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What’s Wrong With Academia Part 6: “Markers of Esteem” and the Tyranny of Opinion

By: , Posted on: January 2, 2019

When I started my first full-time job as an academic, I was asked to fill out a load of forms so that the uni website could describe me. The most baffling section of the form to me at the time was the “markers of esteem” part. This was essentially a list of the things which signalled to other academics that you were well regarded by other academics, which all seemed a bit circular. Very few of the things on the list correlated with the markers I used as a starting point for evaluating the skill and expertise of other engineers, with one exception: being a chartered member of a professional engineering body.  I’ll come back to that, and mention as preamble to what follows that I collected a full suite of markers of esteem, in case it seems as though this post is borne out of any failure to gather these markers on my own part.

It turns out that the concept of “markers of esteem” is (like so much of what is wrong with academia) founded in the Research Assessment Exercise, and its descendants. Whilst these markers are not to do directly with the quality of your research, they add to the research ranking of you and your establishment. You are encouraged to engage in planning development of this areas. This is arguably the ultimate cause of the takeover of professional engineering institutions by academics, and by extension the destructive effects on the profession.

What are the markers of esteem? The link above summarises them as:

  • Membership of professional bodies
  • Editorship of journals
  • Organisation of conferences
  • Being invited to speak at conferences
  • Awards and prizes

It is worth noting that all of these other than membership of professional bodies are basically invitation-only, and even membership of a professional body is arguably facilitated by having contacts within that body.  This element of invitation seems to be unreflectively accepted by my fellow academics as the true root of markers of esteem, but they all too often however seemed to think of these as markers of excellence rather than esteem. Esteem is not excellence. Markers of esteem therefore reflect respect and admiration, specifically that of other academics rather than skill, knowledge, intelligence or achievement. This however is highly supportive of the cronocracy which characterises much of academia, which I discussed in an earlier post. Markers of esteem are, ultimately, all about who you know.

This appears to work against minorities of all kinds, judging by the homogeneity of those I was brought into contact with when I carried out an informal experiment in developing my own markers of esteem. Furthermore, to quote the Bible (an admittedly rare occurrence for me): “Whoever has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” Once you pass a certain point, it becomes so easy to acquire further markers of esteem that you have to choose which to apply for/accept, as all require at least a minimum investment of time and often of money too.

This is not the end of the tyranny of opinion to which academics are subject. They also have to take seriously the opinion of their learners. Students frequently do not answer the questions they have been set in satisfaction questionnaires, and instead use these instruments to attempt to manipulate the difficulty of their courses, or punish the lecturers they don’t like for some reason, such as those who make them work, listen, study or think hard.

Whilst I am quoting, let’s have John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”:  “In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”

I’m with JSM here. The life of a modern academic is highly lacking in liberty, and the concept of academic freedom is arguably obsolete in practice. Conformity is rewarded, rather than free thinking in today’s university. Obsequious toadies are much preferred to iconoclasts. Academia is not at all as it sees itself.

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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