On the freedom to sigh

The disciplining of a professor for 'sighing' will have a corrosive effect on academics' right to speak their minds.

Dennis Hayes

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Topics Free Speech

As the new academic year gets underway, one suspended don, the professor Thomas Docherty from the University of Warwick, faces disciplinary action for ‘insubordination’. Docherty is a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at Warwick, but he’s also a critic of the direction of what passes for university education today.

His book, For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution, is a jeremiad available to read for free through creative commons. One reviewer said of it: ‘Docherty thinks that pretty much everything that has happened in British higher education since the Robbins report of 1963 has been bad.’ The bad things, according to Docherty, include poor leadership, bureaucracy, the shift from examination to assessment, the creation of the idea of the ‘student experience’ and the myth of ‘research-led teaching’. (Seems spot on to me, and we can add to the list the current obsession with ‘impact’, which is undermining academic freedom in research.)

The opinions and arguments expressed in the book have, of course, nothing to do with Docherty’s suspension. The charges against him are said to include an incident in which he is accused of ‘sighing’, inappropriate and negative body language and making ironic comments about a candidate who he was interviewing for a departmental role. He is also alleged to have clashed with his head of department over whether to submit one of their colleagues to the Research Excellence Framework, a research assessment exercise.

From the outside, it all looks like petty departmental politics – an internal issue outsiders shouldn’t be bothering themselves about. But putting Docherty on a charge sends out a message to everyone in the university sector: not just ‘shut up’, but ‘shut up and don’t even show, in any way, that you don’t like what’s going on’. This is a time in which some of the core values of the university are being eroded by a new, business-oriented approach; when academics find themselves being told that students should be considered ‘customers’; when academics are told they should adopt corporate values or that they should tailor their research to fields which will bring in the most money. And yet, at this critical time for academia, in which debate and contestation needs to happen, the expectation is not only that academics will voice no ‘negative criticism’, but that they will also show no expression of disagreement whatsoever. It is a message to comply and conform, to be quiet and sit still.

What happened to Docherty had nothing to do with the criticisms in his book. The trouble with Docherty was that he seemed unable to leave it at that and instead took his critical attitude into the workplace. That was a step too far for those university managers who require absolute acquiescence. Cowardly conformism is expected of most academics and many go along with whatever fads and fashions management impose. The lesson for the few difficult individuals who are brave enough to think and write criticism of fads, fashions and any loss of direction in academia is this: leave your criticism in books and refereed papers, where only a few kindred souls will read them, and keep them out of staff meetings, committees and common rooms. Academic life is being reorganised around hypocrisy, and if they want to buck this trend, academics will have to defend their freedom to sigh, as well as their freedom to speak.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby. He will be chairing the debate Who gives a damn about ‘student satisfaction’? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London, on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

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Topics Free Speech