Laws of the academic jungle

My former VC, Sir David Watson, who died yesterday after a short illness, was a gentle, wise and caring man from whom I learned much and who supported me, guided me and challenged me in myriad ways. He was a remarkable man: a great educator, a fine musician and a gifted leader. I believe that he knew not just the names of all his 2500+ staff, but also enough about each and every one of them to sustain a conversation about their interests, achievements and friends. He was modest enough to deny this but, in 15 years of working with him, I never saw him falter and nor did anyone I ever spoke with about it. It was a phenomenon.

I share his nine Laws of Academic Life (AKA Laws of the Academic Jungle) in fond remembrance…

  • Academics grow in confidence the farther away they are from their true fields of expertise (what you really know about is provisional and ambiguous, what other people do is clear-cut and usually wrong)
  • You should never go to a school or department for anything that is in its title (which university consults its architecture department on the estate, or – heaven forbid – its business school on the budget?)
  • The first thing a committee member says is the exact opposite of what she means (“I’d like to agree with everything the vice-chancellor has just said, but…”; or “with respect”…; or even “briefly”)
  • Courtesy is a one-way street (social-academic language is full of hyperbole, and one result is the confusion of rudeness – or even cruelty – with forthrightness; however, if a manager responds in kind, it’s a federal case)
  • On email, nobody ever has the last word
  • Somebody always does it better elsewhere (because they are better supported)
  • Feedback counts only if I agree with it
  • The temptation to say “I told you so” is irresistible
  • Finally, there is never enough money, but there used to be.
Sad to have lost one of the great educational leaders.

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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