Stephen Hawking on Wednesday stunned Israelis and set off a day of mixed reports about his motives for calling off plans to attend a major conference in Israel next month. But by the end of the day, it appeared clear that he was honoring the boycott of Israel set up by some pro-Palestinian groups. Early Wednesday, word spread that Hawking was going to skip the conference due to the boycott, but then a spokesman for the University of Cambridge, where Hawking is on the faculty, told The Guardian that the reason the visit had been called off was the scientist's health. Subsequently, the spokesman said he had been wrong, and that Hawking did want to honor the boycott.
The Guardian printed an excerpt from a letter Hawking sent to conference organizers in which he said: "I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster."
The decision of Hawking to honor the boycott was greeted as a huge boost to the movement to encourage scholars and others to stay away from Israel. For Israelis and supporters, to have such a prominent scientist honor the boycott -- which has been criticized as antithetical to academic values by many American scholarly groups -- was a major blow.
The president of Hebrew University of Jerusalem is leading a delegation to China, where the university anticipates signing several agreements, including a cooperation agreement with Peking University to establish a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-funded center for Chinese language and cultural education that will be the second in Israel. The university also expects to sign an agreement with a donor who has committed $8 million for scholarships for Chinese students.
The Scholars at Risk network has welcomed the acquittal of Habib Kazdaghli, a dean at the University of Manouba, in Tunisia, who was accused of slapping one of two veiled students who entered his office without permission. The incident was part of a broader dispute involving conservative Muslims about the university’s prohibition on students veiling their faces in the classroom.
The Associated Press reported that the two students in question were convicted of damaging property in the dean’s office. The dean, Kazdaghli, has maintained that he was defending himself against the students’ affront.
At Wannabe U, a research university that I have been observing for years, the provost and president have announced that it is time to create a new academic plan. (That's a business plan garbed in academic regalia, gold tassel and all.) "We have exceeded many of [the] goals" set in the last plan, the announcement said. It also revealed that this newest plan is to guide restructuring: It will set the criteria for eradicating academic departments and eliminating jobs.
When I spoke at several Australian universities in March, I heard professors utter the same words again and again: "We are undergoing restructuring." (Some universities had already experienced restructuring several times.) That process apparently means to combine departments into larger units so as to achieve the "three Es" of the new managerialism -- economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Together, those three Es also constitute the framework being used to "modernize" American higher education. As Wannabe U contemplates a new business plan, I find some aspects of Australian restructuring much too familiar, as though we and our colleagues down under are living the same nightmare. Other practices seemed strange indeed.
Several processes are occurring simultaneously. Departments are being lumped together to form new constellations of schools and faculties. (In Australian academic parlance, schools are a bureaucratic unit composed of disciplines or programs. A faculty consists of a collection of schools.) But, my newly met colleagues insisted, restructuring is not about encouraging interdisciplinarity or intellectual cross-fertilization by increasing the administrative proximity of related fields of inquiry.
Rather, I was told, central administrators have been combining units as universities pare down the number of schools and faculties they harbor to extirpate unnecessary courses, eliminate "redundant" workers, and increase what the Aussies, like the British, call "casualization" and Americans term "contingent labor." As in the United States, such practices are more likely to be applied to the arts, humanities and social sciences rather than to the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, mathematics -- which supposedly promise to raise needed income through contracts, grants, and inventions and to goose the region's and the nation's ability to succeed in international economic competition.
An Australian middle manager at a university explained to me: "The restructuring can be of academic units (initially melting departments into schools, now, [after several iterations] melting bits of schools into other schools but it can also be of degrees (in which case the usual path is to reduce dramatically the number of majors in a B.A.). This is important, because it is a way to reverse engineer academic redundancies." Mostly restructuring pares the staff which supports academics. In both countries, restructuring redirects funds from academic to administrative support. But at Melbourne's La Trobe University, 40 professors took the hit, as Katherine Bode and Leigh Dale explained in The Australian Humanities Review.
In essence, a young man at an Australian university, given to analogies, told me, "Think of it as a kind of colonialism." Eventually the imperial power (or central administration) augments itself at the expense of the faculties. It hires staff to satisfy new federal mandates, such as monitoring teaching and research productivity, expands efforts at marketing, building alumni loyalty (and donations), and managing its reputation, and founds and expands what Americans call Institutes for Teaching and Learning, which have burgeoned in both countries. This fellow added that the imperial powers set the terms by which their subjects live. At best, there is a pretense of consultation.
I have encountered other components of this sort of restructuring before. In Wannabe U, I discussed some ways that a particular long-gone provost appointed committees. One was to select members whom he knew desired the same outcome that he did. Another was to so meticulously map the tools and processes which the provost charged the committee to use that its members were essentially filling in the numbers of a formula that the provost had devised. The committee members were his functionaries. That same provost used to explain how many meetings he had taken to reach a decision. He never summarized others’ opinions or even said whether people disagreed with him – only that it was his responsibility to make decisions, whether those others liked his decisions or not.
I have also heard the president of a distinguished private university discuss redundancies. He boasted about his method of eliminating superfluous courses to save money; he appointed a committee to study the course catalog and syllabuses. Was statistics for sociologists so similar to statistics for political scientists that one department had to retire its course? Did a chemistry course cover some of the same material as a biology course? And, of course, one can always save money by increasing the number of students who must enroll for a course. (So much for the "boutique" courses for exceptional students and the faculty hungry to teach them.) At Wannabe U, a course with too few students cannot be offered. At one Australian university, a unit must pay the central administration if it carries a course whose enrollment is deemed too low. (Needless to say, units eliminate those courses to avoid the penalty.)
And then there’s the matter of adjuncts. Explaining a two day-strike of the staff of Australia’s University of Sydney, the distinguished sociologist Raewyn Connell wrote: "Over time, university managers have responded to funding pressures by making job insecurity grow – through outsourcing of general staff work, erosion of tenure, and above all, casualization. To management, this looks like flexibility. To many of my younger colleagues, it looks like a life of precarious labor, scrabbling for short-term, part-time and totally insecure appointments." She adds, "These are poor conditions for building an intellectual workforce. From an educational point of view, it means a mass of teaching done by staff who can’t build up the experience, depth of knowledge, or confident relationship with students that are needed for the very best teaching."
Connell is describing the conditions of our own work, one of my American colleagues informed me.
Equally noxious is the practice of setting publication quotas. These quotas really do involve publish or perish. One administrator at an Australian university requires researchers in the humanities and social sciences to publish four refereed articles a year and teaching faculty to publish two. Yup: He counts instead of monitoring quality and so virtually guarantees that his faculty will not undertake the challenging projects that require deep thought and take years to bring to fruition. His practice reminded me of Wannabe University’s Professional Responsibilities Doctrine, particularly its emphasis on assessing acceptable academic performance by counting how many articles, grants and whatever a professor has accumulated each year. Wannabe U's new business plan is sure to increase the standards used to gauge a professor's productivity, Many professors still feel that the metrics in the last business plan were a speed-up of the academic assembly line.
Ultimately, though, I have trouble understanding one key aspect of restructuring in Australia. The combinations of departments lumped into schools are so different from those that prevail in the United States and there is so much variation from one university to another that I have a hard time following the logic of permutation and recombination. Are schools and colleges supposed to combine related fields? Why is philosophy classified in the humanities in one university and in the social sciences at another? Why does social science include sociology, anthropology, and criminology but not demography? Why does one university’s School of Cultural Inquiry include Victorian English literature, classics and ancient history, while Victorian history is housed in a School of History that specializes in early modern and modern Australia, North America, and Europe?
When classificatory systems seem nonsensical, there must be another principle at work. One of the three Es – economy -- provides an answer. In Australia, a colleague claimed, central administrators have been combining financially productive and fragile departments into new units, letting those units steep in their juices, and then rearranging them, as well as their bits and pieces, again. Structured and restructured, combined and recombined, these ever-larger units may not have intellectual integrity, but they help central administrators to eliminate sluggardly departments, to build their own managerial capacity to initiate and respond to accountability measures, and to react to the diminishing public funding that is increasingly characteristic of higher education in most countries.
In the United States at most research universities, including Wannabe U, central administrators appoint committees to identify departments that are weak and so do not deserve to retain their graduate programs. At liberal arts colleges, the committees are to fold whole departments, not merely graduate programs. At most institutions, the administrators set the criteria used to define weakness, much as done at Wannabe several years ago. The carefully selected committee has the unenviable task of filling in the boxes of the rubric that a central administrator has constructed. Today, members of Wannabe’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors hope that the faculty will be able to decide the criteria used to measure strength and weakness. However, with their Australian colleagues, the faculty at Wannabe shares the realization that the central administrations' perceived need for academic extirpation is not open to negotiation.
In Australia, economy, efficiency and effectiveness are federal mandates. In America, those mandates come from the states with the federal government consistently pushing them to spend less and achieve more. In Australia, central administrations announce new combinations of departments that are to comprise new schools. In America, central administrators strongly advise -- virtually insist -- which combination of disciplines should work together to meet the financial and workforce needs of their state.
Perhaps because I am an American academic, I find the Australian combinations of disciplines to be quite strange. I betcha that Australian academics would find the rationalized and interchangeable American combinations of fields to be so rationalized as to be McDonaldized, akin to the ubiquitous McBurger or a luxurious McMansion.
Strange as some aspects of our work lives may seem to one another, too much seems the same. We are threatened by the academic version of McJobs. Before I left the U.S., I had read such classic American treatments of Australian tertiary education as Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie's Academic Capitalism as well as refereed articles by Australian researchers. I was familiar with the argument that European nations were reverse engineering American practices Then I went to Australia and learned that academic worlds are becoming more similar and more besieged than I had thought.
Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News.
Japan is planning to offer scholarships for students at its universities to study abroad, The New York Times reported. The move is aimed to reverse a decline in the number of Japanese students who go abroad, and to make the country more competitive economically.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has outlined new steps for verifying international students' visas at immigration checkpoints, according to an internal memo obtained by the Associated Press.
The changes are a response to the fact that a student from Kazakhstan charged with destroying evidence related to the Boston Marathon bombings was allowed to reenter the U.S. Jan. 20 despite the fact that he had been academically dismissed from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and his visa terminated. Currently, not all border agents have access to Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) data; information about visa status can only be verified when a student is referred to a second immigration officer for additional questioning. While the department works to correct this problem, new interim procedures call for checking students’ visa statuses pre-arrival based on information from flight manifests.
A majority of the 18 universities in Quebec have said they will leave the association that represents postsecondary institutions in the province, University Affairs reported. According to the publication, the institutions are unhappy about how well the group has represented their needs, partly because of its muted response to recent government budget cuts.
The denial of tenure for Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, has attracted criticisms from scholars around the world, as well as from his current and former students, who have praised George's strong record as a scholar and teacher and suggested that it could only be objections to the sensitive subject of his research – press freedoms and state power in Singapore – that have blocked his tenure bid. Now, following the rejection of George’s appeal, four of his colleagues at NTU – including two former deans of the school of communication and information -- have added their voices to the chorus.
“Both the two former deans, Emeritus Professor Eddie Kuo and Professor Ang Peng Hwa, are of the view that Cherian has been one of the most valuable additions to the School in teaching, research and service,” states the letter, which is addressed to the NTU president. “He has launched some of the most innovative programs that have brought fame and funds to the School.” (Those programs are outlined in some detail in the letter.)
“It is against this backdrop that we are perplexed as to what exactly NTU expects of its staff in order to earn tenure. Those of us who are not yet tenured need to know: what more than Cherian do we have to do? Those of us who are counselors to younger staff need to explain in clear and precise terms what Cherian has failed to achieve so they may do better when their turn comes. Those of us who have helped build the School’s reputation, and indeed NTU’s integrity, need to respond to the numerous critics with unimpeachable reasons why their suspicions are misplaced. The controversy that Cherian’s case has generated is unprecedented in the School’s history and one that is causing serious damage to our academic reputation and professional integrity. It also has serious repercussions on NTU’s ability to attract top communications scholars, coming at a time especially when the School has 10 faculty vacancies to fill.”
NTU has declined to comment on George’s case, citing the confidentiality of employment matters.