Originally published 13 May 2002
By Mike Waterson, Department of Economics
You may say that an Economist is almost uniquely poorly qualified to write on social matters. Nevertheless, I am a social animal, and I enjoy meeting people in other areas of the University through membership of interview panels, University committees, Senate, etc. What about those who want to do so, but in practice cannot?
My concern is with junior faculty, indeed more broadly with all new junior appointments to the University coming from outside the immediate local area, including those in Senate House. We at Warwick are an international and diverse community. People often arrive here with little in the way of social baggage; no family ties, no religious affiliations, possibly even with little knowledge of UK higher education institutions generally. Such individuals may well want to meet a variety of other people from within the University community, but have only restricted opportunities to do so.
I believe the University should think seriously about how it caters for this desire to meet others amongst its staff; indeed it may even make financial sense. Appointments are costly procedures, and once good people are appointed it is a great pity if some leave because they do not feel much a part of the University outside their Department (still more so, of course, if they do not feel much a part of the Department). Numbers are relevant here. Inside the typical Department, there may be relatively few people who are without family commitments, few who have the inclination to devote much time to new colleagues outside work. Yet, within the University, there may be many islands of small numbers of new recruits who would appreciate and benefit from being drawn together, so as to gain a more diverse expeience.
Traditionally, provincial UK universities had Senior Common Rooms, where new members of staff were introduced to others. Some years ago, Warwick turned its face against this approach to academic social life, and indeed in some ways I can see why. I can still remember the cringing embarrassment of attending an introductory meeting at a Senior Common Room of another institution where I have worked. Every aspect, probably entirely unconsciously, seemed destined to discomfort new people. We new people, though not existing members, had to wear badges. We were introduced to them in braying terms, thus: "This is Bill; everyone knows Bill." When asked, was I a new lecturer, I replied, no, a professor. The rejoinder was, "We don’t use University titles here". The social activity was organised by female members who, from their age and clothing, seemed to be married to Professors who had retired many years previously and now lived in under-heated houses. They, again probably unconsciously, particularly sought out younger women from the English upper middle classes married to younger male professors as possible replacements, usually unsuccessfully. Such younger women seldom saw the height of their ambition as being to run the "Women’s Tea Club". However, Warwick has not replaced such a tradition with any real alternative. I propose that it should.
It is thoughts such as these that suggest to me that any institutional social set-up must be focused upon the younger and more recently appointed faculty. It is they who are likely to have the greatest demand for "organised" social intercourse, and they who are most likely to be turned off by organisations run by rather senior people essentially in their own interests. They will be oriented differently, will most probably not be able to live in the kind of property their peers of thirty years previously occupied, and they will need information about different things. It may be thought fanciful that older staff are ignorant in this respect. Yet, I was surprised recently, to illustrate, that in a group of around eight senior people, none knew of the existence of the multi-screen cinema in central Coventry.
Also, it is important not to make preconceptions about the character of academic staff, for example, that the new staff are a mirror copy of the existing Professoriate in gender and cultural origin. In Economics, amongst other subjects, new recruits are almost always not white Anglo-Saxon males, but for the most part, the Professors are. Thus events should probably not be focused on meeting at a bar to talk about football.
What Warwick needs is a club designed, possibly, to exclude me. The problem is that it is much easier to define what such a social arrangement should not be, than what it should be.
If you would like to express your opinion in response to Mike Waterson’s views, please email V.Trivedi@warwick.ac.uk