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Another note on academic decline.

datePosted on 15:48, February 2nd, 2021 by Pablo

Recently my partner and I were discussing the absence of collegiality in many contemporary academic departments. She is an academic and knowing my experience with a certain NZ university, she mentioned that it was perhaps best that I had left that profession, however under duress. Her point was that academic Taylorism (of which I have written about before on these pages) has now well and truly been entrenched in the halls of higher education, and that an old school professor like me would simply not survive in an atmosphere were students are “clients” with many rights and few responsibilities, pass/fail standards are dictated by managers rather than merit (e.g. a certain percentage–as high as 80 percent–of students must pass a course if it is to continue on the books), in-class discipline is non-existent (for example, with regard to use of cell phones and attendance), and even bibliographies and test questions are monitored and often dumbed down by bureaucrats who do not have degrees, much less higher degrees in the subjects in question (this actually happened to me before I departed the hallowed halls).

The precipitant for our discussion was two-fold: the breaking up of the Political Studies Department in my former employer and its dilution into a larger school that included dispersing political scientists throughout the campus. This removed any collegial centre of gravity, even a common room, for people who study politics and left them atomised and isolated in their far-flung offices. Sure, they can still communicate by phone and email or arrange to meet at a campus cafe, but the days of casually and spontaneously congregating for morning and afternoon tea is gone, which in turn removes the direct interpersonal discussions that often serve as catalysts for an exchange of ideas, intellectual collaboration and which underpin the very notion of “collegial” behaviour.

My partner’s employer chose to solve that problem, or perhaps did not even think of the situation at all, when it renovated the physical space in which she works into an open plan arrangement where people conduct their business in assigned small cubicles in a large airtight room. Although intellectual labour can be done anywhere (for me the best time to mull over ideas and plan classes was while running), the employer expects the academic staff to be on campus as much as possible and requires people to take annual leave if working from elsewhere (beyond the mandatory holiday leave already on the books). That forces people onto campus even if they do not have classes, meetings or student office hours. The problem is that office time in academia is a mix of bureaucratic paper-shuffling and make-work for managers, some writing or reading, some grading and marking, lots of emailing, some supervision meetings with students, regular administrative meetings of various sorts (also known as gab fests), and way too much student counselling by people who have no training in mental health or any other sort of counselling (i.e., since when is a Ph.D. in Political Science a license to counsel students on personal matters? And yet that is an expected part of the job).

That makes the open-plan arrangement a bit fraught because there is little privacy afforded by the scheme and the ambient noise levels generated by 30 or more people conducting business at the same time makes it very difficult to actually get any constructive work done. But since the managers who order the renovations conduct their business from the privacy of individual offices and do little if any face to face counselling of younger people or intellectual work, that is not their problem. I have a feeling that it will be after the new look is put into practice.

As I said before, I have previously written on KP about the pernicious affects of academic Fordism and Taylorism, so there is no point in beating that dead horse. But the discussion with my partner brought up what is one of the most embarrassing professional memories of my days in academia, which upon reflection points to a long-term downward trend in the quality of political science education in this country.

Let me explain. When I arrived in NZ in 1997 I was sold a bill of goods that my new employer was akin to “the Harvard of the South Pacific” or some such nonsense. As a University of Chicago alumni that was familiar with Australian universities, that claim did not impress me but I knew what the recruiters were trying to convey. And indeed, in those days most of the political science staff had degrees from elite, first tier institutions in Europe, North America and Australia. This led to a proliferation of older white male academics trained at such places, although by the time I arrived women had been successfully incorporated into the department and much of the post-colonial mindset was removed from it. During the 1990s Asians and Maori were brought in as well, a trend that continued while I was there.

The university was ranked about 100 positions above what it is today and the Political Studies department was actually ranked in the top 50 Political Science departments world-wide. I was hired to teach and research on civil-military relations and interest groups (in my case, labour unions) as well as Latin American Studies as part of a proposed expansion of area studies and political science offerings. For a brief while, that seemed to be a viable plan.

But academic managerialism soon struck in the form of a new VC. From then on it was a slippery slope or rush to the bottom to put “bums in seats” in order to secure EFT (Equivalent Full Time) funding. Managers began to interfere with what used to be purely departmental and classroom decisions. Research funding contacted and was subject to generic competitive models that did not account for disciplinary specificity. The union-busting project against the house collective bargaining agent for staff began in earnest and accelerated thereafter. People with research and teaching talent began to leave and boot-licking academic driftwood began to pile up. Promotion and tenure decisions were revised so that quantity rather than quality of research output and publication became key criteria for advancement.

This led to a rush towards “crony collaborations” in which academic friends produce edited collections in local or profit-oriented publication outlets and publish articles in journals edited by each other, without the scrutiny normally undergone by the peer-review process required by internationally-recognised publishers (say, in my discipline, World Politics, International Security or the International Political Science Review or Cambridge or Princeton University Presses). What used to be the norm when it came to research output rapidly became the exception to the “quantity over quality” rule ( I got a taste of this when I was advised to list my editorials and media appearances on the contrived and biased PBRF reviews required to justify departmental funding).

Towards the end of my tenure and afterwards, newer hires were increasingly recruited from non-elite graduate programs and paid at comparatively lower levels than during my first years in residence. Their PR and self-marketing skills became as or more important as their contributions to original research in the discipline. The employer demanded that courses generate a profit and, once the STEM disease set in, that they prove relevant to the Science, Technology, Economics and Management priorities of the tertiary funding model. “Non-profitable” departments like Classics or Indonesian Studies were soon eliminated.

Fees-paying foreign student enrolments increased under diminished admission standards. Existing degree requirements were lowered and “certificate,” “diploma” and other types of shallow qualification study programs proliferated. Flash buildings were built and more acquired (including a former brewery and a mansion for the VC), non-academic middle managers (many in PR) were hired by the bucketful and academic staff were told to limit photocopying, ration A4 paper and assume more administrative duties previously done by secretaries. Besides turning Ph.D.’s into clerical workers, among other things this move to “corporatise” academia along profit-oriented lines prompted PR flak-inspired suggestions in my former department that the Introduction to International Relations course for first year students be re-named “War and Peace” and that my course on Revolutions be renamed to have “9/11” in the title.

The larger point is that academic managerialism has destroyed the very concept of the academy, which if anything should be one of the last refuges from the profit motive because it rewards discipline and merit as it imparts knowledge, both conformative and transgressive, for knowledge’s or humanity’s sake rather than for money.

As the Taylorist pathogen took hold, more of the good people in the department left or retired. I was asked why I stayed and in my naivety I simply answered that it was about lifestyle and personal relationships. My partner and I had met in the late 1990s and were getting more serious, and my lifestyle out on the west flank of the Waitakere Ranges was ideal for my purposes at the time. Under an pre-existing research leave policy that was covered by my original contract I did take a couple of semester-long research leaves during those first ten years, once to the University of California San Diego and the other to the Portuguese Institute of International and Strategic Studies. Then the old research leave policy was terminated, and shortly after that, I was as well.

Before that happened, this did: In 2006 I was contacted by Guillermo O’Donnell, arguably the most famous Latin American political scientist of his generation, if not of all time. Don Guillermo, as I called him our of formal respect, was a mentor of mine from my Ph.D. days at Chicago. Along with Adam Przeworski, Philippe Schmitter and Lloyd Rudolph, he sat as an ex officio member of my Ph.D. dissertation committee. He took an interest in me because I was raised in Argentina, had participated in some political action and done human rights work there and was writing a dissertation on the Argentine State. He found it intriguing that an American guy was “so Argentine” down to my Buenos Aires accent and attitude. Later on, when he was Director of the Kellogg Institute of International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, I was awarded a residential research fellowship there in order to help finish a book I was writing at the time. Although he remained as a mentor, we became friends.

Many years later my future spouse got her Ph.D. in Political Science from Notre Dame and herself was a student of Don Guillermo even though her speciality is in European Politics and Political Economy. But like so many people trained at elite institutions, she well knew back then that exposure to a wide array of ideas and views is what makes for a good scholar, so she gravitated to him while studying there.

I mention this because in 2006 he and his wife–a sociologist who had been a colleague of mine at the Centre for the Study of State and Society in Buenos Aires in the early 1980s and later at Notre Dame in the late 1980s–were on a Ford Foundation-sponsored world tour that included lectures at several Australian universities. They contacted me to say that they would love to visit my partner and I in NZ and that all they needed was an invitation from an academic institution to do so. The Ford Foundation would pay all costs. They were particularly keen to come because Don Guillermo was an avid rugby fan and lifelong supporter of the Pumas and an admirer of the All Blacks.

In spite being given O’Donnell’s resume and biography, my department Head at the time (specifically appointed by the managerialist regime over better-qualified people)) refused to write the invitation letter. He claimed to not even recognise who O’Donnell was and did not care that the department would not have to put any money into inviting him (this Head was appointed by a very recently departed VC and his then political science minion/Dean of the Arts Faculty, who remains in a high managerial position to this day). By that time the managerial stamp had been imposed on the department, including shoulder-tapping recruitment attempts and mid-level bureaucrats from the Arts faculty sitting in on staff meetings as monitors of what was being said and done.

Chastened by the lack of collegiality and professional courtesy, I arranged to invite them as guests of the Latin American Studies Centre because even though the Latin Americanists at the Centre were not social scientists, they knew who he was (the O’Donnell family in Argentina are prominent in the arts and politics so it is a well-recognised name).

O’Donnell and his wife arrived and enjoyed their stay with us. As part of that stay, I organised an informal talk and meet-and-greet between him and my Political Studies colleagues in the then-departmental staff room. Nothing major, but a chance for the academic staff and students to interact with an actual luminary in political science (among other things, O’Donnell coined the phrase “bureaucratic authoritarianism” to describe a specific form of late 20th century capitalist dictatorship). I publicised the event across campus in student and university publications and email networks. I put up posters and spread the news by word of mouth.

When the day came, it was a debacle. I paid for the sandwiches, wine, cheese and crackers out of pocket and figured on 30 people attending. Instead, about six of my students, two of my Latin American Studies colleagues and just a single Political Studies academic staff member attended. Just one. With my partner, I and the O’Donnells, there were around a dozen people there at 4PM on a mid-week afternoon.

Maybe the time was not right and people needed to rush home or were in class. Perhaps the academics were working on Nobel Prize-level research projects. But I think not because when I asked several of them over the next days the majority stated that they did not know who he was, or he did not do what they are interested in (that from political theorists), or they were simply busy. Neither the Head or Deputy Head, both of whom ostensibly worked in the field of comparative politics, deigned to attend.

O’Donnell was gracious but perplexed by the slight. In Australia his lectures had hundreds of people in attendance. In Europe and Latin America large halls needed to be used to handle the SRO crowds. In North America his university appearances were sold-out celebrity events. In NZ, he was a nobody. He found that to be oddly ingratiating mostly because although provincial in the extreme it allowed him to relax when in the public space in measure that he was not used to. He got to visit the NZRU officess as a walk-in after getting out of a taxi.

I relate this anecdote because it shows that the decline in academic quality, at least in Political Studies at one university, began when academic managerialism took root in that university. Although there are always exceptions to this trend, the rot has now spread to other universities and runs deep into the academic fabric throughout the country. Entire “academic” programs are built around the Taylorist money-making model (I mean really, how many terrorism and/or conflict studies programs does one small country need and what the heck are non-disciplinary “autoethnographic”-based graduate degrees?). What was then, is now even more so.

It is time to call things for that they are in NZ today: the profit-driven managerial destruction of academic institutions as independent bastions of impartial truth and objective and subjective knowledge dissemination. Under the current tertiary sector leadership and mindset, I doubt that the impact of the pandemic will make things better.

In fact, it could make things worse because the push towards so-called “E-Learning” (video conference lectures and seminars) while continuing to charge the same fees will lead (as it already has) to further reductions in the physical infrastructures required for in-person teaching and promote bigger enrolments in Zoom-like settings (rather than actual classrooms or lecture theatres) where the spontaneous inter-personal dynamic between instructor and students is all but nullified. Although small group seminars can be accommodated by video (“webinars”), I know of no academic who enjoys video conferencing big class lectures, other than those who hate students anyway. Most students do not bother to attend these type of sessions and instead look for on-line power point and lecture notes with an eye towards exams rather than understanding of the subject. Of those who do attend, few engage with the lecturer. Because marking is increasingly done on-line using standardised forms, teachers reduce the amount of essay writing involved in course assignments and instead offer simplified examination options more akin to those in high school. Adding more and more foreign students with limited English language abilities into that mix compounds the problem (should they return once the pandemic is controlled). And so on.

None of this augurs well for the quality of New Zealand university education in the years to come, especially in the social sciences and arts (which are the red-headed stepchildren in the STEM tertiary education model). It therefore behooves those who are responsible for the tertiary sector to understand that the moment provided by the pandemic is also a moment to pause and reconsider the merits and demerits of Taylorist and Fordist approaches to academic endeavour in light of a very mixed twenty year’s experience with those approaches. Only then can moves me made that allow NZ to regain its prior reputation for offering high quality academic degrees and quality research that are competitive on the world stage.

The fallacy of the proximity argument.

datePosted on 12:43, September 3rd, 2019 by Pablo

Longer term readers may remember my complaining that, as a political scientist, it is burdensome to have non-political scientists wanting to engage me about politics. No layperson would think to approach an astrophysicist and lecture him/her on the finer details of quarks and black holes, but everybody with an opinion feels perfectly entitled to tell me exactly why their views are just if not more accurate than mine when it comes to discussing political phenomena. Some go on to mention that I must have gotten my degrees so that I could become a politician, which is like telling a primatologist that he wants to be a chimp (I have used this analogy before so apologies if you have already read or heard it).

One of the most often used lines that I hear is what I call the “proximity argument.” That is the belief that proximity to an event, situation or process gives one special insights into them and therefore entitles one to opine from a position of purportedly superior insight. In vulgar terms it is the “you don’t live here” or “I was there” argument, in which the fact of being proximately familiar with something confers special argumentative rights when discussing it.

In recent weeks I have been following the lead up to October’s general elections in Argentina, including reading the posts from friends in Argentina on social media. Their opinions are deeply divided between Left and Right-oriented folk, with some of their commentary bordering on hysterical. What they all have in common is that they claim to know better what the “objective” situation is because they are living in Argentina at the moment, so observations from the likes of me, regardless of the fact that I have written professionally about Argentine politics for all of may adult life, do not count because I live outside of the country.

I cannot enumerate the times that people in the US, particularly MAGA morons, discount what I have to say about US politics because “you don’t live here anymore.” This despite my years of government service prior to emigration, my research and writing on various aspects of US foreign policy and military affairs and my ongoing connections to people in politics and government in that country. “You gotta be here,” they say.

Closer to home, I repeatedly hear and read people claim that one can not opine about issues involving Maori if one is not Maori. Most recently, I have watched with concern the unhappiness voiced by members of the NZ Muslim community with the way on which the investigations into the March 15 attacks have proceeded, in particular the way in which the Royal Commission of Inquiry has handled their participation in the process. The claim is made that since they were the targets and subjects of the attacks, Muslims should be front and centre in any investigation into the events that led up to March 15.

Conversely, several prominent commentators–Gerry Brownlee, Lianne Dalziel and Russell Brown amongst them–attacked me in personal terms because of my media commentary that Christchurch had a well- documented history of white supremacism prior to the attacks. Beside the hypocrisy that comes naturally to politicians, one can only assume that their reactions are due to their personal connections to that city, which may have led them to the conclusion that I was attacking the city as a whole rather than a well-known extremist element within it. In other words, they could or would not see the very rotten trees in their particular forest, or will not admit to having known about them (Dalziel still insists that there is no white supremacist “problem”).

Putting on my analyst’s hat, I find that proximity arguments of this sort to be problematic. Of course familiarity with something gives particular insight into it and therefore those closest to an event, situation or process need to be heard when seeking remedies or even just objective understanding of the phenomenon. But proximity also brings with it emotion and subjectivity, both of which are anathema to analytic objectivity.

Years ago I published a collection of essays titled “With Distance Comes Perspective.” The book title was taken from the Spanish phrase “hay que tomar distancia” (“take some distance”), which refers to the fact that one must sometimes step back and put some distance on something in order to understand its objective status. That always reminds me of the children’s story about five blind people touching an elephant–each describes a different beast depending on what part of the elephant they are touching–because the emotion and subjectivity conferred by proximity often makes one blind to the larger realities at play, or at least the bigger picture.

I put together that collection because I gained perspective on the US, and international politics in general, from having moved to NZ and gaining literal, figurative and theoretical distance on great power dynamics by adopting the perspective of a very small democratic state. I found that in order to better understand US foreign policy I needed to move away from it after having spent time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

That helps explain why the proximity argument is fallacious. It may be necessary to understanding something but it is not sufficient when trying to explain it. In many cases it obscures objective understanding because it clouds the analysis with emotion and/or the particular (often myopic) perspective of specific participants in or observers of an event. Balanced analysis requires objectivity and objectivity more often than not requires neutral distance from the subject of study. Emotion and subjectivity have no place in the analytic mind.

That does not mean that proximate familiarity is not required. All Ph.D. programs in comparative politics worth their reputations require students to acquire language skills and conduct in-country field research as part of their dissertations, preferably through the use of personal interviews, archival research, documentary collection and observer participation in the broader events and context surrounding their studies. The purpose is for the student to gain cultural familiarity with their case study or studies in order to give depth and contextual understanding to the specific research that they are undertaking. For example, one can never fully understand the nature of Argentine football if one does not understand the class and urban/rural divisions that underpin it, be it from club structure and the stadium songs used by fans to the role of organised crime in club governance and the selection process for the national team. For that to happen, one has to spend time there, both in general and in the stadiums.

For me the dissertation process required repeated trips to Argentina in order to conduct research in the Health and Labour Ministries, interview unionists and health policy makers, and run ideas past others in the research institutes to which I was affiliated at the time (all in Spanish, of course). Being raised in Argentina gave me a distinct advantage when it came to moving around and making connections, but I had to put my political beliefs and personal feelings aside when engaging in research and writing because my dissertation committee were not interested in how I felt but in rather what I objectively observed and the analytic conclusions that I reached from said observations (I left the personal stuff for the dedication page of the finished work).

That is something that I have carried with me over the years and, along with things such as inductive versus deductive reasoning, most-similar versus most-different and large-N versus small-N methodologies, that I tried to impart on students during 25 years of academic service. The idea is to use proximity whenever possible but to use it in a broader context where neutral analytic distance is maintained.

All of which is to say that we must not be fooled by those who use the proximity argument when opining about current events or policy issues. Be it measles, land rights, climate change, gun control, political finance, threat assessments or any other matter of contentious public concern, the false expertise of those who rely on the proximity argument must be balanced with the objective appraisals of those who can address the subject dispassionately and knowledgeably whether or not they have immediate connection to what is being discussed.

Confronting academic Taylorists.

datePosted on 08:03, September 27th, 2016 by Pablo

Although the corporate media has not covered it, choosing instead to focus on the university’s fund-raising efforts, the academic and professional staff at the University of Auckland held a one hour strike last week to protest the lack of progress on negotiations for a fair living wage for all staff, especially for those at the lower end of the wage scale. Among other union proposals was the payment of a flat $2.500 increase to everyone covered by the collective contract in lieu of a cost of living increment. In conjunction with a rise in the minimum wage for lower-salaried workers, this would have the greatest positive effect on those struggling to keep afloat in the Auckland market.

University management refuses to negotiate until the budget is decided next month or in November. This runs contrary to traditional practice where pay for academic and professional staff is negotiated prior to the budget being fixed. It follows on more than a decade of erosion of collective benefits for university personnel and the slow but seemingly inexorable weakening of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) as a bargaining agent at the University of Auckland.

The one hour lunchtime strike was well attended, although not massive in size. Shortly after 12:45 the director of Human Resources, a despicable cur if there ever was one, sent out a group email to TEU members advising them that their pay would be docked for the one hour they were on strike. He went on to request confirmation from the recipient that s/he was indeed on strike so that their pay could be deducted.

There followed a blizzard of emails in response. I am on the TEU mailing list so I got to read them all. Other than one person, all were critical of the university’s approach to employment relations. What stood out were the dozens of stories about countless overtime hours worked with no pay (the academic standard contract is for 37.5 hours per week), the abysmal lack of morale and trust in management amongst staff, and the psychological, emotional and physical toll the stress of working at the UA was taking on its staff. The stories were sad and many gut-wrenching.

These stories came from professors, lecturers, IT specialists, counsellors, librarians, tutors, administrative support staff–you name it, they had something to say. Some people asked how the deduction would work since they were not on an hourly wage. Others pointed out that they were on  leave but would gladly see their pay deducted in solidarity with those who attended the strike.  Many pointed out that they were at their offices during lunch hour working out of loyalty to students and colleagues but would gladly have their pay docked in solidarity with the strikers. Some suggested that the deducted pay should go to charity, at least until it was pointed out to them that the university is a registered  charity and the “donations” could well go into the VC’s pocket or as bonuses to his management team members (the VC is the highest paid public servant in NZ and the senior management team all make in excess of NZ$150K/year).

What became clear from the responses is that behind the facade of the University of Auckland being a “world class” university there is a deeply dishonest and unethical management that is seeking to destroy the TEU Auckland branch and thereby further subjugate its staff to its academic Taylorist precepts. I have written about this before, so no need here to reiterate what it entails. The bottom line is that the University is being hollowed out at its core, in a workplace where academics and academic support staff are reduced to time card punching and asking permission to use the loo while the ranks of middle and upper management bean counters proliferate like rats.

I have been critical of the TEU in the past for valuing wage increases over workplace control (including in the classroom, where there is increasing interference by middle level managers with no teaching experience). I always through that it was a bad idea to trade off regular wage increases for workplace control, which extends to promotion and research leave policy. But what is done is done and now the university management is in the final stages of its assault on the union.

The time to make a stand is now. Having read the emailed responses I decided to write a letter of support to the Auckland TEU and its members. This is what I wrote:

“Dear All,

As a former TEU member and academic staff member at the University of Auckland, I want to add my support to your efforts to restore the university to its former position as a fair and equitable workplace. Unfortunately, having dealt with Mr. Phipps as well as other management lackeys at close range, I believe that yours will be an uphill battle. Their objective is to break the union so that with a few exceptions you will eventually be subject to precarious individual, often part time contracts and thereby will be more easily exploited. The trend is already apparent and the situation is worse for junior staff and those not considered to be “stars.” Given the tight academic labour market and the already low union density amongst professional and academic staff (particularly the latter), it will be difficult to individually resist this project if the TEU is further undermined as a collective bargaining agent.

Mr. McCutcheon was a successful union-buster in his life before being appointed VC. Nothing in his tenure at UA suggests that he has moderated his views on the utility of collective agents, and the tone of Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice is a reflection of that. It should not be forgotten that this management team at UA is not known for its honesty or fairness when it comes to employment relations. “Good faith” is not part of their vocabulary. Many of you will know of the efforts by the SMT to offer financial incentives to senior academics to either quit or not join the union. You will have seen the replacement of departing permanent full time staff with part time hires. Given that there are academics who support or go along with the VC’s approach for self-serving reasons, the struggle to return civility and fairness to employment relations at the UA will be a tough one.

I would not be surprised if the many tales of unpaid hours owed to staff outlined in the barrage of email replies to Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice will be seen by the VC and his minions as a sign that their Taylorist approach to academia is working just fine. They need to be disabused of that notion.

The key to defeating the academic Taylorists is to assiduously defend and increase union membership and to strictly and unwaveringly adhere to any calls for direct action such as labour service withdrawals (be it strikes, slow downs or work-to-rule). The call for a living wage and fair pay for professional (non-academic) staff is a step in the right direction. However, much ground has already been lost in terms of workplace control, academic freedom, promotion and leave, so the time to regain some measure of balance in the employment relationship is rapidly disappearing. The nature and timing of the direct actions to be taken henceforth in defence of the union and its members will be decisive, and must receive unanimous support..

You should not expect favourable media treatment. Today’s editorial in the Herald about the University’s fundraising is indicative of the pro-management bias of the for-profit news outlets. A concerted PR campaign will be required to counter-balance the view, propagated by the SMT, that all is well at the university and that if anything, academics have things easy when compared to other wage earners.The public needs to hear the stories told in your emails to Mr. Phipps.

There comes a time when people can be pushed only so far. Perhaps that time has come for the TEU Auckland branch and its members. Although I no longer belong to the academic community, I understand your struggle and deeply empathise with it. I wish you the best of luck and success in staving off the managerial offensive.

Kia kaha!”

I can only hope that if the union does make a stand, that it not be its final one.

Crowdsourcing opportunity: The 5th Eye.

datePosted on 14:13, June 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I had the opportunity some time go to be interviewed by the one of the director/producers of the documentary “Operation 8” for a forthcoming film about the GCSB and its role in the 5 Eyes signal intelligence network. These good people are part of the grassroots network that attempts to keep those in power accountable to the folk they supposedly serve, and while I may not agree with them on a number of issues I have no doubts about their sincerity, commitment and interest in the common good.

In order to finish the new documentary, titled “The 5th Eye,”  there is a crowdsourcing effort underway that is well worth supporting. The details are here. Besides information about donating, there is a short video trailer included on the page as well as updates and other valuable information. By all means check it out and help this film on its way to fruition.

If you support truly independent film-making in Aotearoa, this is an excellent opportunity to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk.

Starting ’em early.

datePosted on 12:49, August 18th, 2014 by Pablo

Here at KP we believe that it is never too early to get the kids thinking about politics.

early start

Not surprising.

datePosted on 15:28, May 12th, 2013 by Pablo

In 2007 a certain university lecturer, fed up with the managerial push to admit sub-standard and unqualified foreign students in pursuit of revenue, with the resultant pressure placed on lecturers to pass these students regardless of their performance, wrote a rude email to one such student who had failed to deliver a essay on time and who used a tired excuse of family death to justify the late submission. Although it was later proven that no evidence of any death was offered to any university authority and that there were mitigating factors surrounding the intemperate email, the lecturer was sacked for serious misconduct after selected contents of the email exchange with the student were made public by some of her associates (in violation of university confidentiality policy regarding emails).

The dismissal was later found to be unjustified and some monetary reparations were made, but after 25 years of involvement in university teaching and research in several countries (a rarity in NZ), the lecturer never worked in NZ academia again in spite of several applications for NZ university jobs and a very strong record of teaching, research, fellowships and community outreach, especially when compared to NZ peers.

I recount this sorry tale because the real crime committed by this lecturer was to challenge prior to the fact, then jeopardize with his email the revenue streams provided to NZ universities by foreign students willing to pay full fees of 20K or more but who often had no qualifications in their chosen field of study or who could not speak or write comprehensible english (as was the case with the student in question). This began long before National became government, but is now said to be worse because of twenty percent cuts in public spending on tertiary education.

The quest for foreign fees is such that when the same ex-lecturer was suggested some time later as a potential member of a foreign area focused business board, government and education officials purportedly objected on the grounds that his presence could disrupt recently-signed educational agreements between NZ and several countries in that region (this, in spite of his never having had an issue with students from that region and having significant visibility in academic fields relevant to it).

Such is the obsession with using foreign students as revenue generators. The trouble is that obsession has led to a gross lowering of academic standards for admission, passing and graduation of foreign fees paying students. This has had unpleasant results.

Long before National became government, instances of plagarism and bogus excuses for failure to complete course requirements on the part of foreign students well versed in how to abuse staff pastoral care responsibilities was already a thorn in the side of many lecturers, particularly those concerned about the quality of degrees and the well-being of students who worked hard to meet requirements. Managerial pressure to allow sub-standard students to pass is reflected in performance reviews and promotion criteria. The steady erosion of academic union influence eased the way for imposition of managerial edicts focused on quantity rather than quality of incoming students and graduates, to which were added academic restructuring projects that eliminated departments and courses deemed irrelevant to business or incompatible with profit-making.

Given increased academic job uncertainties in such environments, lecturers feel compelled to toe the managerial line, particularly in light of that ex-lecturer’s well publicized experience. The overall impact has been to devalue the reputation of many NZ university departments and programs while opening up a pandora’s box of predictable as well as unintended consequences.

One manifestation of the downside of the push to put high fees-paying foreign bums in seats has gone commercial: institutionalized ghost writing and student identity impersonation on behalf of Chinese students enrolled in NZ tertiary institutions. Some good student stories follow on the subject.

This situation has been going on for over a decade and has been the subject of repeated internal and public complaints (for example, public disclosure about the lack of security vetting of Pakistani and Saudi students seeking degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering and physics, or the well-reported use of Chinese students by PRC intelligence). The government and higher education institutions have been repeatedly warned about the dodgy side of foreign student admissions but have done nothing prior to media publication of the details.

I am not surprised by this commercialized academic cheating because it fills a market niche, and that niche was created by those who thought that NZ higher education instruction was a tradable export commodity for non-English speakers regardless of their cultural context. But with market opening comes consumer expectations, and under the current NZ tertiary foreign education model the expectation from foreign student consumers is to receive a first world-style degree by buying third world practical and ethical standards.

Like in so many other policy areas, unprincipled opportunity-takers on both sides of the process have benefitted at the expense of the common good. After all, and revenue-generation aside, encouraging dishonesty in any endeavour is bound to be deleterious over the long term.

A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

datePosted on 12:25, September 19th, 2012 by Lew

Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).

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They say that the first question people from Christchurch ask each other when they meet is “what school did you go to?” I’m not from Christchurch, and I hated school — high school especially.* I’m not a teacher, though for three (long) years I did teach — mostly in public schools, albeit in another country. I liked teaching no better than I liked being a student, but both experiences demonstrated to me how integral public schooling is to a society, and to the individual communities that make it up.

The principal of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Trevor McIntyre articulated the importance of schools to communities in Christchurch on Nine to Noon (starts about 36 minutes in):

You talk about a community, a community has a heart. You’ve got rural communities which are clearly defined, but in a city like Christchurch you’ve got suburbs. And traditionally those suburbs have contained a heart, and typically the heart was a general store, a post office, a hall, a church and a school. And if you look around the city, the general stores are gone, to supermarkets. The post offices are gone. The halls have gone because they’re too expensive to maintain and now we’ve got bigger and better facilities. The churches, if they were still there, have been damaged in the earthquake and are probably not going to be retained. The last vestige of a community centre is a school.

On the face of it, this is why the government’s slash-and-burn approach to Christchurch’s schools is destructive: because it further damages communities that have already suffered considerable harm from two years of earthquakes and a global financial crisis. The fact that the government’s education restructure in Christchurch is proceeding in tandem with the government’s roll-out of its charter schools policy makes it worse.

Public education is of the community, by the community, for the community. Public schools are run by boards of trustees — members of a community, elected by their peers. Zoning ensures the right of those living in a community to attend their community’s schools. Teachers usually commit to a school and a community, often across generations. For all their differences in socio-economic background, culture, ethnicity and so on, New Zealand children share the right to a high-quality education in the same classrooms as each other; not only learning the same curriculum, but learning it together — with each other and from each other. There are exceptions like the Grammar Zone phenomenon, but by and large this generalisation is true. Beyond education, this socialisation is crucial to building the tight-knit, diverse communities that we all think New Zealand is made up of — and I’d argue that this effect of universal public education is more important to the nation’s wellbeing than a curriculum increasingly tuned to producing effective workers for the neoliberal economy.

Charter schools, by design, will tend not to produce this community socialisation effect. They will likely not be run, staffed by, and attended by the members of the communities in which they exist, and will certainly not be ubiquitous within those communities. Due to their special character and possible discretion in granting admissions, pupils at these schools will tend to be demographically and culturally — and maybe ideologically — streamed, and will be similarly taught. As such, charter schools will tend to fragment communities rather than unite them, producing silos of different levels of education, different norms of behaviour and belief, within a society that is already stratified, and is becoming more so.

This is unfortunate, but their niche status and diversity is not the worst thing about them — vive la difference, to an extent at least. The worst thing is the fact that they are to be funded by New Zealand communities but not accountable to those communities; they will not be a positive-sum addition to the diversity of New Zealand’s society and its education system, but a zero-sum substitution. Funding for charter schools will contend with funding for public schools, and the growth of charter schools in a community will constrain the growth of public schools operating there. Even this in itself would not be a terrible problem if it were a level playing field, but charter schools will not be subject to the same requirements as public schools are. They will not be required to teach the same curriculum, to accept all applicants from their communities, to employ qualified and registered teachers, and will be exempt from other measures of accountability.

This is a breach of the social contract under which schools operate. If you take a community’s money to run your school in place of a public school, you inherit the obligations that such a public school would bear — obligations to teach the children of those communities well, to teach them together, and to teach them to the community’s standards. Charter schools fail at all three. They may teach well, but they may not, as they are not required to teach to the curriculum or employ properly-qualified teachers. If they exercise control over who they accept, they cannot legitimately be said to be teaching their community. And as they are not required to be run by members of their community, again, if they end up teaching to their community’s standards it is by good fortune rather than good design. That they will be able to take money out of community schools without being bound to deliver education to the community’s standards is an obvious breach of these obligations, and the sort of violation that is crystal-clear to the proponents of charter schools in other areas: they are perfectly happy to impose all manner of onerous and punitive constraints upon struggling solo mothers on the grounds that we are “funding their lifestyle”, but are disappointingly unwilling to accept the same when it applies to their own enterprises.

There are two other destructive aspects to this policy: first, it is a legislative end-run around one of the strongest remaining functional union movements we have, the teacher’s unions who, contrary to the propaganda, have played a crucial role in maintaining the high quality and low cost of our education system. The government has figured that it can’t bust them, so it’ll just bypass them.

Second, this is large-scale social engineering, an experiment being conducted on the damaged communities and struggling people of Christchurch who, resilient although they might be, need to retain and rebuild what remains of their communities, rather than have them redefined and renovated from afar and by private interests with private motivations. It’s an experiment that places at risk a generation of students and teachers, and the communities they form. It is an experiment being conducted on people who, the government seems to think, are vulnerable and still too busy trying to put their lives back together to organise a meaningful resistance. I guess we’ll see about that.

Quite apart from the hypocrisy of this government, which was swept to power by backlash against the Clark government’s “social engineering” policies, this sort of experimentation is unethical. The government owes Christchurch better than to treat it as a petrie dish. They’ve suffered enough; let the clipboard-bearing wonks poke and measure them no longer. The government’s responsibility is to support Christchurch and to assist it in rebuilding its communities, and to this end the government has a responsibility to fund and support public schools that are of, by and for those communities, around which people can rally. Special character schools are well and good for what they are, and if people want to teach in their own ways and to their own standards, let them do so — but let them pay for their privilege themselves. No funding without accountability.

L

* I hated it, and for the most part it hated me, but I should say I met most of my dearest friends there — including my wife. Again: community.

Performing to spec

datePosted on 19:03, May 29th, 2012 by Lew

At the Dim-Post, a searing explanation of how class-size dogma works in the real world, by a teacher. He or she describes The Dumb Class of 15, who struggle with the assistance of their teachers to barely pass; and The Smart Class of 30, who are underresourced and consequently underperform, but pass because they’re, well, smart. And then Treasury looks at the data.

They look at one sheet of results and say “Look here – the class with 30 all got Achieved, and the class with 15 all got Achieved too. That means, statistically, class size doesn’t make a difference. Let’s cram forty of the little firestarters in there next year!”

No word on what happens to The Average Class, who have neither the advantage of adequate teaching resources, nor “smarts”.

But clearly, it’s all the fault of the teachers. They’re messing with the Natural Order Of Things.

By wasting so much resource on The Dumb Kids who are never going to amount to anything anyway, they disadvantage The Smart Kids, preventing them from realising their potential. Those Smart Kids are essentially being forced to subsidise the underclass — in their childhood as it will inevitably be in their adulthood, supporting the unproductive bludgers all around them.

So no sympathy for teachers. If they would just let The Dumb Kids fail, as the laws of nature and the market intended, The Smart Kids would perform to their full ability, soon enough we’d have all the productivity growth we could possibly want, and the government would have plenty of money to afford tax cuts for The Smart Kids’ parents. Since the teachers have sabotaged the education system by trying to tilt the scale in favour of The Dumb Kids, the government really has no choice but to implement a system that reverses that tilt by rewarding excellence, to ensure that the education system performs to operating spec, where The Smart Kids succeed and The Dumb Kids fail.

Just as nature, and the market, intended.

L

Edit to add: Phil Sage has obliged us all by making pretty much this exact argument on the square, in comments on the original thread. Thanks, Phil!

Mooting Mutu

datePosted on 11:09, September 7th, 2011 by Pablo

Since my name was taken in vain in comparison with Margaret Mutu and her recent remarks on immigration, I would like to set the record straight as to why the comparison is false.

Margaret Mutu is a racial polemicist who received her professorship as a PC sinecure from an Auckland University administration concerned about placating key constituent groups. She is a second rate rate academic with a third rate publication record espousing fourth rate post-dependency and post-modern subaltern-focused theories. She publishes in obscure journals, mostly without peer review, and in crony academic volumes. Her books are published by local presses and receive no international mention.

She has nothing to say about the bitter employment relation disputes between the Auckland University management and its academic staff, perhaps because she is rumored to have been bought off by the management as part of that silence. She likes to talk S***t about race relations, and believes that it is impossible for non-whites to be racist. She is not the only one to think this–there are people in my old department who share that belief.

I was an internationally well respected scholar and teacher who was dismissed for sending a rude email (which was unprofessional, to be sure) to an utterly unqualified and hopeless foreign student who as it turns out invented an excuse to avoid an assignment (as happens often at Auckland). During the time I was at Auckland I published two books and over forty peer reviewed articles, chapters and reviews in major international disciplinary journals. During that time and in spite of the fact that I gave away eight years of seniority to take the Auckland job, I never made it past the Senior Lecturer rank. Now I have been blacklisted and am out of academia.

Because I said that the student’s excuse was preying on Western liberal guilt and thus were culturally driven, I was branded a racist. After litigation I was barred from returning to my career in exchange for a small monetary settlement (due to the fact that I could not afford the costs of a court case when the University had spent nearly 1 million NZ dollars keeping me out). Mutu was on the side of those who claimed I was racist even though we have never met and she was aware of my non-compromising and egalitarian atttiude towards students. Her commitment to excellence in education is, to say the least, questionable.

I was fired for jeapordising the university’s foreign student revenue stream. Mutu did no so such thing, as she only annoys white people who will send their students to the 82nd ranked university anyway. After all, where are they going to go? To a NZ university ranked 180th or so? (For the record, I taught three years at a university ranked 27th-32nd in annual rankings after my Auckland dismissal, so the place got worse after I left).

Needless to say, I have no time for Ms. Mutu and her rants. It offends me that she lumps me–an American raised in South America and who has been involved in struggles that she can only pontificate about–with Afrikkaners with attitudes.

But it offends me more that just because she says offensive things, people demand that she be fired. For better or (in this case worse), universities are supposed to be bastions of the offensive, the profane, the unfashionable and even the idiotic, simply because the role of the academe is to foster the clash of ideas and a culture of healthy, if not intense intellectual debate about subjects both esoteric and contemporary. Just because someone’s views are provocative does not mean that they should not be heard, and that is where academia plays a role.

So even if I believe that VC Stuart McCutcheon in an unethical and corrupt bully with a lot of skeletons in his closet that need to be exposed and who has an abiding hatred of intellectuals and union members (since he is neither), I applaud his defense of Ms. Mutu’s remarks. She may be offensive, and indeed quite stupid, but that is her right as an academic. It was at the point of her hire that the mistake was made, but once her position was enshrined, however bogus the rationale, she has a right to use that pulpit for public commentary without fear of employment retribution. She may not be exactly the conscience of society, but her role as a polemicist enlives its discourse. Hence, I believe that she should be retained, however overpaid she may be.

As for me–it is past time to “get a real job.”

 

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