Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Local Academics are Afraid

On Tuesday, there was a forum on “Academic Freedom and Fundamental Rights” at the Kuala Lumpur-Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Former law professor Abdul Aziz Bari complained that faculty staff in local universities are "too afraid to push for academic freedom because this may affect their chance of being promoted or receiving honorific titles like Datuk".

“They go to Amsterdam or Geneva to be awarded a gold medal, stay in five-star hotel… after that, they go to the Higher Education Ministry to seek an extension (of their contract) to become vice-chancellor or deputy vice-chancellor. This is what is happening now,” Abdul Aziz alleged.

And he even made the claim that academicians themselves were lazy!

“The majority remain at the university only to earn a livelihood... When they step into a lecture hall with their notebook, they (churn out the same information every) year until (they are able recite it from memory),” he said.

“They don’t have new ideas, don’t carry out research, don’t compose anything – all because of fear.

“They get into universities (or become professors, deputy dean, dean, vice-chancellor or rector) by pulling cables – and become afraid.

“These academicians have done wrong by letting themselves become slaves and running dogs ... they are not promoting academic freedom, their job is to ensure the universities are maintained as part of the government bureaucracy.”

I am not surprised by his remarks. And neither do I disagree. As an academic in a private university, I know that many of my colleagues, whether in private or public universities who are only interested to do their jobs. This is not to say that they are not efficient or effective even. But they lack energy and enthusiasm and excitement. Students are likely to have lecturers who merely go through the motions of educating young minds. They should count their lucky stars if they find those who are really passionate!

Another panelist, Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia (UIAM) lecturer Maszlee Malik supported Bari’s views. He said the prevailing culture of patronage and fear in universities has deeply affected academicians and students.

“Academicians rely on their political masters to (be nominated for) titles like ‘Datuk’ or ‘Datuk Seri’, or promotions. They fear receiving warning letters (for disciplinary transgressions).

“They have lost their courage, identity and the ability to think. Why? (This is because) their hearts are surrounded by fear.

“(Students) are afraid that their (National Higher Education Loans) will be pulled back. They are afraid of scoring low marks, afraid of being expelled by the universities, afraid of everything.”

This culture is maintained, Maszlee said, to ensure that the minds of students are like bonsai plants.

“This is to control their minds. It also control our rights as academicians to speak up as responsible intellectuals to change society,” he said.

As a lecturer, we should look beyond our textbooks and our PowerPoint slides. It’s bad enough that our students are like lambs – meek and docile and worse, they are the unquestioning types. If academicians are also in the same mold, then how can we produce excellent students?

It is time to overhaul the education system, be it schools or universities. We must encourage critical thinking and community engagement. What we have presently is an under-achieving system that is churning out memory chips. Little wonder universities produced unemployable graduates. We must have the courage to look inwards in order to find ourselves. We must be the agents of change! For students, universities and the community. Dare we? 

Sunway University’s new academic building is a work-in-progress. Check out these photos taken this morning:

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