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Letter: Whither the Great Awks?

Sir, On 2 November 2016, The High Court reasserted the supremacy of Parliament over Executive – without lopping the monarch’s head off, and today the Supreme Court agreed.  Parliament, not Government, is sovereign. 

Who rules, whether country, university or learned society, lies at the root of democratic politics.  Who grants executive power, and how is it exercised?  One needs a set of ground-rules, and the Society (belonging to its Fellowship) has Byelaws.  The Society is, or should be, run for its Fellows by its Fellows, with help and advice from specialist professional staff wherever needed. 

But the world is changing.  In 2011, Benjamin Ginsberg1 lamented the way his university, which he joined as a community of scholars, had succumbed to managerialism.  An asylum run by and for the lunatics was now being run by people who seemed to believe the asylum would run far 'better' without lunatics.  That the lunatics were at least half the institution’s point, had been forgotten.  Now I hear the administration of the University of Copenhagen is attempting to oust a distinguished scientist, Hans Thybo, due to become President of the International Lithosphere Programme from this spring, after he was critical of them in his communications.

But, disgraceful though this is, academics have conspired in their disempowerment.  The price of rebellion was to accept more management ourselves: and who can be bothered with that, caught in the accountability mill as we all are, driven by box-ticking targetry?

When I became a Fellow back in the 1970s, Fellows knew the Society was theirs.  (True, some lorded it a bit; but that was just bad manners.)  And they were right - even though the Society must now rely on an executive more heavily than once it either did, or could.  In those days, right up to the noughties, no AGM seemed complete without some disgruntled group, objecting and questioning – an ancient tradition, as our bicentenary history tells us.

This was often painful; but nobody doubted that the Awkward Squad’s hearts were in the right place.  They took their responsibility seriously.  The late, formidable Sir John Knill for example, was rarely off Council’s case.  Yet where would we find such a man today, prepared to dedicate so much effort to consulting on, and then completely redrafting, our byelaws? 

The recent 2016 AGM (with passionate debate over subletting the Fellows’ Room) showed how the Fellowship can still kick back.  Yet I fear that Fellows in general may have lost their sense of collective ownership – making it a little too easy for Trustees to gang agley.   There is so much information available today that I fear nobody reads it.  Online publishing has lowered the currency.  Well, have YOU read Council minutes on the website?  No, me neither.  But the Awks wrote in endlessly for copies (and, I am told, the full accounts at Annual Report time). 

Have the Great Awks become extinct?  Have Fellows become mere ‘customers’?

Morris Hill


  1. The Fall of the Faculty: the rise of the all-administrative university and why it matters by Benjamin Ginsberg.  Oxford University Press 2011 ISBN 9780199782444 288pp, List Price: £18.99