WE NEED A READING LIST
by Sir David Watson
The President should teach, in however limited a role, should be a serious reader; should participate in the intellectual life of the campus; should remain an informed scholar in his own field.
Frank Rhodes, The Creation of the Future, p.227 (emphasis added)
One of the more pleasant experiences of the last academic year was working (again) with Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, in leading one of the ‘Missenden’ seminars. As usual, at the end of the 24-hour programme, the facilitator, Professor John Wakefield asked each of the participants what it was they thought they would take away. One – a university registrar – said that he had made a resolution: “to read more, like the vice-chancellors”. As a piece of feedback, I have to confess that this is one which has given me secret pleasure, even if it may not be deserved.
It arose, I think, because both Bob and I had made reference to a number of works in social science and general cultural commentary, which didn’t on the face of them immediately ‘fit’ a higher education development exercise. It also got me thinking, as I prepare to step down as a vice-chancellor, about what I might advise my successor to do during the long holiday he is going to need before diving into this strange, permanently ‘on-line’, existence.
It’s possible, in that context, that a ‘reading list’may be just as useful as a seminar (now called a ‘master-class’) or a residential course (now called a ‘change academy’). It would clearly be cheaper. Meanwhile for me personally, while on the job, reading and writing has been one of the chief ways I have found of keeping the tyranny of the moment at bay.
So here, for what it’s worth, are my ten top recommendations. They aren’t in order of importance. I certainly don’t agree with everything they say (how, for example, could Alison Wolf be so precise and perceptive about vocational and further education and so lazily uninformed and prejudiced about higher education?). There’s no pure ‘management’ here: the closest thing is Donald Kennedy’s wonderful series of reflections on his time at Stanford (in a genre – the cashiered or superannuated university leader’s parting shots – which it’s very hard to bring off; another rare, although relatively conservative, success is Frank Rhodes’The Creation of the Future [Cornell University Press, 2001]). But they do each say something about the world in which we operate, the problems it poses, and the possibilities it opens up.
THE WATSON LIST
I recently bumped into Sir Howard Newby at the British Academy (as one does), and asked him what his list would be. He generously gave it to me on the back of the diary sheet he had been given by his office. So I now know what the Hefce CEO does all day.
Some of the items have a similar resonance, although I think his list might be more fun on the beach. Lodge is an inspired choice, and almost any one of the campus novels would do. My favourite passage is the episode in Nice Work when Robyn demonstrates to her industrial ‘pair’ that he’s really a teacher. My own contemporary fictional tip would be Tom Wolfe’s wonderfully over the top campus novel, I am Charlotte Simmons (Jonathan Cape, 2004): a kind of ‘bonfire of the vanity of the Ivy League’ that should be required reading for all of those politicians and commentators who suggest this is where we should go. On the ‘classic’ side, I’d be more inclined to recommend Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Penguin, 1964), than Machiavelli, with the latter’s temptations for the self-styled celebrity vice-chancellor. Meanwhile, I’m intrigued that we have both gone for Sennett, and I wish I had thought of Nye. Howard’s list goes as follows:
THE NEWBY LIST