Professor Shearer West
Professor of Art History and Head (Executive Dean), Humanities Division, University of Oxford
Stimulus Paper, December 2013
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Leadership on behalf of disciplines is an important topic, often overlooked in favour of a generic institutional focus. And the humanities, as a group of disciplines, present particular issues that merit consideration.
Shearer West is well qualified to write this paper, as a senior humanities academic and university leader, with experience in a national research funding body. She approaches the issues in a way that is informed, unusually and valuably, by these multiple perspectives, and is in touch with the latest developments in the UK and beyond.
She writes at a time of rapid change and challenges, when many humanities academics feel a sense of threat and anxiety, both about the pace and direction of change in general, and about its likely impact on their disciplines in particular.
The paper interestingly places the discussion in a European context, a continent whose universities have great strengths in the humanities, but where it is often a struggle (e.g. in relation to EU research funding) to ensure that due regard is given to the humanities and social sciences. That is surely one area where leadership has a part to play, beyond individual universities, in providing an effective voice for the humanities disciplines.
An interesting feature of Professor West’s analysis is the identification of features that the humanities disciplines have in common and set them off against others (including, in her view, social sciences) while also arguing that the common polarisation of humanities and so-called STEM subjects is unhelpful. She addresses challenges that face disciplines across the board, and which present particular challenges for humanities academics.
She notes a relatively low level of representation of humanities scholars in senior leadership positions across European universities, and advances a number of reasons - structural and cultural - which may explain this. This may prove to be the most stimulating and challenging - possibly controversial - part of her discussion. A question that may be worth reflecting on here is the extent to which her ‘tribal characteristics’ of the humanities community are as true of the younger generation of scholars as they may be of the older.
She makes interesting suggestions about how humanities academics might assume senior positions while remaining faithful to their traditional values and collegial ways of working - and might thereby ameliorate their institutional practices. Her suggestion that the challenge is one of managing change rather than simply resisting it certainly merits serious consideration.
The humanities community is characterised by a wide range of perspectives. I am confident that this paper will certainly prove a stimulus to debate, and live up to the aims of the Leadership Foundation Stimulus Paper series.
Dr Robin Jackson
Chief Executive and Secretary of the British Academy
This stimulus paper considers the challenges to leadership in humanities disciplines in a changing European research landscape. While leadership in creative and performing arts has received some recent attention, there is much less research available on leadership in more traditional humanities disciplines. The humanities are a cornerstone of most research-intensive European universities but the lone scholar model of humanities research has been tested in recent years by more collaborative and challenge-oriented ways of conducting research, as well as the new demands and opportunities of digital technology and open access. The rapidity of these changes has provoked anxiety and defensiveness, whereas adaptability and new approaches to research leadership are required to ensure that the humanities continue to flourish through turbulent times. This stimulus paper outlines recent changes to funding, methodologies and approaches to research in Europe and suggests that humanities research leaders have a significant role to play in maximising the potential of these changes, rather than being overwhelmed by them.