The case of IIUM's presidency
التاريخ : 13 September 2018
المحرر : dsh
الفئة : News
Posted on 12 September 2018 - 07:40pm
Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
OF late the issue of who should be a "president" of a university (likened to chairman of the board of directors in other situations) caught the interest of the public and politicians alike. It is a good sign because it means that we are taking greater interest on how our universities are being governed. And for more than six decades this issue has not received such "publicity" even though we have more than 20 public universities and counting (with a possibility of another "state" university announced recently). What is more, given that it is triple the number in the public sector.
As far as I can recall, a large number of them holding such positions can be classified as "professionals" and not "politicians" as such. Perhaps that is why there is no apparent "controversy" then.
But on closer inspection most of them are beholden to partisan politics bias to that of the ruling government of the day. Such political affiliations somehow does not count although the "impact" was just as good (or as bad) as having "true blue" politicians being physically present at the material time.
Stories of "them" making calls to a politician's office before some "hard" decisions were taken were not unusual. They were political proxies in many ways, just like the civil servants (including retired ones) who are "planted" as members of the board, so to speak, on behalf of the ministry (read minister).
The difference is subtle but the impact is very real – practically no difference vis-a-vis to the so-called "controversy" that is being aired today.
The only stark difference is that, at present, the government has committed not to involve any politician (in person), whereas the previous regime was silent on this. But the latter tolerated many politically-linked personalities, including retired politicians.
Some are real heavy weights known to "politicise" the university in no uncertain terms.
I remember one who admitted that he was appointed to "clean up" (memutihkan) the university of "opposition" politics! Hence, the culture of collegiality flew out the window as the rule of fear descended on the campus.
In other words, the entire issue on the choice of a president or a chairman is a red herring. The nett effect could be the same in the long run as amply demonstrated during the past 30 years.
In fact, I would rather risk working with a "politician" who is on record to be staunchly academic in his/her beliefs, understanding and practices relating to issues of academic freedom, and a slew of autonomies – ranging from organisational to financial as well as recruitment – because all of these are essentially tied up in one ecosystem. One cannot proceed without the other. There is no such thing as "staggered" autonomy based on "performance" as being promoted today.
Figuratively, if a university is likened to a vehicle where accuracy and speed are key to deliver impact, then lending "autonomy" only to one part, say the steering wheel and not the gearbox, will not change anything.
Such are the intricacies that must be understood in the world of academe if things are to go full throttle.
Failing to appreciate this fundamental is to "fail" the university, which is the crux of the current issue. Not just confined to the presidency or chairmanship, especially when the person concerned is clueless.
I recall one higher eduction KSU who compared "autonomy" with a camel getting into a tent. And he reckoned it takes five years for the beast to do so!
This weird idea came from a seemingly apolitical professional (if civil servants then can qualify as one) – without the slightest hint of what "autonomy" entails. So what is the fuss all about? Storm in a teacup?
Lest we forget all this started during the days when corporatising the university was considered the in-thing. Blindly emulating the corporate sector, the then university council was sacrificed to accommodate a board of directors (as it is now) instead. Explicit to this idea was to place the university under a tighter grip of the government, through the ministry of education. So it is no surprise that the alleged political appointees became convenient pawns to ensure that the political agenda took precedence over academic ones.
The "human capital" (economic) agenda coming out of The Human Capital Theory is one, at the expense of the Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan that speaks a different language of a balanced, harmonic and "sejahtera" human being (insan seimbang, harmonis lagi sejahtera dirinya). In other words, the issue at hand is just symptomatic of a larger "invasion" into the university system that now acts as a defunct idea of the corporate version. Whereas in the case of the latter the CEO has autonomy to call the shots, not so for the former.
In contrast, the university council that was hijacked in the name of corporatisation was inherently autonomous. The chairman is elected by the council, and he/she could even be a politician from the opposition party. This is the case for the University of Malaya where Dr Tan Chee Khoon (an opposition leader) was elected as chairman (think of the recent PAC chairman) after serving the council for the longest time from 1950s. And he left a significant mark on the development of the oldest university in the country.
In hindsight, we have got it right and we have proven it to the world. But then change our stance for political expediency. And that is where the problem lies distracted by the current hoo-ha that is more of a symptom of deeper interference that must be stopped once and for all as the new government has given its assurance.
Indeed, we have been barking at the wrong tree yet a again. Turning a mountain out of a molehill without really discerning what the root of the problem is.
The writer is the rector of IIUM and chairman of USIM. He also served as the 5th USM vice-chancellor (2000-2011).
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