thomas m wilson

An Obscured View From an Ivory Tower

July 9th, 2007

Today I saw this gargolye at New College, Oxford. Its veiled features got me thinking about the way in which universities are not always awake and alert to the reality of an era of environmental crisis.


During the Second World War our governments put much of the professorial brain power within the universities to work on research that was relevant to the war effort. This redirection in the core mission of the university was temporary, and after the war things returned to normal. In 2007 we are faced with a window of ten or so years within which to restrain our carbon economy, or face the deaths of hundreds of millions of people and the permanent extinction of around half the species of life on planet earth. I would suggest that such a situation would be well termed a crisis. I would suggest that such a situation asks for, among other things, the channeling of the intellectual efforts of our university research sector into dealing with this threat. It is true that research into ‘sustainability’ issues is a major research priority in many countries, particularly Britain thanks to the Labour government. However, has the academic world as a whole truly woken up to the magnitude of the climate crisis? Are universities being put on a ‘war-time’ footing? No. Look upwards. The man on the tower still hides his eyes behind his hands.


Do universities communicate with the public? Do they try to pass the fruits of their research into the public sphere?

The gold of these gates shines in the sun. The gates are firmly closed. Oxford’s wealthy coffers and tenured scholars are back there somewhere.


The gardens of New College are full of flowers at the moment. I do think that universities should centred around beautiful green spaces, as many of them are. Being in such environments is relaxing, and a state of biophilia-induced calm is a good base from which to engage in clear, concentrated mental activity. Mathew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’, an Oxford man I believe, is an appropriate pastoral for the practicing prof to emulate.


But how far away from the real world, how deeply inside the academic sanctuary, can academics afford to rest?