Sir Steve Smith, VC Exeter, 5 March, 6PM, Main Hall of the International Politics Building, Aberystwyth University - 'The Roaring Nineties and Noughties'
The Centenary Speakers Series continued with a visit by Sir Professor Steve Smith on 5 March. The Department was honoured and privileged to welcome its former member and head, who is presently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter. He delivered a lecture titled ‘The Roaring Nineties and Noughties: The Transformation of the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth’. Sir Steve spoke with authority of this pivotal period in the Department’s history having been one of the main driving forces behind the resurgence of the Department during this time. It was an era when the many disparate and disagreeing strands of the broad international politics discipline represented in the Department formed a unique, naturally still argumentative, community.
The Department Steve Smith joined in 1992 was much different from today. Realist orthodoxy was taught as the baseline theoretical standard, with alternative theories (e.g. constructivism, feminism) seen as interesting additions, but ultimately not as capturing “the way the world really was”. This stands in sharp contrast to the acclaimed pluralism in theoretical and methodological approaches enjoyed by those in the Department today. Sir Steve’s arrival coincided with rising challenges to the realist orthodoxy, symptomatic of a discipline-wide shakeup following the utter surprise to IR academics and practitioners stemming from the end of the Cold War. Soon, the Department was an “exciting and buzzing” hub of pluralism, taking the global lead in diversity of theoretical approaches. Many of the world’s leading IR thinkers were hosted in Aberystwyth, with the guest list of the 75th Anniversary Conference showing the changing intellectual character of the Department. In the uncertainty, excitement, and doubt which followed the end of the Cold War, the Department found an opportunity to reinvigorate itself through becoming synonymous with the cutting edge of the discipline.
The thriving atmosphere of fierce intellectual confrontation during the 1990s attracted some of the best grad students from across the world, in large numbers. At one point, over 25% of all junior appointments in the field in the UK were connected with Aberystwyth graduate school. A fully fledged ‘renaissance’ of Welsh politics and political theory was underway, again a remarkable development given that domestic politics has never been the principal focus of the Department. Indeed, the importance of keeping work and research centred on issues that mattered was highlighted. While deeply held shared commitment to renewal was key in bringing of the Department to the forefront of the discipline, the drive to sustain and strengthen has been even more important in the following years. The culture of curiosity and research was fostered by freeing researchers from administrative duties and allowing them to do what they do best: teaching and research.
The Q/A session ranged broadly from the impact of Brexit on UK higher education, the marketisation of the production of knowledge, and to how to build a sense of community among diverse and confrontational academics. Agency builds community, with optimism for the future crucial in eventually achieving both. Sir Steve finished by arguing that we live in a pivotal time, as it was after the end of the Cold War. UK higher education faces existential threats, and universities are decried as ‘out of touch’ by many in the press and wider public. The biggest danger in such times is to keep doing what has always been done, when new approaches might be called for. Conviction, drive, and innovation are continuously needed in renewing and developing the Department as it grapples with the key global challenges of today.
To see a video of the talk, please see below: