Sunday, March 14, 2021

Academic Freedom and Societal Values


By John A. Akec*


Professor Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California, Berkley, has described universities in his book, Uses of University, as the ‘cities of intellect.’ The occupants of these cities are professors and students who have devoted their lives to teaching, research, and production of knew knowledge. By mid twentieth century, universities have increasingly assisted the state and served communities around them in some meaningful ways, through the application of knowledge to solve economic and social problems.


In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the justification for a university is that it preserves connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in an imaginative consideration of learning.” That over the last six centuries, universities have trained the pioneers of human civilization. Especially “the priests, the lawyers, the statesmen, the doctors, the men of science, and the men of letters.” And that the universities have been homes of those ideals which cause men and women to confront the challenges of their times.


These ideals have been preserved over the centuries by granting ‘academic freedom’ that included but not limited to freedom of thought and speech for the professor within the walls of university city. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has argued forcefully in Beyond Ivory Tower that the right to speak and write as one chooses is fundamental to individual liberty and is essential in contributing to a stimulating life. And without such liberty, no academic can participate fully in an intellectual exchange that helps in developing one’s own values and outlook of the world, and to exercise the mental faculties of imagination that are uniquely human. That human progress over the centuries has been made possible by major discoveries and advances in knowledge that appeared, at first sight, as unsettling and distasteful to prevailing order. And that only few individuals have the intelligence and imagination, and courage to openly communicate these discoveries.


By guarding against the erosion of academic freedom for the professor, universities can ensure an environment in which academics and students can be creative and most productive in expanding the frontiers and increasing the stock of human knowledge.


However, academic freedom has constantly come under attack from multiple fronts, chiefly because of the emergence of multiversity in the mid twentieth century that extended the function of university as an institution for teaching and research to include service to community.


As a result of this extended function of the university to serve as “an arm of the state” and an instrument for societal service, professors have assisted their countries in war efforts, in designing economic policies, and in solving social problems.


That in turn led to the lost of detachment often associated with the academic output. The involvement of professors with society’s affairs has raised serious moral questions when academic scientists assisted in the development of atomic bomb that was used to attack Heroshima, as well as in planning of the fire raids on Tokyo and Dresden in the Second World War.


Similarly, students and professors at Columbia University opposed the appointment of Dr. Henry Kissinger as special chair in international relationship in 1977 for his role, as the US Secretary of State, in the bombing of Hanoi, invasion of Cambodia, and lengthening of the Vietnam War. Dr. Henry Kissinger decided not to take up the appointment after all, despite the willingness of Columbia University administration to effect effect it on the principle that Kissinger’s scholarly contribution had nothing to do with his role as a political decision maker. Another case involving moral dilemmas in relation to academic freedom was the decision of City College of New York to bar the English philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, from lecturing at their college, citing his views deemed immoral as they were perceived to condone extra-marital relations.


To close, in author’s view, while universities will continue to protect academic freedom as the pillar of intellectual creativity, we must also bear in mind that as long as universities continue to get involved with societal affairs, academic freedom will come under fire from multiple fronts; not only for political reasons, but also for moral standards the society expects of the academics.


*This article was first published in Juvarsity, March 2021

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The Route to World-Class University Status Way off?


By John A. Akec


The World Cup competition involves 209 national teams fighting for 32 slots in the grand finale at the end of every four years. The best, if lucky team, wins the coveted gold trophy. Other up runners get trophies of lesser grades as recognition.


In the academic world, in contrast, the names of the top 10, 100, 200, or 2000 best performing universities from a list of more than 25,000 existing world universities are published annually in league tables of the world-class universities by non-profit ranking organisations. These organisations include Times Higher Education World University Ranking (THE WUR), Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), QS World University Ranking, and US News & World Report global ranking. The Times Higher Education (THE) ranking awards 40 percent of points to institutional reputation. Shanghai Jiao Tong league tables, On the other hand, use statistical data to rank universities.


Universities with ‘world-class’ status are known for their highly rated research output, their culture of excellence, their great facilities, and their brand names that transcend national borders, according to Cloete and Maan at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.


While the international league tables fuel global ‘reputational competition’ amongst universities in research performance, some of the indicators and ranking practices have attracted criticism. These include using the number of Nobel prize-winning alumni as a proxy for the research excellence, favouring publications in English, placing the older and wealthier Northern American and European universities at the top of the lists, and ignoring or undervaluing teaching and service to society.


Furthermore, about 70 of the 100 top-ranked world universities originate from English-speaking countries. The rankings have been influential in deciding who is eligible to receive scholarship grants, as well as where good scholars head for work or study. Namely, ranking puts less reputable universities at some disadvantage. Fears have been expressed that such competition may eliminate institutional diversity as everyone strives to look ‘like Harvard or Oxford’, a phenomenon called “institutional isomerism.’


Nevertheless, league tables can influence the formation of institutional strategies. For example, because of ‘Harvard here syndrome’, German government initiated the Excellence Initiative in 2010 that aimed to concentrate resources in fewer but competitive German universities. It also experimented with awarding ‘foundation status’ to selected universities in order to make them more autonomous and responsive to changing operating environment.


Similarly, in Finland, University of Aalto was formed as a merger of Helsinki School of Economics, the Helsinki University of Technology, and University of Arts and Design, in order to pool resources and strive to achieve world-class excellence. 


Generally speaking, global ranking tables are dominated by top research universities in industrialised countries, also known as Super RUs. This is a small percentage of all post-secondary institutions and range from 3% out of 3000 universities in China, to 5% out of 4000 universities in US, to 25% out of 100 universities in United Kingdom.


For research universities to flourish, national higher education systems are required to differentiate in their missions at post-secondary levels; and to organize and align their programmes and priorities with appropriate missions. Some of our universities could address the growing demand for access, while the flagship universities (Juba, Bahr El Ghazal, and Upper Nile) align their research and academic programs to national economic growth and social development goals, and to connect with national and global knowledge economy. In some communities where uniformity is preferred in order to create equal society, such calls for vertical, as opposed to horizontal differentiation, may fall on deaf ears.


Yet make no mistake, the route to world-class, while expanding access, passes through differentiation. A good example of a differentiated higher education system is offered by the US state of California comprising a number of private universities, and public universities with three tier system of ten campuses of University of California with 220,000 students; state universities on 23 campuses with combined student population of 430,000; and an undefined number of open two-year community colleges that enrolled 1.5 million students in 2009.  


As for us in South Sudan, the route to gaining world-class status demands that our flagship universities be well led and well governed, have critical mass of talented staff and students, and an unfettered access to financial resources.


By the look of things, we are still way off the track.