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The Venal and the Ascetic in Academic life

       In 2014 a former colleague of mine resigned his job as the vice-chancellor of an Australian university. He didn’t have a lot of choice as he had been suspended by the Senate of the university and reported to the Crime and Corruption Commission. Many people were baffled and intrigued by the events, scanning the netwaves for further information, which was not forthcoming. How on earth could he be corrupt? His salary worked out to an eye-watering £425,000. His wife is a successful professor herself, whom I know much better than I know him. They have no children. His alleged crimes seem more unlikely than those of politicians caught cottaging on Clapham Common: they have their urges to contend with, but it requires a deal of imagination to speculate as to why he would sacrifice anything, let alone everything, for more money.

I immediately developed a hypothesis about what had actually happened. Said colleague had an abrasive manner and a taste for conspicuous consumption. He liked to travel first class where he might ask for a wine better than the one freely available. I learned the phrase “zoo class” from him. He would expect, if doing anything remotely connected with work, to eat in the best restaurants in town and to do it on expenses, preferably with an institutional credit card. This isn’t much different from what most CEOs of large companies would expect to do and, in better days for their trade, I know it is what most journalists did. On the other hand, given the various cuts and redundancies around universities it’s never going to be popular. The message is that you don’t get a rise and your job may be on the line, but your boss gets a big rise and a big expense account with which to celebrate when he balances the budget by cutting you. Universities, unlike industry, still have the remnants of democratic procedures to invoke when resentment gets to boiling point.

Events have done nothing to contradict this hypothesis. The limited amount of material that has emerged has contained very little in terms of serious allegations and quite a lot of leaks about abrasive management. Some colleagues in the Australian press have defended the accused and others have analysed the incident in terms of a culture clash between the “collegial” and the “corporate” in academic life. One piece in the University World News has claimed that even the accusations made privately against my former colleague are “mostly risible”. It would seem that he was a corporate leader trying to modernise and up-grade a not very prestigious institution and that he alienated too many people, crucially at high levels as well as low.

It is worth remembering that modern academic life has always had an important dimension of asceticism. At University College, Oxford, in the 1960s I was taught and surrounded by Fellows who were thoroughly successful academics, men who wrote books that are still in print and are read all over the world. They were also among the first “teledons”. Yet their personal style was invariably modest and there was nothing flash about any of them. Herbert Hart, for example, wrote The Concept of Law, which must be an all-time best seller in several different fields. But he drove an ancient Morris Minor which usually had to be push-started. (He stands in sharp contrast to an academic who used to give a guest lecture to my students thirty years later. He had written a book on Britain’s urban problems which was well known for a short time; he was always keen to tell the students about his new BMW.) The pay of these dons was unspectacular, based on that of any lecturer, but with an additional 10% and some generous allowances, the most important of which was a housing allowance intended to be equivalent to the right to rooms in college.

Yet, of course, the asceticism which was normal to academic life was also tempered by aspects of abundance. When you enter most Oxford or Cambridge colleges you normally see a chapel and a refectory, inheritors of a monastic tradition. If the private life of the Don was ascetic, there were also aspects of the collective which were opulent. They could eat or drink rather splendidly: even now one feels a lot closer to Versailles at a New College Feast, with its multiple courses of exotica and its choir in the loft, than in any three rosette restaurant. The wine cellars could bear comparison, too. And on the whole if cars were downmarket, houses were upmarket. The tradition of the housing allowance and the security of employment used to mean that academics owned some of the better houses in town – usually the older ones. Some of this tradition continued into the new universities: when I was first employed at Warwick in the 1960s such events as the examiners’ lunch and the graduands’ party were well worth looking forward to.  They extended to everybody within the “collegiate” boundary. As vice-chancellors’ salaries rose the amount of time and money spent on these events declined proportionately, though the causal link was an indirect one.

The idea of a head of a university being paid eight or ten times as much as his or her colleagues or of his or her salary still rising while theirs were frozen would have been unthinkable in the first four or five generations of modern academic life. I have to say I have heard more indignation about it from retired senior academics and administrators than from younger people – like old footballers getting in a lather about contemporary wages. But it is, of course, normal in other sectors. There used to be an interesting quiz question which asked who was the highest paid person in the university. In the USA it was often the head football coach; in Britain it would be a senior medical professor exempted from normal constraints by the power of market forces. Only in polytechnics and below was it the boss. Vice-chancellors used to make something of a show of mucking in: for example, I remember one proudly telling me quarter of a century ago that he had attended a meeting of vice-chancellors and the overnight accommodation was not en suite.

Things changed; a decade later I remember a vice-chancellor rather pompously telling me about his salary (in retrospect, a rather modest six-figure sum) and how it was a proper reward for his hard work and devotion to his career. I couldn’t help pointing out that one of my oldest and closest friends, working in the City, had just received a bonus of £1.6 million. It was a genuine Crocodile Dundee moment: “That ain’t a salary . . . This is a salary . . .” To a gratifying and surprising extent he became upset and expostulated about. “people who add noughts on”. He was a highly intelligent man who knew at some level that neither himself nor the job he was doing should be evaluated in monetary terms, but he had been talking as if his salary defined him.

Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption has generated an enormous amount of economic and sociological debate since it first appeared in 1899. But there is no trace of a theory of conspicuous earning – Veblen wouldn’t have been interested in it since his interest was in the leisured classes. I suspect that most academic leaders are far too preoccupied with their work to have even an average interest in spending money. It is salary as a source of self-esteem which concerns them. Note how private income is an embarrassing and almost unmentioned topic in academic life. I remember once assembling a the contributors to a book I was editing to a meeting at my house. One of them, a moderately successful academic at a London college appeared to arrive on foot; it was only later that I discovered that his car had parked round the corner so that we couldn’t see what it was – nor that it was driven by his chauffeur.

The belief in a rare and important talent for academic leadership is a relatively new one. In the academic world as I was first introduced to it the heads of institutions were either imported from outside or were “a safe pair of hands” drawn fro the ranks of the competent who hadn’t done anything terribly exciting in the world of scholarship and weren’t really expected to. In a stable and prosperous university environment people go about their business and the businesses they go about are run by them. But that perception changed when I moved from Oxford in what was still the sixties to the brand new university of Warwick. The vice-chancellor, “Jack” (later Lord) Butterworth, previously of New College where he spent twenty two years without publishing anything, was by far the most prominent person on the campus and took a particularly seigneurial view of his estate. Other vice-chancellors used to snigger about his pink jaguar and his chauffeur. The political reality is that a new university is perforce a collective enterprise which requires strong leadership at the top. And Butterworth was better at it than many nicer and more scholarly men; Warwick benefited in many ways from his strategies whether on having relatively few departments, a major Arts Centre or multi-storey car parks. It’s a grown-up lesson one has to learn that the nice guys are not necessarily the effective guys. And of course the university which is trying to upgrade – such as the one which suspended my former colleague – is similar to the new one in this respect. Naturally, any form of research assessment which makes the perception of a university’s overall record important also concentrates power.

I am a conservative. I didn’t approve of the massive expansion of universities and I absolutely and immediately didn’t approve of research assessment (though it was instituted by the party that conservatives are supposed to support). I would have been happy for universities to remain monastic and ascetic, give or take a feast here or there. But since these things have happened there is a need for CEOs – and there should be no surprise if the incumbents behave according to type.


Lincoln Allison


This article first appeared (under a different title) in Times Higher Education.

See https://www.timeshighereducation.com