6 May 2015

academia’s reputation

● The other day I came across someone in the higher education bureaucracy arguing in favour of limits on intellectual freedom, along the lines of: “academics can’t just behave how they like ... they shouldn’t be free to say things that might upset other people ... there ought to be a rule against bringing academia into disrepute ... it should be possible to eject or otherwise penalise people who habitually flout this rule.”
Professional bodies such as the Law Society do typically have rules requiring members not to bring their profession into “disrepute”. For a private body to impose on its members whatever rules it likes seems reasonable enough – provided that it’s not legally prohibited for non-members to practise, otherwise we have the potential for a closed shop.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants (which doesn’t have a monopoly in the way e.g. the General Medical Council has) includes the following in its current code of ethics:
In marketing and promoting themselves and their work, professional accountants shall not bring the profession into disrepute [… or] make disparaging references or unsubstantiated comparisons to the work of others.
It appears to follow that, if a member makes “disparaging references” about fellow accountants or the profession as a whole, this might constitute grounds for ejection from the Institute.
Even an apparently mild power like this can be abused. When in 1992 Terry Smith published Accounting for Growth, arguing that much of the reported profit growth of the late 1980s had been the result of creative accounting, there were some rumblings that Smith was bringing the profession into disrepute. Although the creativity was largely on the part of finance officers, it seems the companies’ auditors were mostly happy to go along with it. Fortunately, Smith was an MBA rather than ACA, so there wasn’t much his accountant critics could do.
Not very long afterwards, the profession as a whole came round to many of the arguments of Accounting for Growth. Smith’s criticisms ultimately resulted in the revision of a number of accounting standards. Nevertheless, the episode illustrates that, unless the “disrepute” concept is kept within narrow, clearly defined bounds, it can easily turn into a generalised prohibition of critique.
Trying to apply the concept to academia is in any case absurd. A profession whose business purports to centre on analysis and critique can hardly afford to have an explicit rule that prevents any element of it, or indeed the whole caboodle, being criticised — even if in practice it finds ways of suppressing those who appear to threaten the status quo.

Oxford Forum should be given funding.