The Malta Independent 23 May 2018, Wednesday

Should academics position themselves on controversial issues?

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 16 May 2018, 09:35 Last update: about 7 days ago

Lately, one would have noticed that academics were becoming more vociferous and have reacted to a number of controversial issues.  We’ve had academics position themselves on abortion, a few addressed party activities, others talked about the environment, some questioned whilst others supported embryo freezing, various spoke and wrote about sex-work, several commented on governance and some are even leading the civil society movement, just to give a few examples. 

The debate on whether academics should take a principal, secondary or no role at all in public debate has always been a cantankerous dispute.   Inelegantly, there are academics who still feel that their responsibility is to steer away from contentious matters and believe they should sit silently, merely re/produce knowledge in the form of papers and journals – because ‘that is what they are paid for’.

I strongly disagree!

As academics within a State funded University I think we need to start re-thinking what it means to be an academic today and the different functions we should play in the knowledge generation and communication business we're are located in.

Fortuitously, academics are being encouraged by the public to discuss controversial issues in a multitude of contexts; in the lecture room with their students; on the social/media; as members on a number of boards and committees; in policy settings and the list is endless. True, the debates hover around sensitive themes related to race and ethnicity, gender identity, drugs and alcohol, suicide, abortion, human rights, all hot-blooded and potentially antagonistic issues. 

But what is considered controversial?

I believe that issues become argumentative and prickly when the people hold competing values and interests about them, when topics touch on political or religious sensibilities; when they arouse emotional reactions. But this does not mean academics should shy away from commenting, whether polemic or not. Guided by liberation pedagogy which seeks to develop a ‘critical consciousness’, academia is viewed as embedded and invested in social and political contemplations. However, many academics struggle with questions about positioning. A key question becomes, “Should academics discuss controversial issues in a detached manner or should they position themselves?”. Other questions ensue such as “How do we create an environment where freedom of expression, critical thinking, the scrutiny of evidence and underlying assumptions are all highly valued?” and “How do we facilitate and encourage reasoned and balanced discussion?”

So what we need to reflect on is whether academics are engaging in self-censorship. An article in the Telegraph quotes Professor Dennis Hayes, co-founder of “Academics for Academic Freedom”, saying that universities were now ruled by a “culture of censorious quietude” where academics are not able to discuss “anything difficult.” Is this happening within our University? (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/06/29/university-professors-afraid-teach-controversial-subjects-fear/)

I admit that this is indeed a very complex matter. 

Most academics, possibly even at our University, are naively judged by the amount of hours they spend lecturing, the time dedicated to administering and mentoring students and the production of research.  Some, I believe, wonder and doubt why they should even bother going down the line of taking on this role of community engagement. Within University circles you run the risk of being seen as a small fry, somebody holding-up for the camera or just keen on the attention or even worse, a commentator and that’s it.

I am convinced that the quality of the public debate would see an exponential improvement if our voices and scholarship are integrated even more in the community discourse.

As far as I’m concerned, my position on this issue is cloudless. 

I believe that our role as academics is to exert a positive impact on the design of public policy. The privileged position of the academic is wide-ranging, the first being that we have the benefit of empirical data that is at our back and call.  Moreover, we have the space and the time to think critically about the issues and to engage closely with what is happening in our community without fear of retribution or vengeance.  These components on their own are enough to reassure us.

Apart from that our Collective Agreement expects it from us;

The University of Malta has grown in size and national stature, occupying an increasingly important role in the educational sector as well as in the social and economic development of the country.....Academic freedom is essential to fulfil the ultimate objectives of an educational institution -- the free search for an exposition of truth -- and applies to teaching, research, and service. Academic freedom in teaching is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the academic member in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth, and freedom in service is fundamental to the advancement of this University, the profession, and the community.(Collective Agreement for Academic Staff of the University of Malta and Academic Staff of the Junior College 2014 ~ 2018: 8-9)

To add to this, the collective agreement also stipulates that apart from the unswerving academic criteria for promotions to Associate Professor and Professor require the following qualities;

Moreover, the applicant’s direct contribution to the University, society, culture and the economy at large and his professional service to the country and the international community will also be taken into consideration, and where extensive may be seen, at the discretion of the Promotions Board, to partially compensate for other criteria. Peer assessment of an applicant's research output should be sought from other universities. (UM Collective Agreement p. 26-27).

Even Prof. Alfred Vella, the Rector, during his installation speech stated;

‘...scholarship of service by which I mean the direct involvement of the academic with the life of the working community and that of the general community in outreach activities.’ (https://www.um.edu.mt/newspoint/news/features/2016/06/addresscongregationalfredjosephvella)

As far as I’m concerned my position on the matter is watertight - I will continue speaking!

  • don't miss