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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Annan On Faculty Hiring

I've had occasion before to praise the late Noel Annan's wonderful book The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses, a warm yet unsparing collection of portraits of some leading characters at Oxford and Cambridge.  Here's a timelessly relevant snippet from Annan's portrait of Maurice Bowra.  It feels positively Moneylawish, doesn't it?  Enjoy.

[T]o Bowra appointments were by far the most important issue in the university, and in this he was right.  Appointments matter more than anything else -- more than syllabuses, cost effectiveness, plot ratios, student load, and all the other terms of art with which scholars, if they are to continue to run their affairs, have to concern themselves.  The right men -- outstanding and productive scholars, devoted and stimulating teachers, men of originality and imagination, open-hearted and magnanimous -- are the life-blood of a university.  But where are the paragons to be found?  At the moment of choice the scrupulous quaver.  Original, yes -- but is he sound?  Full of vitality, but a trifle too vulgar?  Draws an audience, does he? -- are we sure he is not a charlatan?  A difficult man -- hardly likely to be acceptable to our colleagues?  And so the inoffensive and second-rate slip in.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 13, 2008 at 01:40 PM in Books | Permalink


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Have to make a correction. Googlebooks unfortunately cuts pages out of the book out at times, so not all of it is there.

Posted by: md | Feb 13, 2008 4:10:26 PM

It's not that it's not as logically tight as one might like that I object to, but that it's wrong-headed, and wrong-headed in a way that makes it less likely that one following the advice will achieve the stated goal.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 13, 2008 4:01:00 PM

Thanks, Matt, for noting that this light and jocularly mordant quote could have been logically tighter.

Incidentally, the book is on google books and the chapter on Isaiah Berlin -- Don as Magus -- is lots of fun as well.

Posted by: md | Feb 13, 2008 3:44:56 PM

"And so the inoffensive and second-rate slip in."

This implies, of course, that there were first-raters all around out there that could have otherwise been had, and could have, by a reasonable method, been noted as such before they had had a chance to be such. That, however, seems like an unlikely prospect to me. This isn't to say that universities don't often make blunders in their hiring decisions- surely they do. And it's not to say that we can't notice clear pathologies and try to correct for them (taking someone with a better 'pedigree' as opposed to someone from a lesser school with more actual achievements [the academic version of 'no one got fired for buying IBM computers'] is an obvious example). But it doesn't at all follow from the points above that there were people that had all the desirable features one might have wanted waiting to be hired. Given that, these remarks seem less insightful than one might think.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 13, 2008 3:27:26 PM

"Is he sound?" This question reminds me of a story told to me recently by a former Oxford student. Upon arrival at Oxford, the then-student noticed a seemingly familiar portrait and asked an older colleague who it was. "That's Thomas Hobbes," was the reply. "He studied here. But he wasn't sound. He didn't row."

Posted by: Alice Ristroph | Feb 13, 2008 2:50:20 PM

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