.…ask a busy person is the usual way to complete the phrase. But although this may be wise for the person wanting the job done, it’s tough on those paragons who repeatedly get asked to take on new duties. Hence the importance of a workload model to ensure that good citizens are not getting submerged beneath a mountain of committee work whilst others swan around with few chores to weigh them down. I am reminded of this because it’s that time of year when committees need to have their membership refreshed, so people cast their eyes around the department, faculty, school, institution or whatever organisational unit is appropriate to see who would be good on Committee X.
Of course as soon as you start considering the matter (and it really doesn’t matter whether you are thinking about the student liaison committee, or seeking out some humdinger of a senior professor for a high level international role, the same principles apply) you realise that many individuals have reputations which make their desirability as a member distinctly dubious. When I look at a list of epithets I have heard used recently about senior (I hesitate to say ‘respected’ given the epithets) colleagues in my own and other universities and across the disciplines, it makes for dismal reading: ‘behaving like an animal cornered’, ‘disengaged’, ‘needs to go on an anger management course’, ‘languid’ and ‘a selfish brat’ being just a few phrases I have heard being used in connection with members of the professoriat around the country.
The reality is that academics are simply human and have the same foibles as the rest of the population. But we are also trained to be competitive and unfortunately too many individuals learn strategies which may help them to compete on the research front, at the expense of the common good of other duties such as teaching. So, the professor (not a physicist, before people start playing guessing games) described as languid, was further described as
doesn’t exactly put himself out for others in my view… not a team player. Some would even say lazy.
But the reality is he has a huge amount of output in print, usually as sole author, because that is what he chooses to concentrate on and on which his reputation rests.
The fact that not all professors are ideal role-models is nothing new, as a couple of random historical examples will show. Centuries ago, around the turn of the 17th century, the famed Paduan anatomist Fabricius was apparently ‘like a lazy horse who had to be spurred on’, according to William Harvey’s recent biography by Thomas Wright. When complaints were made he retaliated by cancelling the public dissections at short notice, these being a necessary part of the training for would-be physicians like Harvey.
Much more recently, and in my own University of Cambridge, John Henslow – a man responsible at least in part for enthusing and supporting the young Charles Darwin – apparently became a very delinquent Professor of Botany. Having started off enthusiastically when first appointed, his involvement with the University – to which he was still attached – got more and more remote once he’d taken on a new role as Rector of Higham in Suffolk. Too far away for him to be able to ‘commute’, for some years he only spent 5 weeks a year in Cambridge. Thus technically he fulfilled his lecturing requirements, although only to a handful of students, but people were not impressed, as a letter from Charles Babington (a future Professor of Botany in Cambridge) makes clear in an 1846 letter:
Never was botany at so low an ebb as now in this place. A non-resident Professor, who only comes here for five weeks (as he calls it), going away on Saturday morning in each week, and returning Monday evening. I have been taking a party of our few naturalists for a short excursion on each of the last four Saturdays, but never got more than twelve to accompany me, all of them quite beginners.
(These facts I gleaned from an interesting biography of the man by Walters and Stow). At least in his case he had the justification that he seems to have been a very committed Rector, including being active locally about education for his congregation.
It is easy to identify that class of professors who are only interested in research at the expense of teaching but, to return to the committee work, there are others who see committees as a useful power base. These are also potentially dangerous. If someone wants to take on a particular responsibility – particularly if it’s chairing a committee – this may be for entirely benign, public-spirited and excellent reasons, or it may be because they see a way of getting their hands on resource control. Again, nothing new here, office politics of any sort would throw up something similar. I think the difference is that the joys of academia being such that many people would try very hard not to get stuck on many committees, there can be something of a power vacuum for the few with Machiavellian tendencies of this sort to slot into.
Perhaps someone believes if they chair the committee that doles out the annual quota of PhD studentships they can quietly ensure they and their cronies do rather well. Ditto on a space allocation committee – that way they’ll make sure their sub-field is thriving at the expense of others (and sometimes this may be literal expense as well as figurative). This, long-time readers of my blog will recognize this person as the ‘Chair with Favourites’ from an earlier post which depicted the characteristics of committee chairs. In that earlier post you will also find the Inefficient Chair, who tends to be the one the department lights on in desperation because no one else will take on some poisoned chalice or, even more probably, some deadly dull but necessary committee. I fear the Health and Safety Committee too often falls under that heading.
So, that workload model I referred to at the start of this post is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensure the smooth-running of a department. Heads of department do not always have the sanctions they need to make sure everyone makes a reasonable contribution to the greater good. My suspicion is that readers from industry will read these sentences in horror because, by and large, companies do not tolerate this degree of ‘individualism’, for which frequently you should read ‘selfishness’. But because universities, by their very nature, celebrate and reward individualism, competitiveness and single-mindedness, it is hard to see our academic world changing radically any time soon.