Friday, October 9, 2015

Alternative Academia 2.0

Just a short post, but I've meaning to write about this for a while now!

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for administrators/support staff at the University of Oxford and was treated to a fascinating Plenary Lecture by Sir Jonathan Phillips, Warden of Keble College. 

What resonated with me was his perspective on the value of being a historian while working outside of academia. He talked about his time as a civil servant, and the transient nature of government. Governments seek only to look towards the next election, and so invariably think in a short term.

But that is anathema to the historian. We think in the long term, and while we mostly look backwards, we also have the foresight to think further into the future. We think about the long-term in both directions.

Thinking about my own role in university administration, I have realised that this idea of short-term and long-term thinkers is equally applicable. Vice-Chancellors and Pro-Vice-Chancellors are frequently elected to their positions for fixed terms. As support staff, we effectively act as the civil servants to the university governance. Yet, with the Higher Education landscape looking more and more uncertain with government funding cuts and student visa issues etc., the value of the historian is to think of the university in the long-term. Not only should we appreciate the long history of the institution (although I do have almost 900 years of history to contend with!!), we also need to think beyond the next 5-10 years. 

What will universities look like in 100 years? What will be the courses taught? What will the student demographic look like? What will the future of libraries be in the digitised age? When a new building gets built I walk by and think how will that hold up to the architecture of 200, 300, even 500 years ago?

Divinity School, Oxford, 1488

Radcliffe Camera, 1749

Investcorp Building, St Anthony's College, Oxford 2015

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, 2016

For the historian, the word sustainability means more than environmental sustainability. It is thinking about the long-term impact of short-term decisions, and ensuring that those around you see the future in a picture that is bigger than increments of 5 years.


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