President of Imperial College London: “Professors are really like small business owners”

There was a fascinating interview with Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London, on radio 4 this morning in which she gave what I thought was a remarkable and revealing non-answer to a question about Stefan Grimm:

Professors are under pressures. They have a lot on their plates. Professors are really like small business owners. They have their own teaching to perform. They have their own research and they have their research funding to look after. They work with teams of post-docs and post graduate students. Then some of them work on translational work and develop entrepreneurial and new companies and spin outs. It’s a very highly competitive world out there. The collaborative nature and the way in which we’re moving towards highly collaborative work I think helps because one starts to recognise that you can’t do it all alone. You need a team. You build a team with the very best colleagues. You have not only that interplay between the different backgrounds and disciplines but you get the new ideas that are generated by bringing diverse people together.

The transcript above was done in a rush but I’m sure I captured the gist of it. You can listen to the full interview here (download link). If professors are “small business owners” what does this make universities? The only way this analogy could incorporate the relationship between researchers and their institutions is to cast the latter as akin to nation states: providing infrastructure, managing resources and taxing income. But then what sort of micro-state is the contemporary university? Even on the most benign reading, it would seem to be a distinctly totalitarian one, inclined to scrutinise and control all activity taking place within it.

My point is not that we should think of universities in this way but rather to illustrate the poverty of how Gast (and I imagine many others in similar positions) imaginatively construct the institutional order they look down upon from on high. The analogy doesn’t work and it fails in an interesting way. Perhaps we should abandon the notion of the small-business owner and instead look to feudalism to make sense of our contemporary circumstances?

7 responses to “President of Imperial College London: “Professors are really like small business owners””

  1. Clearly, Gasts comments are gibberish beset with buzzwords and empty sloganeering. The only question is who is more confused – she or anyone attempting to make sense of her comments.

  2. My professors rarely lectured. We spent much of our time, in lectures looking at white boards pre prepared and read by others. When they did however, they were inspiring.

  3. I am glad you transcribed this. It is indeed very revealing, but I think when we hire professors, we’re imagining more like prospective partners in a law firm: We’re always looking for people who have a good track record but also with a proven ability to attract ‘clients’, be it defined in teaching or research terms. This is a money issue too, but constructed somewhat differently.

  4. And so much of significance results from the conflict between the two competing sets of expectations?

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