“No society is really anxious to have that kind of person around…” – James Baldwin
James Baldwin argued that having academics around is the only hope for society and in many respects he may be right. Alex de Tocqueville who supported that view also contended that French intellectuals had a potent role to play in the French revolution. But in some ways, the belief that intellectuality is the only hope for mankind may well be a tragedy. And unfortunately, whether the public wishes to believe it or not, academics are vulnerable both internally and externally. It is not an easy occupation though there are many who believe that academics have it easy. What ease?
Many of us work more than fourteen hours a day toiling at preparing our lectures, advising students in a number of areas, (it has worsened with the advent of social media and the revolution in communication technology – at any hour of the day we are bombarded with text and calls from students), performing the role of campus mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, psychologists, you name it.
In every university, we are expected to keep up to date with the state of the art, organize research projects, write and publish, interface with the public, attend board meetings and public lectures and of course, there is the command attendance at University functions and so on. And attend you must because of “optics” and the punishment that accompanies non-attendance. But these are reserved solely for academics. And the institution expects much from us. You are required to engage in research and often there is little assistance with research funding which you are expected to source for yourself as well as procure much needed funds for the institution. There is also little to no help with research assistance. So essentially, you are expected to be many things and sometimes achieve the impossible. It is frustrating
Sometimes it seems you have little time left for yourself and your family because of the pressures of academic life. But is there appreciation? It seems not! All I hear is how much academics earn (so everyone wants a piece of that apparently fat salary, even as we haemorrhage from increased taxes and the inflated cost of living), and how little work we do, so we have it easy. It comes from internal sources as well. We never seem to do sufficient; we are over-paid and lazy and the demands become weightier and weightier. So I say – come walk in my shoes, then talk. And in some parts of the world, not counting war, academia may be the most dangerous occupation outside of journalism.
There are those who argue that any attempt to circumvent the work of academics also carries dangers with it. Why? Simply put, because such behaviour potentially imperils academic freedom. And academic freedom is vital because it permits academics to research various political or moral/ethical issues that might otherwise go unresearched for fear of victimisation. Because of academics, whether the results of their research are palatable or not, the world has seen tremendous advancement in knowledge.
Having said so, it is equally true that academics do not have absolute freedom to say and behave in any manner. There are legal restrictions and institutional policies that would obviously tie the hands of academics and invariably impose behavioural limits and responsibilities on faculty. For instance, where behavioural limits are concerned, academics ought to implicitly understand that they do not have the freedom to do nothing. Universities are absolutely clear that you must publish or perish.
Avoiding mealy mouthed
As academics we must speak the truth and I draw reference to Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union in the Gulag for his liberal views on Russia. His 1973 publication, Arkhipelag Gulag (The Gulag Archipelago), is a three-volume work which lays out the history of the labour camps in the Soviet Union. Many have blamed his frank descriptions and assessment of the Soviet Union as the beginnings of the collapse of that political and economic order. Whether we approved of the Soviet experimentation or not; whether we disapprove of the country’s partial liberalization in the form of perestroika and glasnost and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union or not, should Solzhenitsyn not have spoken the truth as he saw it?
Many Soviet sympathizers have never forgiven him for his role (same say massive role) in what they saw as the “… destruction of an ideology – the most powerful belief system of the early 20th century”. Arrested and charged with using derogatory language in personal communication with his good friend, and for his involvement in the Society for the Reform of Russian customs, (deemed to be an organization hostile to the state), Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and eventually a 20-year exile in the West. But he remained loyal to his homeland and eventually returned.
But of course, intellectuality can only be expressed in the public domain when one feels comfortable with their research and publications and their recognition by peers and others. Once this is achieved the conservatism and silence of an institution are undermined.
In the UK, academic freedom is recognised and for the last four decades there has existed special statutory protection of academic freedom of speech which is not just ordinary freedom of speech but the right to “enjoy a freedom beyond the general freedom of speech of other members of society”. In the absence of this right, the belief was that the interest of society would suffer. In other words academic freedom is a public good. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986, s. 43(1) makes provision for “freedom of speech within the law to be secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.
As I indicated last week, my probing of the subject caused me much disquiet and it is here that I simply shut the books, put away the conventions and returned to my comfort zone – corruption, electoral politics and whatever else I felt comfortable with, because, as perceived in many countries, freedom of speech must be extended to “visiting speakers” whether academics approve of the speaker or not. In other words, the same liberties and rights that we assume for ourselves we must also lend to others even when we are revolted by them. In Britain for instance, the backdrop to the enactment of the 1986 Act was the series of actions in which militant students sought to silence invited speakers. The 1986 Act sought to provide a protected academic space for freedom of speech in which all had the right to speak. Once on campus, anyone becomes a ‘protected speaker’ under the law.
A reform of the 1986 Act (1988) specifically states that academic staff have freedom of speech within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without jeopardising themselves through loss of jobs or privileges they enjoy at their institutions.
These legislative instruments are useful and perhaps what is required in the region are similar explicit legislative instruments which will guide academic institutions and staff- whether administrative or academic – in the way that the British have sought to do and which the Americans have also secured to a large extent. This ought not to be left entirely to universities which themselves are defined by their own internal politics.
The right to remain: avoiding ‘deadwood’
There are other elements of academic freedom, aside from freedom of speech, which conventions and education policy in a number of countries have attempted to regulate. Indeed, as academics we must not just avoid being mealy mouthed, we must engage in research, publication, good and effective teaching and public service (not withstanding what I said above). Yet, there are many who assume that once they have entered into academia, they have a right to remain. And this is particularly so of the Ph.D. academic – the privileged group who sometimes assume and portray that academic snootiness that is highly intolerable.
Some view academic life in the same vein as they have viewed the public service, that is, until economic distress and structural adjustment. They view it as a life-time occupation, secure from dismissal, no revolving door, just ensconced, safe from some of the trials and tribulations employees face in the private sector. Not so fast! Like every field of occupation there are performance requirements and the UWI for instance, insists that not only must academics teach, they must undertake research and publish that research as well as provide public service in various forms. So would an academic holding a Ph.D. for instance, enter academia and for a decade or more do absolutely nothing? It is not unheard of. They remain, but the same cannot be said of non-Ph.D. academics who are more accomplished in terms of public service, student supervision, publication (some of these PhD’s do not publish and rest entirely on some outdated research for a single thesis in which they have gained mastery) and teaching.
And there are those who believe that whether they are qualified for a senior or tenured position or not, once they have entered the institution it is their automatic right to remain. A colleague at an academic institution told me about his confrontation with a junior member of staff. A decade after clearly and specifically saying to that junior colleague that an advertised job was designed for a very senior member of staff and it would automatically disqualify him from being short-listed, my colleague was harangued for not recommending the individual for the job.
Next week, more on tenure.
“I am not a flatterer in singing praises to my Tsar.” (Nineteenth-century poet Alexander Pushkin)
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)