk of becoming the R&D wing of the state. This is not as monopolistic as it sounds when one considers the emphasis on partnerships with industry, but that hardly lessens the cause for concern in terms of independence and the sharing of public benefits of such applied research.
Education, at all levels, must be more than an instrument of state industrial policy. Universities have a moral purpose beyond the imperatives of flexibility and institutional survival. For those of us who work as academics in universities, it is vital to re-establish an open and pluralist appreciation of what it is to be a good academic. By that, I do not mean that what passes for good teaching should be patronised with awards, or that the happenstance of wider community benefits that leak out of universities should be branded or sold as commodifiable ‘civic engagement’. It should still be possible to be a good academic – and, therefore, a successful one – by inspiring others to learn through scholarship grounded in a genuine passion for one’s subject, whether broad or narrow.
That should be the ‘key performance indicator’ and not whether, in a survey of opinions, nine out of ten student ‘customers’ who expressed a preference said your course met their expectations or that they liked you. It is harder to measure, in numerical terms, the success or failure of an academic according to this more open and pluralist set of requirements, but it is an infinitely more meaningful standard and, surprisingly, harder to manipulate than what passes for performance evaluation now.

Restructuring universities: ‘smaller numbers of larger units’

Any individual who served a period as dean during the recent period of university restructuring, and thus bears a commensurate level of emotional scars (visible only to other deans!), probably sympathises and agrees with the desire to make academic units more manageable and more connected to an agreed university mission. However, there are some who remain unconvinced that this can be achieved by melding barely cognate units. The other reason put forward in favour of mergers was that levels of inter-disciplinary academic activity would increase. This seems both fanciful and disingenuous, especially in the cases of Law and Commerce. Most universities opted for ‘melding’ Law and Commerce.
Law, my own area,  is an ancient discipline that draws on and is open to other disciplines. It can be intellectually rich and is, undoubtedly, a source of monetary riches to universities and other institutions offering law programmes. It also attracts students who are often as animated by the desire to be rich as the desire to do justice. (In this it differs little from vocations like Medicine or Dentistry where the opportunities for doing justice are obviously weaker!). In a world where knowledge is (allegedly) power, legal knowledge can also be a ticket to power—the ideal of ‘a government of laws and not of men’ permitting distinct advantages or privileges to ‘legal men’ – a most apposite observation in the case of the US.
In fairness to legal academics, they are no strangers to the public square, but it does not follow that they are more likely than other academics to be public intellectuals, despite the utility of their discipline and its broad relevance to public affairs. The usual role for a legal academic commentator, whether in the written or broadcast media, is to explain or comment upon the outcome of a case or some legislative proposal. In the US this can earn one minor celebrity status depending on how ‘colourful’ the media performances and how controversial one is prepared to be (by, for example, articulating the appropriate measure of legal torture allowable to extract confessions from terrorists).
In Ireland, constitutional referendums are especially good for business, with lawyers – both academic and professional – adopting positions of inevitable prominence and sometimes even forming groups with titles (that would surely constitute nightmares for advertising experts) like ‘Lawyers for this’ or ‘Lawyers against that’. That is to say nothing of the deservedly controversial role performed by judges acting as Referendum Commissions, a topic for another day.
Sometimes public intellectuals who engage in these kinds of debates show insufficient appreciation of the complexities of politics and the uniquely difficult job of being a politician. They operate at a safe remove from politics. Legal academics are adept at criticising judgments and legislative proposals without having ever been involved in a real case or experiencing the practical difficulties of legislative drafting. This may partially explain the reactive anti-intellectualism evident in Irish politics, though it does not validate it.
Donncha O’Connell is a lecturer in law at NUI Galway. This article is extracted from the author’s contribution to Reflections on Crisis: The Role of the Public Intellectual, edited by Mary P. Corcoran and Kevin Lalor, published in May by the Royal Irish Academy, €10.