Collapse?

By Joern Fischer

Many years ago, I published “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. Similar arguments about unhelpful trends have been made in many places, including recently in a nice piece by Paasche and Österblom. My sense is increasingly that many university systems are deeply broken already. Arguably, we have a new wave of “crowding out” unfolding: Just like many visionary and talented people don’t get into politics (because what you need there is not just talent and vision but a thick skin and a big ego), I’d argue that we are seeing many of the truly talented people dropping out of academia (for much the same reasons).

In the past, I argued there were changes needed from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Re-reading that analysis from years ago, I still think it mostly holds. I reproduce a key part of the 2012 paper here:

roadmap

So, are we moving in the right direction, or if not, why not?

Unfortunately, I believe there are very few academic institutions in the world that are moving in the right direction. The societal pull towards insanity is strong, and not even the most wonderful institution is immune to the forces towards “more” which so dominate our era at large. Moreover, there are truly dangerous undercurrents that suck academia ever more deeply into the depths of insanity. One of the most dangerous undercurrents is of an evolutionary nature: those who “make it” to positions of decision-making power in academia are increasingly not those who value the kinds of things I highlighted in the roadmap above.

To stylise the current predicament, one might argue we have four types of academics: (i) those who can actually keep up and do an amazing job; (ii) those who think they can keep up and think they do an amazing job (but they do not); (iii) those who realise they can’t keep up but don’t know what to do; and (iv) those who simply collapsed and are functioning well below their actual capacity.

If we were to put percentages onto these groups of people, those who actually do really well in terms of the quality of what they do are very, very few. Those who think they are doing great things, in turn, are more, and it’s this group who manages to climb university ladders because they “perform” so nicely. It’s only when you speak to their students, see their actual input into papers, and so on that you realise that all is not well at all—you have to look deeply to uncover such instances because on paper the performance of many in this group looks very compelling.

It’s not uncommon then, for example, that senior professors get together, sell their science as inter- and transdisciplinary in order to get project funding; and then put in little time into either inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration, and sometimes not even into supervision (what are postdocs for, after all?). It’s not uncommon for the students involved in such projects to be deeply lost and disappointed by the process; and it’s not uncommon for the whole thing to then be sold back to the funding body as a “big success”. This story is something that repeats itself over and over at not just one university.

If I’m right, this is a self-enhancing process of maladaptive evolution: university institutions will increasingly become mediocre mass producers of scholarly “stuff”, produced on the backs of not yet over-committed PhD students and postdocs, whose products are used as highly prized chess pieces in political games among senior professors. The students and postdocs who stay and continue the climb up university ladders are not the brightest, but the toughest.

The situation raises serious questions about whether to engage or escape. With many other systems equally sick, escaping is not necessarily a feasible option. I see an urgent need for those who truly want to change things to stick with our academic institutions for a little longer; keep challenging the status quo; and bring about better ways of working from the bottom up.

Why am I writing this post? Because in an era of widespread insanity, I believe there is a need for solidarity among those who are not interested in simply keeping up with what I called earlier an “ever-faster treadmill to intellectual nowhere”. As a colleague of mine said a few days ago: just because everyone else is running increasingly fast to fall off the cliff like a lemming, that in itself is hardly a good justification to join the crowd. And hence my plea is to walk the tightrope between engaging with a sick system, while trying to uphold different norms within small pockets wherever we can …

to be continued in the next blog post ….

5 thoughts on “Collapse?

  1. Pingback: Creating pockets of sanity: an ecosystem analogy | Ideas for Sustainability

  2. Wonderful post Joern. Really enjoyed reading and so much of what you say rings true. I really don’t know of any senior academic staff who have time for deep reflection on their research, by themselves, or with their research groups.

    • Thanks Paul — sometimes I think it’s “obvious” but many people don’t want to see it. I appreciate your comment because it’s good to see I’m not the only one who thinks such things!

  3. Dear Joern,

    thank you for bringing up this important topic.

    In my view, one group of people could have been represented much stronger, though. This group I call the ‘pragmatics’. People who are very bright and capable but carry a pragmatic attitude as academics, while at the same time identifying and pushing levers for change. I met many of them over the past couple of years and think they deserve more of our support and admiration!

    This strong coalition of support for transformation of our academic system already made very specific suggestions, with partial success. See, for instance:
    https://www.forschung-und-lehre.de/politik/eigener-status-fuer-doktoranden-289/
    https://jule-specht.de/2019/09/29/departmentstruktur/

    Although I also appreciate the concerns Paasche & Österblom raise, I believe that their suggestion to create new measures of ‘impact’ will ultimately drive academics even more towards ‘big’ buzzwords and trendy ‘hot topics’, in the quest to boost their citations.

    If transition science tells us one thing, it is that true change comes from altering the underlying logics of the system, rather than making changes on the level of individuals, i.e. new metrics. People pushing for systemic change, i.e. giving PhD students a voice or calling for a re-structuring of our Universities, deserve more of our attention and support.

    Kind regards,
    Sina

    • Thank you Sina for your comment, and especially also for the interesting links! … and of course, for highlighting some positive ways forward!

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