I first heard about the “zombie fungus” from Robin Maytum when we were working together at Queen Mary. The story captivated my imagination: The fungus infects an ant, eats up most of its interiors, leaving intact a few key neurons and muscles. Once its feast is done, the fungus can still control the ant’s locomotion, which then moves on to a leaf from where the fungus can best spread out its spores.
If you are the ant, you are unlikely to hold Ophiocordyceps unilateralis high in your esteem, even more to befriend it. Robin was the first cell within the infected ant I encountered. Other tissues were quite unprepared for the infection and so our university (the ant) was overtaken by those fungus-like managers. I have not stopped telling that story ever since.
A new report surfaced today on events already mentioned in this blog. Warwick management has reached a new height of nudity demonstrating that the only value they give to academics is what grant income they bring in to support their research. It had taken some analysis previously to show that the same is true for the managers at King’s College, and of course the Queen Mary parasites paved the way.
There is one aspect that we need to further expose. Once Gaskell, Trainor, Thrift destroy the respective Universities that made the mistake to appoint them, one sees the best scientists departing for elsewhere and even the best students moving in the midst of their studies for more collegial environments, where their education is valued as is the human quest for knowledge and civility. However, the fungi either remain, or sporulate. There is a simple reason for this, they are chewing up the healthy tissues making private fortunes on academic blood (or I should say hemolymph and other tissues, to keep the ant symbolism).
Are there solutions?
1. Keep renumeration linked to the entrant’s salary and ensure that the most senior professor cannot earn more than double of what a lecturer brings home. Also, ensure that no manager earns as much as professors do. Participants in a community of teachers and scholars should not be attracted primarily on the basis of renumeration.
2. Keep decision making with the academic bodies of the institution. Any vote of no confidence should lead to vacancy in leadership positions and the need for a replacement. Autonomy of decision making and protection from business-type financial pressures are key to promote an independent, vigorous, critical academic environment.
3. Funding for research laboratories should remain the primary responsibility of the institution and departments. “Competitive” (read special interests, club members etc.) funding via the grant award systems should be reduced to allow certain expensive projects to proceed, either individually or through collaborations, but should be there only for projects that cannot be supported through the block grants to the public institutions.
4. Evaluations and reporting should be reduced drastically. Appointment is a very stringent evaluation and the same holds for promotions. The problems of “complacency” are shadowed by the benefits of protection associated with an academic position while the problems of the “constant evaluation” schemes largely obscure any apparent “rise in productivity” and distort many vital academic functions. What works is the promotion of an ethical standard amongst colleagues with only a gentle mixture of carrots and sticks within the system.
Can these solutions hold within a society that is increasingly conformist with the idea that only the wealthy classes interests shall ever be upheld, almost always with parallel marginalisation of the vast majority of people? Realising that England’s universities have been privatised by stealth should not lead to crossing arms, bowing heads and concentrating on gaining those £75,000 annual candy that permit one to continue a life of subordination on whatever the zombie fungus decides. On the contrary, the case for the public university should be strengthened, managers should be ousted from the university communities and allies should be sought in all the working classes who have supported education in the past and will do so again in the future.