Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

The Academic Shallows

In the wake of the Stapel affair academic reputation and credibility has suffered in the public eye. Media reports about faculty awarding easily low passing grades just to get rid of the students did also contribute to a picture of dubious practices becoming standard in academic work. Most recently undersecretary of state Halbe Zijlstra issued a call for action to save the face of the universities and preserve the public's faith in higher education and academic research. This is the latest intervention in a long list of interferences in the inner affairs of academia. And this one also won't contribute to a constructive solution but will be yet another brick in the wall.

Academia has an outstanding record in dealing quite efficiently with fraud and plagiarism. A scholar found guilty of violating standards of academic procedure is punished, and is punished far more severely than politicians who often get away with their ethical transgressions. Scholars enjoy great freedom and independence, but a scholar found to be guilty of plagiarism will lose all that and more. Friends and colleagues will turn their back and cut off any ties. It is an epic fail: losing face and being expelled from a community that is most often not exclusively professional but also made up of of long time friendships. All that will vanish. The scholarly life ends. Period. Each and every scholar is aware of this and takes it for granted. Of course improvements are possible and should be implemented, most importantly to protect young researchers who happen to work under an unethical senior colleague and give them the chance to come forward to report misconduct.

To implement an oath as has been recently proposed is a shallow and merely symbolic act that demonstrates the extent to which Academia is lost. Asking scholars to pledge to work according to scientific standards neither addresses the problem nor does it provide any solution. No scholar who chooses to cut some corners for success and commits serious misconduct in the process will be stopped by an oath. Even worse, as long as misconduct goes unnoticed the system will reward and keep rewarding this scholar.

The core of the problem lies much deeper. It is not the potential misconduct, which in most cases will be traced and consequently punished without any need of external forces to intervene in academia's inner affairs.

The core of the problem is the ongoing deterioration of academic values and the emergence of a system that rewards certain seemingly measurable results. From high passing percentages in teaching over publications in A-listed journals to the awarding of research grants, academic production has been cut down into measurable units of result-oriented work. This provides a stimulus to live up to the expectations, to meet the standards of academic management or those of a certain institutional language, such as the language of journal reviewers and grant committees. These issues have been addressed frequently in a plethora of good publications which all blame the focus on seemingly measurable results to reward the quantitative aspects instead qualitative ones.

This problem is rooted in two areas fundamentally affecting today's universities: The diffusion of a pseudo-market-liberal rhetoric throughout Academia and the Bologna process. The latter unleashed a staggering increase of bureaucracy upon higher education. Scholars deal now with an increase of mid-term grading, shorter teaching cycles and a barely disguised pressure to produce a high number of passing grades. The neo-liberal rhetoric is very apt for squeezing higher education into the new teaching requirements: on the one hand it serves the bureaucratic administration of education as a benchmarking process where small bits of tested knowledge are valued more highly than the development of argument and analytical reason. On the other hand it slavishly serves a misunderstood concept of result and efficiency oriented work processes. It sees the university as a pressure cooker where scholars simply pass along tested and stable knowledge, boiling up the future workforce for the information age. Currently universities in Holland are eagerly participating in the 'Gleichschaltung' required by a political administration that is openly hostile towards culture and knowledge. It is outrageous that the constant interferences of politicians are never rejected with a reference to the certified right of universities to have—and act with—autonomy. Even the declaration of Bologna is very explicit in emphasizing the importance of university autonomy. It further declares universities and higher education as crucial elements of democracy.

The autocratic management style in our and other universities as well as the repetitive interference of politics with academia is rather counter-productive and mocks traditional academic rights and values. There is of course nothing politicians and university managers have to fear in their abolishment of academic freedom. Like a flock of sheep most scholars seem to bow under their regime and students seem to show more interest in the final diploma than in the education the precedes it.

In this situation the proposed pledge by scholars to work with scientific accuracy merely serves to uphold an appearance of legitimacy, to desperately hold on to a symbolic capital we are about to lose anyway. The integrity of the scholar is so inherently interwoven with our autonomy and freedom. Our freedom and our autonomy was an important aspect serve the main objective of academic research: truth.

Truth often runs too deep to operate in the shallows, and it is certainly not popular among spin doctors of public perception. How shallow this pledge is, becomes visible when we then look at the many shortcomings of our higher education. We have hardly the time or the staff to teach scholarly methods and take the needed time to make our students familiar with the philosophy of science. And yes, teaching philosophy of science would actually confuse our students, since the overall policy is to pass along some bits of knowledge that appear as easy applicable for real-life problems or a profession students intend to occupy after graduation.

What is presented by our managerial class as a pragmatic concepts of higher education is actually quite unworldly. If our societies want to be fit to meet future challenges they need spaces where young people have the time and the freedom to expand their intellectual abilities. A manual won't teach anyone how to react to unforeseeable events, or how to deal with rapidly changing realities, and with converging domains of power in a multi-polar world. We need to help them to develop critical thinking and we need them to constantly challenge ours, so we do not become sloppy and retire to repetitive routine. Our democracies are in need of sharp and courageous young women and men who can formulate even uncomfortable truths and take decisions, not based on populist emotion, gut feeling or straight order, but based on analytical thinking and a balanced argument of social values. The universities could provide exploratory ground and the traditional academic values could be guidelines how to develop it. We need spaces open to critical debate, embracing intellectual, social and technological experiment. And they must not exclude the chance for failure. So far we do not have this exploratory space. Actually we are about to lose everything that could contribute to it: our academic values and our academic freedom. Instead we'll pledge a shallow oath for an academy lost.

This post has been originally published at DUB (26.3.2012)

Date April 2012 Category News

An institutionalised pledge in order to prevent academic fraud is useless when the entire institution is undermined by policy makers, crippled through bureaucracy and damaged by unacademic leaders. Such a pledge is as valuable as a hasty vow in a Las Vegas drive-through wedding chapel. Restoring academia's autonomy and fostering traditional academic values, however, might be a good start.

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