Against Cooperation in Research

by Mark Wallace

I referred in an earlier post to the strategic importance of “engagement” in today’s university. This is embedded in Irish the higher education system by the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030:

Engagement by higher education with wider society takes many forms. It includes engagement with business and industry, with the civic life of the community, with public policy and practice, with artistic, cultural and sporting life and with other educational providers in the community and region, and it includes an increasing emphasis on international engagement.

Engagement is a very broad field, but the placement of business first in the list of potential stakeholders here is indicative more of the neoliberal ideology enshrined in recent policy in all fields than it is of engagement as conceived by most of its practitioners. Indeed, I think this excerpt neatly illustrates two of the strategic dangers facing those who wish to promote university engagement: that is will be directed towards engagement with business; and that it become identified with “international engagement”, which is itself a cod for attracting international students, a hugely profitable endeavour for any university, but one which is not great engagement as it is limited to the very richest of students. (Not that it’s bad per se, but it’s not engagement in the social justice terms that practitioners often value and shouldn’t be cited as evidence of such.)

But universities now have no choice but to take note of engagement, if they weren’t already. In University College Dublin’s Strategic Plan, 2015-2020, their five core values include engagement. The full list is:

excellence, integrity, collegiality, engagement and diversity

Meanwhile, the 10 core objectives identified in the Plan include

Objective 6: Build our engagement locally, nationally and internationally

(Also, Objective 4 is “Conduct strong interdisciplinary research and education in important areas of global need”, which also equates to engagement in a very broad sense.) The accompanying description of Objective 6 stresses the need to build “these national and international engagement in a coordinated and strategic manner”.

This element of coordination and strategy is, I think, key for all Irish universities (and also further afield) at the present time. Many universities have elements of engagement here and there, but little coordination. Campus Engage has been set up in Ireland to meet the policy requirements for coordination in this matter. Personally, having some involvement in this area for my work, I am only beginning to develop a position on the matter. Strategizing and coordinating are onerous and at times it seems thankless, even counterproductive, tasks. Frequently it seems more efficient to do ones own work and minimize others’ input. Here one might recall C. Wright Mills and his famous manifesto “On Intellectual Craftsmanship“. Mills exhorted all social scientists: “Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; astand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of the individual and society.” Mills already saw the decreasing importance of the individual intelligence in academia, and stood against it. But though few deny the importance of Mills to the history of social science, this does not translate itself into any strategic commitment to individual research.

There are several reasons why individual research is important. One of them, I think, is that much good thought and good research is negative, exploding prevalent shibboleths and misconceptions rather than building positive knowledge. This negative research is best done by unconventional individuals, rather than groups, who will always be composed primarily of followers, and which will have to cater to conventional views as much as unconventional. Only a single individual can be truly unconventional in a consistent and coherent manner. With the sheer exhausting volume of scholarly publications now appearing, this negative role is of great importance, because what is certain is that we cannot actually keep track of all new research, so we have to try and work out what needs to be jettisoned.

And even in the area of civic engagement, the status quo of universities doing their own thing with varying degrees of commitment is not all bad, and a more coordinated approach, with its increase in admin, oversight and committee groups, is only a partial advance.