Money, that’s what I want

Banknote: Republic of Biafra, 1 Pound, 1966-67

It is commonplace to hear that money is the most important thing in the world, especially from the hard-edged cynics who work as paid consultants to, e.g., Universities. And without a doubt, Universities are filled with academic administrators, including me, who day-dream about how to get money moving from one desk to another to another – until it ends up on my desk. But that is not what defines us, as everyone wants money. The things that define us are what we do because it is the right thing to do, even if it costs money. The real currency in a University is ideas and innovation, and that currency is spent changing young people’s lives for the better through our teaching and research programs.

Sometimes I feel awkward saying this to the hard-edged cynics who know that everything is all about money, as it sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, albeit the truth. To get my point across, I sometimes tell people it is like hockey. Hockey is not about putting the puck in the net. You lose by thinking about the puck and the net, in the same way you lose in a University by thinking only of money. Hockey, like University, is about people. You find the people on the other side, you knock them down, and only then do you put the puck in the net (in hockey, not a University).

For about forty years, I have carried an unusual foreign currency in my wallet. A breakfast cereal company had a promotion where they included real foreign currency as surprises in their boxes. They advertised it as being analogous, more or less, to stamp collecting, but also—who knows—perhaps the currency might increase in value with time! Hence, in addition to money that has value, for forty years I have carried a valueless one-pound note of Biafran currency which was in my cereal box in the 1970’s. The note is more or less fancy looking, reflecting the pride people had in their country, but there is an empty white circle on the back reserved, presumably, for the picture of some noteworthy Biafran. Like many who have spent some time thinking about Biafra, the most noteworthy Biafrans to me were the children starving due to the blockade during the Nigerian civil war. The irony and cynicism of this banknote being in a cereal box was so heavy-handed that I found it incomprehensible; I could not—and cannot—get my head around it. Therefore I have carried this note ever since, with the vague and disquieting feeling that one day I may have to use this valueless currency to pay for something important but intangible.

When I was a postdoc, I met the hungriest grad students I have ever seen. China had finally approved visas for students to study abroad. The first wave of these students included many who had been forced to stop studying for five or ten years during China’s cultural revolution. These students were in a rush to catch up, and were incredibly serious and committed. They knew that their University studies would change their lives. Years passed before I met another similarly hungry graduate student. He came from Africa on a commonwealth scholarship, and did his PhD with me. He could have stayed in North America and would now be making a pretty penny, but he decided to return to Africa to work as a professor. I guess he valued more highly the currency I described above, that we spend in Universities, changing young people’s lives for the better.

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