varsities in perplexity

©The Star (Used by permission)
Brave New World by Azmi Sharom

A vice chancellor must understand the needs of academia. Merit has to be the paramount factor when hiring, firing and promoting.

OVER the years I have said many times (to any unfortunate soul listening) that two of the root causes of the poor state of Malaysian public universities are the appointment method of vice chancellors (VC) and the utter repression of our students.

Both matters are dealt with by the Universities and University Colleges Act. For about two years now there has been talk about this Act being amended. The amending Bill is finally ready and waits to be debated in parliament.

For this week, let’s look at the appointment of the VC. The choice of a VC is terribly important. They set the tone for the university and they can do much inside the institution to improve things, even within the limitations of Malaysian law and politics.

A VC has to have excellent managerial skills because it’s hard to think of a more unmanageable group of people than academics. They tend to be argumentative and questioning; at least those who understand that, as academics, they should be argumentative and questioning.

A good manager, however, does not mean a bureaucrat. A university can only thrive when there are as few bureaucratic obstacles as possible. A person enamoured by forms and the filling of forms, and who thinks this is the way to achieve academic excellence, should work for Sirim instead.

VCs must also be fairly presentable creatures as they, more often than not, represent their institution. By this I mean well spoken, intelligible and not parochial. I don’t mean they have to be handsome or pretty. That would make it hard to find anyone.

Finally, and most importantly, a VC must understand the needs of academia. Merit has got to be the paramount factor when hiring, firing and promoting (please don’t write angry emails about student intake and merit, it is out of the university’s hands – at least for now).

Academic standards must not be compromised for any reason and academic integrity (no cutting and pasting from the net and claiming it’s your work, thank you) must be the ethos to live by.

VCs must truly appreciate academic and intellectual freedom. They must realise that due to its nature a university must promote the autonomy of both the individual and the institution.

A simple example is that the needs of a humanities department are extremely different from the needs of a science department. As such, they require the autonomy to decide what is best for them. In universities, one size, most definitely, does not fit all.

A VC must thus respect the freedom of those working and studying in the university and must be courageous enough to stand up against any threat that challenges the very values that is required for a university to be good.

It’s not easy, especially with a government like ours, but this must be done and done in real terms, not just lip service.

The law as it stands states that the VC is chosen by the Higher Education Minister after consultation with the university’s board. The Bill proposes that an ad hoc committee be set up when necessary to advice the minister in the choice of VC.

This is indeed an improvement on the old method, which gave total discretion to the minister and which led to appointments being made, more often than not, on the political correctness of the candidate (and here I mean he or she supports the correct political party).

However, I’m not all that convinced about this new set-up either.

The minister is the one who appoints the committee, and therefore is he likely to choose a group of people who don’t at the very least think along the same lines as he does? Will their advice be “politically correct”?

The committee looks very much like a search committee. This is the method that universities in developed parts of the world use to find a VC.

A true search committee is appointed by the university’s board, and opens the call for applications to anyone interested. It could be limited to the country or it could be open to the world.

There is a criterion which the committee must adhere to when sifting through the potential candidates, usually based around the qualities I mentioned earlier.

It then makes a shortlist and calls for interviews. Some universities involve the student body and the staff union in the interview. After this process it makes its recommendation to the board.

There is no government participation, and therefore no political criterion is involved, only academic and managerial. All this is done in an open and transparent manner which can be scrutinised by all.

Obviously, this is not the case with the suggested committee on the Act. There are still many unanswered questions with regard to it. Its make-up is just one.

What is the criterion it is to use in seeking a VC; will the search be based on an open call or will it be a matter of making a short list on its own?

None of these concerns are dealt with in the Bill, so forgive me if I am not dancing around with joy at this “improvement”. We still have to see how the committee works in practice before we get excited.

At least the explanatory notes to the Bill explain that the purpose of having a committee is to make the process more transparent.

That is something the academic community should hold the ministry to, and we should demand that the committee’s decision-making process is as open as possible and we should then scrutinise its activities (if the amendment Bill is passed) with eagle eyes.

For the next column, I shall discuss the implications of the amendment on students. And examine if the proposed changes will actually make much difference to their repressed little lives.

Dr Azmi Sharom is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely his own.