Last year this blog featured a text by one of the foremost social scientists in Sweden today, Stefan Svallfors. The text takes the form of a "fictional" love letter to a university. He has now translated his letter into English, and offered to publish it here. Enjoy!
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Dearest University - a love letter
(This is a completely fictional love letter from a completely fictional researcher to a completely fictional university. Any similarities with actually existing researchers and universities are unintended, even unavoidable.)
Dearest sweetest University,
We have to talk. Things haven’t been so good lately. It feels like you’re suffocating me and like we’re constantly frustrated with each other. Or maybe that we don’t trust each other.
When I think about it, it has been a long time since it felt really good. And yet we had something special, you and I. How did it happen, where did it disappear? When did we get on that downhill slope?
Oh I remember the first time, when I fell in love with you. Intoxication, and yet the feeling of deepest importance, of coherence. The feeling of coming home, finding what I had always searched for. You made me understand how it all fit together. And I was among equals, others who were like me. For the first time in my life included, supported.
The crystal sharpness of the late autumn air, when I stepped out from the library and darkness had already fallen, the feeling of clarity and space. Of meaning and belonging. How I loved you then.
But the mature love was in some ways even better. When we got to know each other, when I thought I saw exactly who you were – in all your shortcomings and failings as we all have – but still only loved you more. You were a little tedious from time to time, and had that need for control – as if you didn’t really trust my love for you. But you let me grow and I gave you all I had. We had a wonderful life together. I learned how to say “we” and mean “you and I”, and for me such things have never come easily.
When somebody asked me if perhaps they should try to hook up with a University I always said: of course. If this is who you are and what you want there is no better place in this world. Of course you should try. These days I’m not so sure how to answer. “Perhaps”, I would start in a lingering voice. If you think you can arrange things in thus and such a way. If you think you can stand this, and this. If not, go elsewhere. Search for someone else.
Surely I should have seen it coming. That nagging suspicion you had that I wasn’t doing everything I should. Although I gave you everything, more than anyone could have expected. I sometimes looked with amusement at the others, those who seemed to have a much cooler and shallower relationship to their University, as if they were just any employee with just any employer. But to me you were The University, and I wanted only you. But it was as if you didn’t really believe me, as if you always had to test how much I really cared. And nothing I did seemed to matter. All the millions in research grants I brought home, all the publications in my name and yours. Oh yes, you smiled and took it, but it was as if nothing was ever good enough.
I have to be frank. It isn’t me, it’s you.
I think a lot of it happened the way it did because you were after all a Public Authority. And a Public Authority is supposed to act in a certain way, which didn’t fit with who you really were. A Public Authority is supposed to keep a stiff upper lip, steer people, wait for and issue orders, force its will through. And every time you tried to be a Public Authority I distanced myself, didn’t do what you wanted, became troublesome and sarcastic. And you were hurt. But it was only because I wanted you to be all the beautiful things you could be that I became so difficult. I meant no harm.
It always became worse when you had been with the other Public Authorities. Those who thought they were real Public Authorities, while you didn’t really pass in their eyes. Bullies like the Government Offices and the National Audit Office, who made fun of you because you didn’t really know what your researchers were up to, and because we so often ignored your attempts to steer us. “But I stand for other values”, you tried, but it had a hollow ring to it and I could tell their sneers really got to you. Every time you came back from the other Public Authorities we had a fight. You wanted to boss me around more, as if to show the world that you were a real Public Authority. And I started to avoid you, became mean, chose new paths so that I didn’t have to see you so often. We yelled at each other, slammed doors, sulked, found our way back to each other. But every time it was as if something died in me.
And then it became even worse, when you began to listen to those self-styled relationship experts, the ones who called themselves “New Public Management”. I mean, didn’t you see their name as a warning sign? But they promised our lives together would be so much better if we only listened to their advice. I would have a better idea about what I was really supposed to do, and you would have a better sense of control over what I was really doing. Then we would evaluate it all and everything should be sooo good.
But of course it only became worse. I felt more and more frustrated and suffocated and you felt more and more suspicious with every report I sent. In the end it all became self-fulfilling: I started to go behind your back, make up things I hadn’t really done, keeping to myself, doing my own thing. After a while I almost never felt bad about it, or maybe just a little.
And I started to feel – and I cry a little when I write this – that you were ugly and disgusting. That everything that had attracted me in the beginning had disappeared. Even if I knew it was still there, deepest down, only hidden under all the “visionary documents” and “policies” and “development plans”. But the nasty truth was that you had begun to sicken me, you and all the jerks who just made life miserable for us. And since I had never really stopped loving you – as strange as it may sound – I was almost torn apart. We could have been so much for each other and now we are almost nothing.
Perhaps I should leave you. But it hurts too much to even think about it. Maybe I’m just scared – what I do with you is the only thing I can do. How could I live without you? And I know I have so much to give you, if you could just accept it.
But we can’t live like this anymore. We have to find some other way to be together. Where we can once again view each other with love and respect. Where we are not so suspicious any more. Where you can relax a little, and I can stop my constant sarcasms. I really want to try. Do you?
You will find me in the library café this afternoon, between three and four. Come by if you want to talk. But come only if you really think we can start all over. I can’t handle any more disappointments.