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The Black Hole

Universities are sometimes home to the worst kind of champions…


In 2015, even before I took up my official job as a group leader here in Cambridge, I was in my future director’s office and he asked if I would be able to act as the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute’s public engagement champion. He thought it would be a good fit with the sort of extra activities that I’d been involved in previously and had recently obtained resources from our centre funders to hire a public engagement officer. The cynic might say I drew the short straw as the newest group leader because nobody else would want to dedicate their time to such an intangible endeavour… and they may have been correct, but I do my best to fight the good fight.

I’ll admit, I’ve never liked the term champion – it feels glib and I’m not even sure there is any real job description associated with it. But it turns out that I’m definitely not the only one – our university is full of “champions” ranging from university equality champions, enterprise champions, energy champions, and even data champions. To be fair, Cambridge is not the only university to come up with fluffy monikers – I’ve met many “ambassadors”, “pioneers” and “leaders” as well. The idea, from what I can gather is to get people in positions of some level of authority or respect to lead by example or to galvanise others to a particular cause.  Fair enough, right?

However, the problem with all of this is that in the absence of a suitable candidate, the box must still be checked and the most insipid kind of “champion” crawls in to fill the space. These are the champions of smoke and mirrors – people who have virtually no credentials, experience or desire to act in the position but have simply been told to by someone more important than them that they need to do it (or they are trying to build their CV for promotion). These people do more harm than good.

If institutional reform is your kettle of fish, I have stories that would make your head spin.  Senior members of academic staff who outwardly and publicly trivialise the issue that they are fighting for; members of senior committees on “important” issues that infrequently (or never) show up to the meetings and simply adopt the title; and my personal favourite moment here at Cambridge, “Actually I don’t mind being the equality and diversity champion… To be honest, she does all the work anyway,” (you can guess the sex of the speaker).

Imagine you are an employee of an office for sustainability in a university and your steering committee of departmental champions are the wrong sort – how uninspiring must that be? Meeting after meeting of submitting your detailed proposals, ideas, and enthusiasm for change across to a table of people who are too busy to read or listen to them would make anyone want to give up. Yet our bizarre system continues to push people into these roles because they need a senior member of academic staff rather than identifying people to serve that could be held up as examples of how to drive progressive change (heck, maybe even give them a bit of money to see what sort of change they could produce!).

It seems to me that the majority of people in positions of power aren’t actually very keen on changing the system. You may say “thanks, Captain Obvious” and I know this observation is not new, but I at least want to appeal to those people who have such positions:  Either do something about it (e.g., push the issue) or get yourself off the committee or out of the post – don’t allow yourself to be the vehicle by which a university or department can cover up its deficiencies by saying it supports equality, diversity, sustainability, enterprise, or data sharing – especially if much of what it does actually suggests the contrary.

I’m reminded of an article that Professor Fiona Watt wrote in eLife some years ago about her experience in a male-dominated university environment – the saddest moment of which reads:

“…having accepted an invitation to attend a meeting of “key people [. . .] to advance this important area of work” (gender equality) I was very surprised that the event consisted of a garden party at which strawberries and sparkling wine were served and the only men present were the vice-chancellor, the disability champion and the ethnic minority champion.”

Perhaps these were the right kind of champions though since they at least bothered to show up.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Brett / February 2, 2017 at 13:23

    Good article David. The fact that many of these positions must be filled is certainly a problem, as you describe, but so is the sense of entitlement many first-world individuals possess. I live in Canada and there is tons of that attitude here. In other words, we figure that we’ve already “earned” a spot at the table. Even outside of Academia many of us are “Senior ____” , “Team Lead of ______”, “Manager of ____” “VP of _____”. There are virtually no regular job titles left in most organizations! It seems somehow wrong to just be an Analyst, or an Administrative Assistant, or a Research Scientist? Perhaps we need titles like “Champion” to feel fulfilled or successful. Whatever it is, it’s lame.

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