Friday, January 30, 2015

Lack of academic freedom: Academics themselves to blame?

30 Jan 10:00 AM

  by Aziz Bari

OUTSPOKEN: The non-renewal of the contract of services for the outgoing Deputy Vice-Chancellors at Universiti Malaya (UM) became news last week. It was alleged that the reason why the government decided not to reappoint the two academic administrators of the country’s oldest university was that the two professors have not been friendly to the ruling Umno-BN government.

Given what happened in the university last year, especially the ruckus that took place at the university’s gate on the night Opposition Leader and university alumnus Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was invited to address UM students, no one would dispute the claim.

However, from the strict contract’s point of view on whether or not the renewal is given is actually a matter that is entirely within the prerogative of the university owners. Even from the purist point of view which sees academic administration as something that is not central to academic career, a non-renewal is quite a non-issue.

For one thing, the very essence of the academic profession is about research and teaching most of which are done and disseminated through seminar papers and publications, be they in the form of books, chapters from books or journal articles. Hence, assuming the post of departmental head, dean or the deputy and eventually deputy vice-chancellors or vice-chancellors (or rectors) is not in his or her agenda.

That is why it is often said deanship or other administrative functions are a matter of rotation among the academics. Of course in good universities, the deanship for example is rotated among senior professors in the faculty.

As such, there is no question of outside or government interference like here in Malaysia where even the deanship, let alone the vice-chancellors or rectors need to have the Umno-BN nod. While admittedly there is no need for the candidate to be friendly to the party in power, it is crucial – from point of view of the Education Ministry - that the person to hold the post is someone who is not critical of the sitting government.

Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Sham Shani, a former vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, has once said that a university is a unique place. This is because one day, one is up there as the vice-chancellor or rector and the next day, one is just an ordinary academic who goes back to his library, laboratory or class. There is no question of demotion as claimed by the portal who broke the news over what happened in UM. It is just the ordinary way of life in a university.

I remember that when I was pursuing my post-graduate studies in England and later post-doctoral in Germany and the United States, I was never aware of the dean, let alone the top brass of the university. It was not because I could not care less or anything; it was just not the culture of their universities to gossip about who and who occupies the chancellery or dean’s office. And of course their vice-chancellors or deans do not behave like ours here. They consider themselves as colleagues to their fellow academics and are just there in the office for a certain period of time.

Here, those in power seem to have turned their back on academic freedom and treated universities as a mere extension of the bureaucracy. And it must be conceded that the majority of academics are quite naïve about it. Some have indeed become the pawn of the game. This explains the politics among some of the academics who lobbied their way up to the office.

What about student activism; namely student politics and elections, and so on? These have got little or nothing to do with academic freedom that is primarily concerned with research and teaching. In short, academic freedom is mainly about the academics and their academic pursuits. While it is true that the way the government dealt with Professor Datuk Dr Mohammad Redhuan Othman of Umcedel was against the notion of academic freedom, what they did to Fahmi Zainol, president of the UM Students Union was not.

However, this does not mean that Umno-BN was right for they have denied Fahmi and his friends their constitutional rights.

Be that as it may, in a truly democratic society and in good universities both Redhuan and Fahmi should have been allowed to go on with their pursuits. Indeed they should have been given assistance instead of being punished.

Dr Abdul Aziz Bari is formerly IIUM law professor who now teaches at Unisel. He is also Senior Fellow at IDEAS.
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