Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thoughts on University Policy

Over lunch yesterday, C. and I talked about the VC and his policies, among other things. In particular, the ridiculous standards set for lecturers in the arts and humanities, who have to publish papers in ISI journals as well.

As I was sweeping the floor this morning, I thought about all of that, and about our government, and about ethics and the voice of the people and what it is we really want. I remembered that line from The Magician's Nephew, where Aslan tells young Digory, "All receive what they ask for, but they do not always like it."

We want non-corrupt leaders, but are we non-corrupt people? I can't help feeling that the calling of the Church in our present political climate is not so much to lead the charge in voting, but to show the way in living. Things are so politicised these days that I think we are losing sight of the real battles. Everyone talks about changing leaders and circumstances; no one talks about changing themselves.

Why don't we attack the government for not banning Chatime, for instance? All that overpriced sugar and unhealthiness! We live lives of double standards, and we would do well to shut up sometimes.

At the risk of overquoting Kang's "Different shirt, same shit" pronouncement, I'd say that's the point we are missing: we're changing the wineskins but doing nothing about the wine.

Back to the VC.

He inherited a university that was down some distant rungs in the Times World University Rankings. Many are quick to point out that rankings are not everything, but let me say that my parents were, six years ago, extremely hesitant about sending me to the University. I agree that rankings are not everything, but we live in a world where public opinion is so twisted by the media, that no person or organisation will ever get its due unless the media approves. Also, it is no secret that serious research in the sciences had been shelved for many years. For reasons as these, our current VC was the right man for the job.

I am sympathetic to the plight of the arts and humanities community, and of those lecturers who are better teachers than researchers. I consider myself more inclined to teaching than to research, and my honest answer to the VC's persistent, "So Ben, when are you doing your PhD" question is this: "Sir, I have always very much desired to lecture, but I do not see myself doing academic research of such rigour. Unfortunately I cannot be of service in the academic structure you have designed."

In all of this I am not against him, because if I had inherited the University as it was in 2008, I don't know how I could have done better to appease the rakyat's chants of, "Do something about our rankings!" Furthermore, there was a lot of deadwood—there still is, actually—in the ranks of faculty members. It is a pity that he is more preoccupied with numbers than quality, leading to an influx of questionable foreign students, to dodgy collaborations in order to land certain journals, and to the neglect of some really good (but with little commercial or ISI value) research. And yet, some hard decisions had to be made if a systematic transformation into a 'research university' was going to take place.

Key word: systematic. I have never quite understood engineers, but I know they are more concerned with efficiency over ethics, with 'getting the job done' than with doing something really great and colourful and wonderful. If an engineer produced a movie, they would go for something safe rather than something risky but possibly groundbreaking. (I draw these inferences from personal experience with engineers.)

I can understand why he cannot tolerate subjectivity, because if you start making exceptions to some cases, you have to start making exceptions to others. It makes for difficult steering of the battleship. Football coaches like Otto Rehhagel and José Mourinho have never been popular, but they get the job done.

All in all, it is time for the public to decide on what they really want. In particular, on whether they want good education irrespective of where the University sits on the rankings chart—and if so, what yardstick should be used to evaluate the University.

After all, we live in a silly world where applicants from Malaysian universities need to take TOEFL to get into the States, but graduates from Singaporean universities do not, simply because English is considered to be the 'first language' of Singaporean universities. Never mind that many Malaysians speak way better English than Singaporeans.

There is no reliable indicator of anything, and perhaps the words of my mother's cousin were the wisest of all. When I asked her, five years ago, what she thought of my parents' fear of local varsities, she said, "It really depends on the faculty. Go and visit it for yourself, and decide." I took her advice and went to see the Dean. I liked what I saw, and I can say in retrospect that I would not trade in my years of learning in this University for anything else.

There was much I did not, and still do not, like about the University. But I learnt the value of wise discretion in making judgements, and in that sagely quote from Pixar's Ratatouille: "Not everyone can cook, but a good cook can come from anywhere."

1 comment:

Lish said...

I enjoyed reading this :)

Thank you, Ben.