Why listen to the Vice Chancellor?

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In a democratic country like Malaysia, it rests upon all the citizens of this country to determine the fate of our nation and communities. I feel that my fellow academics and I have a unique opportunity to advise and educate the citizens of this country about many technological, social and spiritual issues so that we can all one day call ourselves, truly a civilized nation.

In my 25 years at a public university, I have not seen much of the responsibility of the academics in educating the masses being highlighted or even mentioned at all.

Only a civilized and critically minded citizenry can exercise appropriate decisions in selecting who the parliamentarians should be to carry the issues that would bring much benefit to all and not just a few.

In my 25 years at a public university, I have not seen much of the responsibility of the academics in educating the masses being highlighted or even mentioned at all. Whether in departmental meetings, in faculty meetings and meetings with Vice Chancellors and top university officials, there is hardly a mention about the important and crucial roles of academics being the educators of the nation…much less being the conscience of a society.

The importance of academics engaging in public discourses and issues via the mass media or in writing popular books to explain scientific or social issues in a manner that is comprehensible to all is drowned by the dubious statements on the importance of publishing in so called ‘high impact’ international journals and securing million ringgit grants in order to boost the university’s international ranking. It seems that the success of our fully funded public universities is now dependent on a ranking figure by some rating agency and not on our evaluation of its contribution to developing the minds of our communities.

Traditionally and presently, the office of the Vice Chancellor is held by an academic, and not by some company manager or full time politician. If the said academic fails to appreciate the important roles of professors in educating and advising the people of this country, then he or she will develop policies for promotion and excellence based on a ‘cut and paste’ methodology of various so called ‘successful’ institutions. I have no problem of benchmarking ourselves against such well known institutions as Harvard or Oxford but let us do so critically.

Perhaps our society is 80 years behind in terms of social, technological and political awarenessas the US or the UK and so we should check at what these famous institutions had done for their society at that time. I am sure that these institutions gave much acknowledgement to their academics in terms of book writing for the populace as well as engagement in public debates and discourses. Since these institutions have come a long way from educating the public, their attention now turns towards other matters such as securing grants, industrial alliances and international competition for students.

It seems to me that Malaysian public universities have leap frog one whole century of knowledge generation and dissemination and imagine themselves ‘on par’ with other famous institutions. I can find a book on nuclear physics for children in the West but I cannot find one in Malaysia. I learnt about the beautiful discipline of Structure from a Professor in Structural Engineering through his two books ‘Why Buildings Stand Up’ and ‘Structure for Architects’. He has had even made a series of films on the subject matter. Where are these books and films in Bahasa Malaysia from our Structural Engineers from UTM?

I feel much saddened by the fact that such pressing issues as the Lynas issue or even the sex video of a Malay politician’ comes with a deafening silence. Where are our Professors of Environmental Engineering or Islamic Revealed Knowledge on such subjects? Are these academics frightened that their contracts will not be renewed?

I feel sad that whenever I want to hear a view by someone deemed as ‘opposition’, I would have to download the YouTube version of his lecture given at a noted university in Australia. Why can’t I listen to this man here at UTM?

Or these academics feel that their knowledge and research is bordered only by their peers and students at the university? So…knowledge is only for self-promotion and private wealth accumulation…not for society’s betterment?

Prophet Muhammad taught Muslims that the only thing that survives a dead person is his or her progeny, the wakaf property and knowledge left for community development. Among the three, knowledge is the longest lasting. A privilege to academics! But the Prophet also warned the academic and ulama that on the Day of Judgement, they will be one of the three personalities that will be judged harshly as to their conduct in this world. A warning to academics!

Professor D. Gareth Jones had written an interesting audit proposal to vet New Zealand Universities on the aspect of academic freedom and public discourses. In his paper entitled “Universities as Critic and Conscience of Society: The Role of Academic Freedom”, he deems a university as a failure if it punishes any academic for their public engagement in the media. He also deems it a failure for universities that have no professors engaging at all in public discourses.

One of the things that I would love to see for the first time in 25 years is a public discourse on an important national issue debated by panelists from academia, various NGOs and political parties. I feel sad that whenever I want to hear a view by someone deemed as ‘opposition’, I would have to download the YouTube version of his lecture given at a noted university in Australia. Why can’t I listen to this man here at UTM? He is a Malaysian and a veteran politician who has been appointed as a full professor at a noted American University. Where is our academic freedom?

Recently, a group of young lecturers complained to me that they feel stressed their first day on the job after the faculty briefing. They were stressed at the number of journal publications needed and amount of grants to be secured. When I asked them whether the faculty mentioned the importance of books and public engagement, they all shook their heads and said that nothing was mentioned remotely close to those responsibilities.

I felt a deep pain that the profession I love most has been turned into a paper publishing factory and not any chance given to be a visionary for a better society. I have 25 years to know that Deans of public universities are simply followers of the Vice Chancellor’s instructions. So I gave these new lecturers the only advice I could: If you listen to these kinds of Vice Chancellors, know that they will change and what they do is only for a selfish agenda.

But if you listen to your heart and conscience, and work towards developing the society, then your life will have a better meaning than just following someone else’s instructions. You are the expert in your chosen fields and only you and your conscience shall truly govern your KPI. So..why listen to this kind of VC? Be yourselves the conscience of society.

Dr Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi is the author of Why Listen to the Vice Chancellor? University as the Conscience of Society

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