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Building a New Framework for Collegiality

A recent set of articles in The Chronicle have set me to thinking. They are concerned with the growing burdens on academic time. I take it as axiomatic that academic work requires concerted periods of time in which it is possible to read, experiment, and above all, think, think, think. So carving out thinking time is not only important, it is crucial.

We need to be a bit sceptical about some of the more fevered claims, of course. For tenured staff, in many parts of the world, periods of study leave are still common. In the U.K., these would commonly sum to one year off in seven for those who can demonstrate research prowess. Then, the vacations do still exist, although no one could deny that these are being progressively eaten in to for a variety of reasons. There are far more fellowships on offer than there ever used to be. And academics often choose to work very long hours because they love what they are doing as much as at managerial behest (although they often blame management for the fact).

But academics do feel under greater time pressure, I am sure.

I do not have any easy solutions. I think part of the problem is not the shortage of time as such, but a feeling that the time available is not under the individual’s control. In other words, the essential independence of spirit that goes with being an academic is being undermined. If that is the case, maybe we need to look farther afield for a solution, to the literature on how power and authority is shared out in institutions.

Academic life is meant to be collegial, that is based on ‘shared power and authority vested among colleagues’ according to the dictionary, but the models of collegiality that have evolved are often solutions to the problems of another age, when universities were typically much smaller and less complex. Of course, practices around the world vary considerably. In some continental European universities power and authority is open to democratic imprimatur, down to and including electing the rector. In some older institutions, something approaching the same level of assent sometimes pertains, though in different guises. But in most institutions, there is an uneasy compromise. For example, in the U.K. the usual model is for a partly lay body to have overall charge of the institution, but the academic affairs of the university are overseen by an academic body, usually called the senate or similar.

But I do wonder if we have the right models for now. Perhaps there are other models of collegiality which might produce a better sense of say? Funnily enough, the most interesting models seem to come from business, often painted as academe’s alter ego. For example, what about the partnership form? All academics could become partners in the institution (or could be made up to partners) on the model of the business partnerships commonly found amongst consultancies or legal firms (or Oxbridge colleges, I might add). Such a model has often been the basis of more general employee ownership too. Think of an example like the highly successful U.K. retail chain, John Lewis, which is a trust run on behalf of its employees. They have a say in the running of the business and receive a share of the annual profits. Each academic could in similar vein become a partner with a say in the running of the business as well as receiving a share of any annual surplus, perhaps as time.

Such models could, in principle, be extended to the whole of the university workforce.

No doubt solutions like these will be seen as too radical by many and they would certainly have downsides. But they might mean that power and authority could be shared out again. They would certainly not solve all of the pressures on modern academics’ time but they might go some way to restoring a sense of ownership of it.

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