Saturday, 29 April 2017

@TedXUoBolton, Science and the Managerial Craving for Academic Celebrity

What has actually happened to Universities in the last 20 years? We only see indicators that things aren't what they used to be, but since those whose job it is to commentate on how things are changing are themselves enmeshed in Universities which are in the throws of these transformations, there appears to be no position from which one can gauge how far our institutions are straying from their historic origins.

So here's the latest sign: the second TEDx event to be held at the University of Bolton. For those students and some of the more junior academic staff taking part in this, it is a great opportunity, and on the face of it, a great idea. But the weird thing is that three senior managers plus a couple of professors from Bolton have been instrumental in creating a platform for themselves.

Heading the bill -  (which is here: http://www.bolton.ac.uk/tedx/speakers/) is Bolton esteemed Vice-chancellor Professor George Holmes DL - cue dancing girls!. If that's not enough of senior management (he's enough for most, including the former UCU rep - http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/11882630.University_of_Bolton_staff__sacked__over_claims_they_leaked_information_to_the_press/), then you can listen to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick McGhee! Wait... Yes! I know you want more! So, here's what you've been waiting for - the University's one-and-only Pro-Vice Chancellor, Kondal Reddy Khandadi (cue lots of whooping and cheers)

These illustrious speakers are mixed with academics from other institutions, including Steve Fuller - who gave a nice talk about democratising HE and science, which is something he's been on about for some time (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/science-and-social-ontology-at-russian.html)

What is this? It looks like a kind of 'academic washing': a way of manufacturing academic credibility and bestowing it upon members of the management team. It runs alongside the 'Royal washing' which Bolton has also been engaged in recently: http://www.bolton.ac.uk/MediaCentre/Articles/2016/Jul2016-07.aspx, and the seriously odd "political washing" of the "Centre for Opposition Studies" - http://www.bolton.ac.uk/OppositionStudies/Home.aspx (I find the picture of the House of Commons curious - there's something they don't understand about opposition... this is entirely sanitised! No reference to struggle, peaceful or violent, whatsoever!)

Then, I'm reminded about TED itself, and the particularly unfortunate episode with Rupert Sheldrake whose talk at TEDx Whitechapel on the "The Science Delusion" was banned. Sheldrake is one of my favourite scientists because he has the courage to ask difficult questions of people who call themselves scientists but chose to ignore those questions because it would make peer review more troublesome. 

Why, then, does TED ban Sheldrake and willingly host Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice chancellors, and Deputy Vice Chancellors who haven't got anything remotely as interesting to talk about?

So this is the barometer of where things have got to. Most scientists find Sheldrake's "morphogenetic field" idea too esoteric an explanation for the phenomenon of the simultaneous formation of new crystal structures at different points in the world. But even physics used to be more inquiring and accepting of weird ideas.

At my University, the first head of the physics department was Oliver Lodge, who did pioneering work in electromagnetic radiation in the early 20th century, and was also a passionate communicator of science. Fuller's appeal for democratised science is not new, and we should examine those who did it long before. (I'm deeply grateful to Liverpool physicist Peter Rowlands (see https://www.amazon.co.uk/ZERO-INFINITY-FOUNDATIONS-PHYSICS-Everything/dp/9812709142) for pointing me towards this). The football at the beginning of this video is a curious distraction!


What Lodge says in this video is not a million miles away from what Sheldrake says. Lodge was not only a physicist, but a spiritualist. It's the kind of combination that would get you sacked from Universities these days. But instead of getting sacked, Lodge went on to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

So here's the barometer. Lodge exemplifies what scientific inquiry looks and sounds like. He epitomises the spirit of inquiry and communication which suffused the university of his time. He wasn't alone in Liverpool - Charles Sherrington was down the road exploring the neural structures in monkeys' brains (in the attic above my office!); He was a contemporary of and studied alongside William Bateson, who invented the term "genetics" and was father to Gregory Bateson; He worked with other key thinkers in philosophy including Whitehead, with whom he no doubt found much in common.

This simply doesn't happen any more, and we are all the poorer for it. Instead we have managers parading themselves as academic celebrities, making pronouncements about education - about which they understand very little (as we all do). Why? Because we have turned education into a business, where status is money, and money gives status.

There are still people like Lodge around. Sheldrake is one, and so is Peter Rowlands. But they are on the fringes, many clinging to the academy in adjunct positions which save the managers money, and help to fund their yachts, and (no doubt) TedXBolton 2018!

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