LSU Faculty Senate Publications

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Message from President: Unanimity or the appearance thereof is often a symptom of error. Unanimity or its various affiliates—commitment; team spirit; the embrace of a corporate culture— usually emerge from uncertainty, as happens when players are asked to commit to a plan in order to win a hard game or when ambitious beginners avoid questioning their superiors lest they seem out of sync with purportedly shared strategies or goals. Currently, few words, ideas, or practices enjoy more unanimous support than does “collaboration.” Academic professionals hear the word ceaselessly. We are called on to collaborate, we are offered prizes for collaborative research, we are urged to collaborate with industry, and we have even now more-or-less replaced the previously cachet term “interdisciplinary” with the various inflections of the more encompassing “c” word. Is collaboration all that it is cracked up to be? Collaboration, as both a practice and concept, is highly useful to those who prefer to concentrate on institutions rather than on specific academic achievements. Collaboration almost always requires an institutional framework or a higher-level administrator, whether a center with a director or a program with a coordinator or a go-between to reconcile the needs and ambitions of collaborating parties. The plenary speaker at the recent retreat of the LSU Office of Research and Development was an even more metaphysical entity: a full-time collaboration specialist working within the collaborative framework of her institution and traveling the country propagating other collaboration-controlling systems and “units.” As it grows and develops, the management dimension of collaboration not only expands but also becomes more expensive. A host of specialist fundraisers, multi-campus or multisystem diplomats, grant officers, and even journalists latch on to the institutional scaffolding that binds the collaborators to one another, often leeching energy and running up costs. All of the foregoing is equally true of the liberal arts as it is of the sciences, an example being the emergence of big-time online databases and of the digital humanities, both of which require gigantic institutional management structures. Collaboration has another downside with respect to the production of new ideas. Contemporary universities, with their nervous administrations, understand that collaboration reduces dissent. Collaborators must agree among themselves, which usually means taking what the majority in the syndicate regard as the safest, least offbeat approach or position. They must work with various managers, who constantly advise them as to what this or that administration or funding entity will like or dislike. Collaboration is a great favorite for the editors of the glossy reports and magazines issued by foundations and alumni association, for the heavy emphasis on agreement that is endemic to the collaborative process helps the “PR” people downplay disagreements on campus and to present a spurious utopian picture to their clients and donors. The mania for collaboration is now producing scholarly publications that claim more than 1,000 authors, which, given the short length of scientific reports, suggests that every word, even “the” and “some,” must have been produced by multi-author collaboration. In the not-so-brave, indeed timorous new world of big data, big science, and covered-up big mistakes, collaboration is, admittedly, a necessity. Projects such as LIGO, Louisiana’s gravity wave observatory, could not function without some degree of cooperation among multiple participants. The canon of a profuse composer, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, could not be settled by one old bloke in a leathery wing chair. What friendly but sometimes misled academic professionals should avoid is worshiping that golden calf of fundraising, collaboration itself. By all means, collaborate when needed, but, please, remember that collaboration is not the ultimate goal of humanity and that there have been and will continue to be many worthwhile solo contributions.