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The Issue: Handing Over Power to the Young

Originally published 22 September 2002
Response to Professor Andrew Oswald by Paul Goldberg, Computer Science:

There's a perception that universities are being run by a combination of internal administrators and the government and I think there's some evidence to justify that perception. If it's to be believed that academics should be involved in university management, then getting younger ones involved seems to be a good start.

Here's the catch - this proposal comes at a time when young academics are supposed to be doing world-class research, excellent teaching, starting spin-off companies and reaching out to assorted groups that are deemed to be in need of outreach. Tell them they're meant to be running the university as well, and they might take it the wrong way. I suspect it will be easier to persuade older colleagues to vacate their seats on committees and move on other things (like research) than to find the right replacements.

One way forward may be to adapt our decision-making processes to the people involved, rather then the other way around. A good manager knows to consult members of his group on a hiring decision, rather than to make it unilaterally on their behalf, so there you have a mechanism that already allows new lecturers to influence hiring decisions, without having to sit on the relevant committee. More formally, I would wonder whether some policy-making could be done by vote rather than by committee. Various budgetary decisions, for example. At least we would have no-one else to blame if something went horrible wrong as a result.

By Professor Andrew Oswald:

In my opinion the University needs to think harder about its young people and how it treats them. It seems to me that at Warwick we do not give young lecturers enough responsibility. Any useful coin has two sides, however, so for junior staff there would be pain as well as pleasure. Hiring standards need to be stringent.

Although the details would have to be worked out, I think we ought to do two things. First, in junior hiring nobody should be offered a lectureship at Warwick unless they are of better quality than the average professor. Second, more power should be given over to our young lecturers to shape the future of their Department and the University.

Arithmetic is what drives my suggestion on quality. If Warwick is to improve, we need to be hiring better people than those we have already (including me). The way you drive up the average of a distribution is, of course, by bringing in items — in this case people — above the existing average. Hence my preferred rule of thumb in junior hiring committees: "is this person better than our existing average professor?" Obviously one has to adjust for age and length of CV, but this question, in my opinion, is the key test.

Are we then sometimes going to be unable to hire? Definitely. Do I think this is a problem? Definitely not. Hiring weak people creates a negative effect that lasts for 40 years, because of course it is disproportionately the best folk who have the attractive opportunities to leave, and the others who have to stay.

Once we assure the quality of the young, I would like to see us hand over real influence to them. Senate, Steering and Council should have more of our star young lecturers on them. Professorial hiring committees should have heavy representation from the young members of faculty, as in fact sometimes happens in North America. The design of our University’s strategy for the future should be directed more by people closer to 27 than 67. All sorts of benefits would flow to us. Young men and women would not feel like it was them and us; they would feel deeply that it was their university; and taking a job at such a university would be attractive to the most talented young academics. Moreover, giving power and status to people makes those people feel better about themselves. It instils confidence. It also concentrates the mind.

Although there should and will always be a place for the wisdom of the old, because they have been there and got the T-shirt, a university is intrinsically a place that ought to be dominated by young men and women. Young researchers have the best ideas. Young teachers have the real energy. I propose we take power away from the middle-aged and put it more in the hands of young men and women.

This would, in yet another sphere, make Warwick stand out from the aged universities around us.