On Competition and Friendship in Academia

Growing older I am gaining more insight in my own role in some of the frustrations and difficulties I experienced while trying to find my space in academia. For a long time I saw those difficulties as the effect of the situation in which academia had slipped since the eighties. The idea that the university is a jungle in which it is hard to survive, let alone being creative and enjoy your work is a common one. News about new instruments to enhance competition, to induce excellent research and output productivity, as well as those designed to make teaching more efficient and cheaper have dominated the field for over some thirty years now. Those who defend slow research, taking time for one’s students, and informal procedures are easily criticized as old-fashioned, if not hesitant to work hard for the public money spent on their jobs. In this atmosphere, competition often led to an atmosphere of the survival of the fittest or the meanest, and to the creation of underdog positions for those who could not move as fast as others. If one takes a few out-of-the-box decisions, one finds oneself soon at the back of the race.

What race? Why is there a race? The situation described above issues from the uneasy marriage of the idea that education and research in the university are a public matter, a community service, so to speak – and the neoliberal idea that every institution should model it’s structure to that of businesses in a market. Universities tried to expand their market share by attracting more students, forgetting that their competitors were just as much paid for by public resources – creating thus a fake competition. They competed in gaining more funding for research, also largely drawn from ‘tax payers money’, but in increasing amounts flowing from real businesses, which thus could buy prestige and research from which they could benefit directly or indirectly. The marriage was sold to academics as a way to improve quality. More competition would select the best to move to the top. All the same a lot of service has to be done, teaching is a service, not a product to be sold at a market price. And a lot of research is also a service, to improve the living conditions of humans, to protect their world, and their cohabitants.

So the race is just a thought, a kind of false consciousness. Quality is not enhanced by competition, frustrations and difficulties are. And not just for the underdogs, also for the topdogs. They may enjoy power and admiration, but these goods are never secure – they have to keep on competing hoping to get to their retirement without losing them. Those who are happy and content – in which position they may be – are those who do not let themselves be guided by competition, but by friendship. By working with others and being interested in them as human beings. Who design research that has quality because it is shared in friendship. And who teach while understanding that they, their colleagues and their students are connected in a shared desire to develop oneself and others.

So my role in the frustrations and difficulties was taking the language on competition and quality serious. Trying to go along with it. My best work in academia however, in teaching as well as in doing philosophical research, has grown out of friendships in the work place. They nurture creativity and patience, critical questioning as well as aiming for improvement of one’s work. Therefore I want to ask attention, here and now, for this important free funding – a funding in the currency of humanity.
There are many with whom I have experienced friendship in work, and they know who they are. The immediate reason for taking on this subject is that this week we say goodbye in my department to Hans Radder, as he retires. I think I am right in saying that he takes friendship as a guiding principle in working with many others, among whom I was one here in Amsterdam. He has published extensively in philosophy of science, on science and technology and on the commodification of scientific research. Of course he will not stop his work with his retirement, it is just a moment to look back. Here is his university page.



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