UEA humanities cuts reflect inability of academia to confront climate crisis

This article first appeared behind the paywall on the Times Higher Education website here.

I’m leaving the University of East Anglia (UEA) after 26 years. I’m taking voluntary severance and looking forward to a freelance life mostly devoted to running the organisation that I’ve set up, the Climate Majority Project. I am joining with others to undertake the shared project of saving the world.

I’ll look back on my academic life with much affection, but also with some anger, and most definitely with anguish.

The proximate cause of my departure is that UEA is in serious trouble. Some compulsory redundancies are inevitable, and the surviving research environment – more scientistic, less humanities-friendly – will not be conducive to my work in the way it has (to a reasonable extent) been.

The more fundamental cause of my departure, however, is that I’ve gradually come to see academia as constitutively ill suited to contributing seriously to the epochal question of our time: our wilful destruction of our collective life-support system.

The “impact” agenda has probably, on balance, been a good thing. It has certainly been kind to me. I’ve been able to turn the work I do beyond the ivory tower into benefit for my department and university (and, hopefully, for the world). But – and it’s a big “but” – the crude mode of its implementation has been profoundly suboptimal. It assumes economic gain to be a central goal of enquiry and the measure of whether society is getting value for its money.

Since those engaged in research know that the criterion of economic gain completely misses their discoveries’ true value as contributions to knowledge (let alone to wisdom), a sense of alienation results. We are not only being valued merely as tools, we are being asked to contribute to a project misdirected towards an end that has no real value in itself – an end that may, indeed, be destructive of the well-being of all parties to the transaction, given the causal connection between economic growth-ism and climate breakdown.

The research community needs to resituate itself. It should be a contributor to society by virtue of its adherence to authentic (though waning) scholarly values. Contributions to freedom, to clarity of thought, to virtue, to beauty are also kinds of impact. A proper historical view would remind us of the importance of such things for flourishing civilisations.

Sometimes the most important research will be work revealing how wrong and misguided our values and measures of success are. Such research might, for example, require the society that funds it to change course. To return to the climate example, it may require society to curb its quest for growth and to end its exploitation of natural resources, human workers and research expertise.

That is why it is an abomination that one of the criteria for “successful impact” is increasing GDP. This wholly prejudges the issue and constitutes blunt systemic bias against the rising number of academics who take it as increasingly obvious that post-growth/degrowth is now required, and whose research shows this in detail.

It is, above all, the arts and humanities that are equipped to remind us of the things I am saying in this column. Yet the impact agenda embodies a simple-minded model of “progress”, based on a whiggish idea that technological progress goes hand in hand with social benefit – despite the overwhelming evidence that it does not. That entire way of thinking about science, as a kind of “investment” to promote economic growth and “productivity”, needs to be called out as bogus.

University managers continue to embrace this STEM bias, too. UEA’s ills, for instance, are heavily to do with managerialism and scientism, and this will only be entrenched by the fact that the arts and humanities are suffering the bulk of the cuts – despite having run a surplus for years and subsidised the rest of the university during that time. The “cure” will be more of the disease.

I do not want to throw the “impact” baby out with the polluted bathwater of the agenda’s implementation. But I hope I’ve said enough to indicate that a far loftier version of impact is needed. We need the kind of ambition present in the neglected works of Nicholas Maxwell, who urges universities to redesign themselves to be in their essence of service in an age when outdated epistemologies are contributing to an eco-driven collapse of civilisation.

Perhaps those of you remaining in the system can find the determination to demand this reinvention. In the meantime, I’m off to join the others trying to save the world from outside the academy.

While there is much about life as an academic that I’ll surely miss, I’m glad to be leaving. When the opportunity came to do so, I knew it would be a failure of will not to take it.

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