Thursday, 27 February 2014

Ethical Issues in the development of the University: An Apologetics of Love and the challenge of Governance

The motto Cardinal Newman chose for his coat of arms was "Heart speaks to heart". For a figure whose intellectual grounding grew out of the rarified scholasticism of Oxford, whose high minded ideals of what a University is have provided sound-bites for every Vice Chancellor who wants to add gravitas to their latest managerial wheeze, heart (as opposed to brain) is perhaps surprising. But Newman's intellectual journey is about discovering the heart. It is a different kind of 'speaking' that he articulates: not the speaking of the BBC's 'nation shall speak unto nation', whose latent message is "we're going to teach you all to be British!" Hearts do not speak like that. It is a tragedy that our Universities behave as if they acknowledge the BBC's interpretation of 'speaking' and not Newman's - they've even found clever ways of measuring the effectiveness of their 'speaking', and rewarding individuals who speak the loudest!

When a person has been bereaved, we look them in the eye and feel something of the pain they feel - because deep within our own psyche, we know this sorrow is universal. And when we say "I'm sorry for your loss", we may also know (particularly if we have experienced grief ourselves) that this simple utterance in this particular moment really means something. Hearts speak when we know we are not alone.

The problem for our Universities currently is that they have been increasingly indulging in a process of social atomisation. Rather than seeing themselves as communities of people (teachers, learners, administrators) who collectively are not alone, they increasingly see individual members of the community as replaceable functionaries whose purpose is to deliver to a "customer base" of students whose fees bolster the universities coffers. We might not unreasonably ask Does "belonging to the university" increasingly now mean little more than "being paid by it" or "getting a degree from it"?

Social atomisation is a process which has become endemic in our society. We might date its current manifestation to Thatcher, although it has always existed to some extent. It is the product of a kind of individualism which affirms the rights of individuals to "choose" who they work for, or with, and where people are encouraged to be ever-mobile and dynamic in their careers. It is a kind of individualistically-driven egomania where nobody abides anywhere, nobody's commitment extends beyond that which suits them, and 'social responsibility' becomes redefined as compliance to legal and professional frameworks rather than vocation.

The real question here is "whose will?" Social atomisation is an erosion of a universal, all-embracing will. Christians would call this the "will of God". The fact that the will of the individual is not the universal will underlies the struggle of all democratic societies since ancient times. Powerful individuals will want to present their will as the will of the people, but individual ego misleads the powerful into a delusion which ultimately catches up with them. The universal will eventually expresses itself (if perhaps only briefly before it is distorted again): we see it in the Ukraine now. But we are frequently reminded that the will of the individual is not universal or true. I attended the funeral recently of a one of the catering staff in my university and there was standing room only in the church. She was much loved, and the need for people to be together was profound despite the apparently modesty of her position in the institution. That is an expression of the universal will.

The problem with social atomisation is that it ignores this. It is inherently paradoxical in presenting the collective will (an aggregation of individual wills) as in some way universal. But whilst the abstract idea of the collective as universal is untrue, legal frameworks established around abstract ideas gradually replace deeper ontologically grounded experience. A good example of this is the evolution of corporate governance codes: the Hampell report of 1998 states unequivocally that "The single overriding objective shared by all listed companies, whatever their size or type of business is the preservation and the greatest practical enhancement over time of their shareholders' investment" (I'm grateful to Hugh Willmott for highlighting the importance of corporate governance codes). This is a marked evolution of earlier codes of corporate governance which considered shareholder influence to be far less important (even destabilising) on effective corporate governance. The 1975 Corporate Report from the Accounting Standards Steering Committee (see argued that privileging shareholders in governance was considered extreme by the majority of companies. Since then an individualistic shareholder-oriented abstracted model of effective accountability has become dominant. This overrides the real domain of corporation politics. Because it is abstract, it is easily subverted by powerful influences within the corporation which can eventually defend reneging on the advice of earlier corporate codes such as those contained in the Cadbury report (to which the Hampell report is a response) which warn against any single individual having powers of decision. The social atomisation to shareholder return in turn makes workers functionaries to produce this aim, each one rewarded according to the extent to which they serve the goal, and being replaceable by any other individual similarly motivated by self-interest. Cohesion and corporate identity are swallowed up by the will of the director who pretends to be fulfilling the corporate mission by meeting shareholder wishes. The heart goes out of the thing and we end up with HBOS, Enron, RBS, etc. Indeed, such failures bear similarity with Robert Maxwell's business empire, which was the prompt for the Cadbury report in the first place.

Universities don't have shareholders. They do have boards of governors, whose contentment is most easily satisfied by the financial reports from the institution. In uncertain times, the greatest succour to governors will be the establishment of healthy financial surpluses which, it will be deemed, will off-set any irregularities in the student recruitment to institutions. The governors become a kind of shareholder, with the surplus acting as a kind of 'dividend of trust'. Social atomisation then works to see all university activities as functional in terms of securing the trust of governors. As trust is secured, so is the position of the Vice Chancellor. Lecturers must engage by keeping their learners contented enough to maintain enrolments: they will be rewarded by being allowed to keep their jobs! But maintaining learner enrolment is not an educational objective. It is not even a necessary condition for learning. The sufficient condition for learning is that "heart speaks to heart" - it is the realisation of the universal will - and of course it doesn't have to happen in a university, although one might hope that it does.

This is the essence of the ethical problem of universities. Social atomisation replaces the "heart speaks to heart" of powerful and authentic conversations between teachers and learners with false conditions of maintaining enrolments, meeting learning outcomes and building surpluses. The cancer is in the fact that the more the false conditions dominate, the less possible it becomes to reach any kind of authenticity. The ethical problem is that there is no half-way-house between the individual will and the universal will. The more governors heed the doctrine of surpluses and atomisation, the less able they are to perform their governing duties of care towards universal things that bind the institution together. They themselves become atomised. Eventually it all falls apart.

Not sure I'd want to be in a governor's shoes when that happens. But no doubt it will be the cue for a new governance report into university management!

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