Ending my academic career.
Posted on 22:20, April 15th, 2011 by Pablo
This is a personal note. I have finished classes at the National University of Singapore, ending my visiting professorship at that institution. Although I have some marking to do before I wind things up at NUS, it looks to be the last time that I will grace a classroom. Rather than with a bang, I am going out quietly (although not quite whimpering). The moment is bittersweet.
Some detractors and malicious rumor-mongers notwithstanding, I have generally had very good evaluations by students in the four countries in which I have taught. I have also enjoyed having the library access and other support that goes with university employment, which has allowed me to research and write on over a dozen issues and countries spanning the fields of comparative and international politics. The output has been good–3 books, over 50 scholarly articles, chapters, reviews and monographs, more than 120 opinion and editorial essays and a a swag of nice fellowships, including Fulbright, Heinz, Tinker and Kellogg research fellowships as well as an Asia-Pacific Rim University fellowship the year before Auckland dispensed with me. All in all it was a decent ride (to say nothing of comparable with what passes for the best of contemporary NZ political scientists) and I still have research and writing projects to complete that will keep me busy after my return to NZ in June.
What I am less thrilled about is having to leave academia in the first place, which is a result of my contratemps with Auckland University. That resulted in my de facto blacklisting in NZ academia and a besmirching of my reputation abroad. I have applied for over 30 academic positions, including twice at Otago and three times at Victoria, without even making it past the first round in spite of being amply qualified for all of the listings (some at universities of less repute when compared to the ones I have taught at and with academic staff with far less credentials than mine (NUS is placed 30 places above Auckland in international rankings). The fact that I was eventually vindicated in my employment dispute, and found to be correct in my assessment that the student excuse that led to my unjustified dismissal at the hands of the current Auckland University management turned out to be, as I suspected, a ruse rather than a verifiable fact, matters little now. My name has been sullied to the point that I am no longer employable in my chosen and long-held (25 years) career. I often wonder if I have a case for defamation given that I was called a racist and a few other choice epithets in the aftermath of the email exchange that led to my dismissal (those accusations still circulate on the internet and were mentioned by NUS officials when they initially cancelled my visiting professorship, only to relent when I won the ERA case). What I cannot undo is my (admittedly rude) email, the reaction of NZ university managers when they see my name, or the internet-generated taint associated with it.
Some readers may see my revisiting of this theme as whinging, and it is, a bit. But my reflection is also about comparative loss and gains: I have been ejected from academia while the duplicitous student and university managers were rewarded for their unethical behavior. People like Tony Veitch and Paul Henry (to say nothing of a bunch of email abusers) do worse things and keep their careers. That sucks, for me in particular but also as a general principle.
I am fortunate to have a partner who has secured an academic position in NZ so that we can return, and that I have enough political risk consulting experience to start a dedicated consultancy along those lines, the first such in NZ, as an alternative. But I remain wistful about the classroom door closing. The class was, for me, a moment in which I could reveal another persona, one far more extroverted than my usual self, in order to communicate the language, concepts and importance of politics to undergrad and grad students. It was a wonderful moment when I got out of my skin and put the full emotive weight into my feelings about politics. It was a moment when I relived what I did in past lives and what I hoped for the future. It was, in sum, a moment that I could not capture, nor would I expect would be accepted, outside the classroom. Taken together over the course of more than two decades, those are moments that I relish and which I will miss, and which I believe I should have been allowed to enjoy for years to come.
As for students, I can only say that the top ten percent of undergrads in any country that I have taught are world class, the bottom ten percent should not be at university, and the rest divide out according to how hard they work. NZ students were, I hate to say it, particularly lazy and prone to lame excuses about their failure to meet obligations and fulfill assignments, something that foreign exchange students picked up on and elaborated–a syndrome that eventually did me in.
For the record, I should note that the NZ student excuses–95 percent of which were offered the day before, the day of, or after the assignment was due, with no proof of any work done on the assignment (which I made a point of requesting to see if progress towards completion had been made)–were culturally and nationality-driven: Pakeha and white exchange students offered computer and relationship failures as the reason for the failure to complete on time; Pacific Islanders, Asian and Middle Easterners offered family tragedies as the excuse (as a comparative cultural aside, the main excuse of NUS students is food poisoning, given the Singaporean national penchant for eating at unhygenic outdoors food hawker stalls. The trouble is that 10 percent of the student population comes down with food poisoning on the same week at the end of the semester, and they all did eat not in the same place. That is statistically improbable, especially when repeated year after year like the NZ excuses).
In 99 percent of the cases the student offered no proof of the excuse, and as it turns out, because of the volume of students with excuses given towards the end of the semester, the university health centre at Auckland does not bother asking for them for proof of bereavement or physical or emotional distress before issuing medical and mental health certificates. University Health just accepts the student’s word as to the ailment, in concert with the amount of extension requests increasing 100-fold during the last week of classes or exam week. In other words, ask for a medical or mental health certificate for an extension early in the semester, one might be asked for proof. Ask for a mental health or medical certificate at the end of the semester when the rush of extension requests is on, then no proof is required. There is a claim of right in this process, and it is perverse.
Phrased politely, the extension-issuance system at Auckland U. is being gamed, and the university managers actively connive in the play because the point of the university is to keep fees-paying “consumers” happy regardless of academic merit (As things turned out, no mental health certificate was ever presented by the student involved in my case).
This may be an uncomfortable fact for people to deal with, but it gives an idea of the pressures lecturers (and university health professionals) are faced with when it comes to marking in a “bums in seats,” profit-before-quality educational atmosphere. As for the serious students–they always alerted me as soon as possible to a family or personal problem, showed me the work they had begun on the assignment, and inevitably were granted an extension that was fair to them as well as the rest of the class.
Whatever the case, the vast majority of students, be it in the US, NZ, Singapore or Chile (where I taught briefly as a visitor), were responsive to what I had to say and what I was trying to convey. Which is why I am left with this: if any of the 5000+ students I have taught has left my classes informed about something that they did not know before they entered the class, then I did my job. If they went on to inform their lives with some of that knowledge, that is icing on the cake.
I suspect I have left some icing on the cake.