OPINION: Plato, and Pythagoras before him, explained that there were three classes of people: seekers of knowledge, glory or money.
Academics are people, so I wondered if my colleagues would fall neatly into these classes.
Pretty much everyone joins the university driven by an insatiable curiosity and a desire for knowledge.
Then the lure of prestige, esteem and honour takes hold. Universities are very good at harnessing the love of glory to drive forward their agendas.
Finally, as academics become more senior they learn about resourcing mechanisms and begin to play the politics.
What’s more, universities themselves go through the same three stages. They are founded to create and transmit knowledge. Later they focus on prestige, offering credentials and distinction to their graduates. Ultimately they concentrate on money — on balancing the budget and sustainable growth.
As universities across the world mimic each other’s strategies, the public and politicians can be forgiven for believing the only thing universities care about is money.
It is a sad reality that when university leaders meet politicians the talk does often centre on resourcing.
Similarly, when two academics meet for the first time they are just as likely to talk about grant success rates as they are to discuss the quest for knowledge. In fact, the undying thirst for resources unites academics across disciplines.
A third force also drives us towards focusing on resourcing: the trend towards big projects. Universities work on big, interdisciplinary projects that encompass the grand challenges facing society and this is done by bringing together large teams. It is wonderful to see interdisciplinary teams being more than the sum of their parts, but big projects require big budgets.
What’s more, anyone who has worked as part of a big project will know that the division of resources within the team becomes an immediate preoccupation.
The jostling for position can be more absorbing than intermittent grant funding cycles. And the big teams favour mature academics who are at the resource funnelling stage of their careers.
Finally, as this research maturity develops, one concentrates more on applying knowledge than on discovering it. The focus moves away from curiosity and on to the politics of sustaining projects at scale and ensuring their widespread implementation.
But there is no need to despair. People are being continually refreshed. This new blood rejuvenates us.
But three strategies are vital. Universities must continue to champion knowledge for its own sake — not just for the sake of honour and employability, or for the power, profit or even social advancement that comes from education.
Second, we must offer degrees and have admissions processes that attract and inspire students who are motivated by curiosity.
Our junior staff appointments processes must send the right messages to attract those motivated by curiosity.
Finally, we must keep an eye out for champions in politics and in the community who have not forgotten that the primary and all-important role of universities: to create and disseminate knowledge for its own sake.
Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.