Collegial Purgatories in an Accelerating Academia?

Reconsidering the Long History of Academic Times

by Hampus Östh Gustafsson

Hampus Östh Gustafsson is a researcher at the Department of History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University, currently engaged in the project International Collegiality, funded by the Swedish Research Council. This blog piece summarizes some findings from an upcoming article on collegiality and temporal synchronization in the context of Swedish university reforms.

A multiversity does, quite naturally, not hold on to any single time regime. On the contrary, the vast organizations of today’s universities host a multitude of parallel temporalities. In The Philosophy of Higher Education (2021, p. 191), Ronald Barnett noted that even a ‘single academic almost miraculously lives and handles multiple timeframes simultaneously (from the instantaneous to next year and for decades ahead and hundreds, thousands or even billions of years past, if she is a historian, geologist, or cosmologist or simply has a care for this Earth)’. In that sense, academic lives make up intricate ‘time-space complexes’.

This observation is obviously valid for many complex organizations, but in the case of universities, issues of time have become particularly contentious. While stereotypical images of sluggish professors still tend to thrive in public discourse, the daily academic practice typically comprises students and staff haunted by deadlines of all sorts. To anyone who has an experience of this rushed existence, the rise of an extensive discourse on academic cultures of speed in recent years should come as no surprise. (e.g., Kidd, 2021) Through movements such as the so-called slow academia/science (which was the theme for a PaTHES webinar series this autumn), there have been fierce protests against the shrinking horizons of time and the mental stress triggered by Neo-liberal policies, New Public Management technologies, and a strong audit culture characteristic of recent decades. How is it possible to reverse this development of social acceleration and increasing presentism, and instead create conditions for a sounder academic life, which would provide ample time for scientific curiosity and thinking?

The quickening in academic tempo has been considered by scholars coming from various fields, including Anthropology and Philosophy as well as Psychology and Sociology. One perspective that is often missing in this context, however, is the historical. So, what happens if we inquire into conflicting academic times throughout a longer period? Speaking from the vantage point of the historian, I see good reasons to doubt whether all this talk of a rushed academic existence really is characteristic of late modern societies only. Has there ever been a slow academia, or is that only a projection of nostalgic narratives leaning perilously close to clichés of the so-called ivory tower? Were older universities – although small scale and elitist – really of a completely different kind?

In an ongoing research project on the changing conditions of collegiality as a form of governance, I have investigated debates on collegial organizations in the context of Swedish university reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, paying particular attention to the ways in which collegial ideals and practices were attached to certain temporal rhythms. In order to adapt to a rapidly changing society and an increasingly professionalized public administration, actions at universities had to be synced with new requirements of efficiency and rationalisation. Even at the turn of the 20th century, collegial structures – often defended as emblematic of the very idea of a university – were regularly criticized for being cumbersome and slow.

A particular problem lay in the co-existence of different collegial bodies at single universities. In a daily newspaper in 1898, it was, disapprovingly, observed that no academic matters were decided upon in haste. They always had to pass through the ‘purgatory of several colleges’. (Stockholms Dagblad, June 9, 1898) For such occurrences, “modern society” had no patience, and the pressure to reform the timeworn collegial organizations mounted.

Most reforms seem to have been motivated by practical-administrative issues, rather than via reference to some abstract, higher “idea” of the university. One such concern was the very possibility of conducting physical meetings at a certain place – within a reasonable amount of time. As all meetings of the boards were supposed to be held in plenum, with all professors present, they were eventually regarded as too complicated and time-consuming as the two state universities (Lund and Uppsala) began to expand in the second half of the 19th century. Decision-making thus had to be delegated to smaller, representative bodies of governance that were being created, otherwise it was feared that these traditional collegial procedures would have detrimental effects on teaching and scholarship. A governmental university commission of 1874, for instance, complained that the existing board system in Uppsala forced all professors to sit through more than thirty meetings (three hours each) in plenum per academic year. A departure from this principle of full attendance was, however, seen as highly controversial as it would mark a drastic shift in the way universities were governed.

Obviously, there was no consensus regarding these types of reforms, and they were thus accompanied by heavy debates. Issues of time were then frequently brought to the fore as diverse interests collided with attempts to make universities keep pace with the “rest of society”. Philosopher Sharon Rider (2016) has intriguingly distinguished between academic time and ‘time understood functionally, that is, as value efficiency’. This partition indeed captures how collegial practices at universities were subjected to external pressures in order to increase efficiency. Time was perceived more as a burdensome cost rather than an asset for qualified thought and discussion.

We should be careful, however, to not get stuck with a dichotomic understanding of temporal politics, as divided between an internal and an external sphere. The universities hosted multiple and conflicting timeframes on their own premises. In order to make all these timeframes meet, and to secure the universities’ functionality and legitimacy as public organizations, they were caught in a relentless work of temporal synchronization, to adopt historian Helge Jordheim’s (2022) concept. By assuming the co-existence of multiple timeframes at any given point, societies are, according to this perspective, inherently marked by various temporal rythms that need to be synchronized with each other. As there is never any given ‘in-syncness’ in history, social cohesion, as well as organizational efficiency, must be generated and maintained through an active work by for instance politicians and administrators. Universities are no exceptions. To synchronize activities at such complex organizations in order to enhance efficiency have often proven to be easier said than done.

Temporal conflicts and negotiations thus form a central track in the history of universities, but they are still remarkably unexplored, and they are not solely resulting from policies in the last couple of decades. Without falling prey to anachronism, it is essential to look at – and perhaps even learn from – past parallels to current conflicts of academic time. A sound awareness of the typically strained temporal conditions of research and higher education, including the work of synchronization, would certainly contribute into making universities more resilient in the long term, and also to dismantle tiresome, stereotypical images – be it collegial purgatories or slow professors.


Barnett, Ronald (2021). The Philosophy of Higher Education: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge).

Jordheim, Helge (2022). ‘In Sync/Out of Sync’ in Zoltán Boldizsár Simon & Lars Deile (eds.), Historical Understanding: Past, Present, and Future (London: Bloomsbury), pp. 45–56.

Kidd, Ian James (2021). ‘Corrupted Temporalities, “Cultures of Speed”, and the Possibility of Collegiality’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2021.2017883.

Rider, Sharon (2016). ‘Science and Speed Addiction: The Scholar’s Vocation in the Age of Efficiency’, Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy 2–3, DOI: 10.3402/nstep.v2.33725.