Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘universities’

An inspiration to associate professors everywhere

I just discovered that Donna Strickland, the woman who just won a Nobel Prize in physics, is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo.

There are 20 full professors in the department, and I bet their research is pretty fucking amazing.

Kavanaugh’s evil twin and the Hitler diaries

I was in high school when the Hitler diaries flashed across the media firmament, and I was fascinated by the eagerness with which so many responsible people accepted as plausible what were quickly unmasked as transparent frauds. An important selling point was the observation that the diaries never mentioned the extermination of the Jews, and I remember very specifically an article in Time magazine that teased the possibility that Hitler himself may not have known of the extent of the Holocaust, with speculation by historians that underlings may have acted on their own. I had an insight then about what would motivate people to seek out evidence that someone they “know” — even if knowing them only by their reputation as a famous monster — was innocent of an important crime. Just by learning about a historical figure we inevitably develop some psychological identification with him, he becomes one of our acquaintances, and then to mitigate the cognitive dissonance we are attracted to exculpatory evidence, even better if it is such as tends to diffuse responsibility rather than creating other specific monsters.

The writer Richard Marius once told me that after he had written his biography of Thomas More, where he had to come to some resolution on the purported crimes of Richard III, and decided that Richard was guilty of everything, he got harassed by people calling themselves Ricardians. They insisted that the criminals were Henry VII, or Edward Tyrell, or some anonymous unknowable others. Again, Richard III is a famous villain, but since he is famous, people identify him, and want to believe him not such a villain.

The French aphorism tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner goes deep. Bare familiarity is enough to create a motivation to pardon everything.

I see a connection to the way conservatives jumped at the theory that Christine Blasey Ford had indeed been sexually assaulted, but that she had mis-identified Brett Kavanaugh as the perpetrator. This doesn’t change anything about the number of evil people in the world, but it renders them anonymous. (Ed Whelan crossed a line when he went full Ricardian and accused a specific classmate of Kavanaugh’s. In principle, this serves all relevant purposes of the free-floating accusation, but by libelling a specific private citizen it created too many other complications and even, dare I suggest, moral qualms.) (more…)

The forerunner

Whatever one thinks of the burden of proof on sexual assault, the new reports on Brett Kavanaugh’s youthful leisure activities show that he anticipated the modern GOP in putting party ahead of principle.

Anti-publishing

George Monbiot has launched an exceptionally dyspeptic broadside in the Guardian against academic publishing, and in support of the heroic/misguided data scraper Alexandra Elbakyan, who downloaded millions of papers, and made them available on a pirate server.

I agree with the headline “Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free”, but disagree with most of the reasoning. Or, maybe it would be better said, from my perspective as an academic his complaints seem to me not the most significant.

Monbiot’s perspective is that of a cancer patient who found himself blocked from reading the newest research on his condition. I think, though, he has underestimated the extent to which funding bodies in the UK and US, and now in the EU as well, have placed countervailing pressure for publicly funded research to be made available in various versions of “open access”, generally within six months of journal publication. In many fields — though not the biomedical research of most interest to Monbiot — it has long been the case that journal publication is an afterthought, with research papers published first as “preprints” on freely accessible archive sites. (more…)

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)

The eat-your-marshmallows party

When did the Conservatives become the party of immediate gratification? This follows a development across the Atlantic that I first noticed thirty years ago when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was described as the “eat your peas” candidate.

I was shocked to hear from my daughter that her high school class had been given a talk encouraging them to consider leaving school and switching to an apprenticeship programme, because they could immediately be earning £3 an hour, or whatever it was. I thought this was just some weird individual thing, but then I saw an official government advertisement on a bus shelter making exactly this argument. I’m all in favour of apprenticeship programmes, but I think the choice of who should continue on to further education should not be best on the goal of getting paid £3 an hour right now. It is so obviously targeted at getting underprivileged children into menial jobs, to prevent them from rising above their station, that it astonishes me that the government was not too embarrassed to create this campaign.

Similar thinking seems to underly the recent proposal by the education secretary to reduce university fees for courses of study that tend to lead to lower salaries, which has been taken to be suggesting lower fees for arts and social science degrees, while maintaining current fees for science and technology degrees. This is a proposal to incentivise poorer students to prioritise short-term costs over long-term benefits. The most charitable interpretation one can have is that they read chapter 1 of the economics textbook, about prices being set by an equilibrium of supply and demand, and never made it to chapter 2, on the effect of incentives.

It’s purely coincidental that this would tend to brighten the career prospects of dimmer children of affluent familes. It’s almost like the Tories read about Mischel’s marshmallow test, and their response was that it’s unfair that poor children can get ahead just because they might happen to be constitutionally better inclined to delay gratification. I remember John Kerry being mocked in 2004 for having limited his children’s television viewing when they were young, showing them as out of touch with the habits of ordinary Americans, and thinking, self-indulgent habits work out different for aristocrats like the Bushes than for children of middle-class and working-class families. Which is perhaps exactly the point.

Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

Golfing VCs

Economist David Blanchflower wrote an article for The Guardian inviting us to pity the poor underpaid university vice chancellors with their paltry sub-million-pound salaries. In discussing what an awful job it is, and why you

A vice-chancellor’s schedule is set for them. The job has a huge effect on family life. There are few places to hide and find privacy. You are always on show, even on the golf course.

Even on the golf course! Have these vice-chancellor-oglers no shame?

Oddly enough, the analysis by this economist, which included the striking phrase “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” — the monkey here being everyone who is not a vice chancellor — omitted any evidence that universities do indeed prosper from having non-monkeys doing the job. I mean, there are all kinds of jobs that are hard and important, but there’s a limit to how much you’re willing to pay to get just a tiny bit of extra talent (assuming that you can even reliable recognise those distinctions in the course of the hiring process). The suggestion is that you need to pay huge sums just to get one of the exceptional rare individuals who is even minimally qualified not to run the university into the ground. “In the end, there are few qualified and willing applicants.” I’d like to see some working-out on that problem.

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

Free speech for me but not for thee

Today:

Universities will be told that they must uphold free speech and clamp down on student unions that “no platform” controversial speakers, the government is to announce.

Two years ago:

Universities will be forced to vet visiting speakers to stop extremists brainwashing students on campus, under plans being drawn up in the Home Office.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing new rules that will require universities to crack down on the activities of their student unions and Islamic societies.

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