Ending my academic career.

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.

25 thoughts on “Ending my academic career.

  1. Pablo, you were the single most engaging teacher in the entire UoA Political Studies Dept when I was there 2000-2003. I also loved the fact you didn’t enforce word limits.

    You were also the most hard-ass about deadlines: You gave me a C- (for an essay the tutor could only find one suggestion for as to how I might improve it) because I handed it in (by mistake) 4 hours late.

    I thought that was pretty rough, but I handed in my next essay ontime and got an A.

    You shaped me enough that I cited the Charles Tilly chapter you provided us in my masters thesis (Theology). Weird, huh?

  2. Thanks Paul.

    I am feeling my oats today so that was a nice thing to read. I looked you up and see that you have done well. Good on you. My belief is that there are two types of people: contributors and parasites. The latter include hedge fund managers and the former include rubbish collectors (if you think about who is more essential to the reproduction of a harmonious society, you will catch my drift). I always felt that I contributed more in the classroom and via direct supervision (as well as lifeguarding and first response paramedic work), than any amount of publications or media appearances could offer (although the latter were very important for PBRF exercises). The foreign student and university managers who collaborated in my dismissal cannot say the same.

    As I said, a story like yours is icing on the cake–but using Tilly in a Theology MA? Yowza!

  3. NZ is a small place. People make mistakes in their careers all the time – sometimes big mistakes – and still get second chances (often after a period of penance). Usually the second chance comes about from an advocate giving the person a go. It’s about you who know, not what you know. Hsve you burnt your bridges everywhere?

    If so, your problem is not one errant and ill-thought email. If not, then there are opportunities out there for you. Maybe not in immediately back the job of your dreams, but sideways, backwards or just outside the square. That’s how it works for everyone else.

  4. I don’t understand why time limits are such a big deal?

    Isn’t time just a word.

  5. I studied politics and history unspectacularly at Otago some twenty something years ago I must say that after stumbling over this blog you have rekindled my interest in international affairs.

    While never having been taught by you I think that you have contributed hugely to my understanding of contemporary issues.

  6. Pablo for those kiwis like me not allowed into university do you think we have a future in nz or do only graduates.

    Can non graduates attract life partners or live and work overseas in the global villgae or own a home. If yes than im more than happy not to set foot on a campus but society keeps telling me I have to so what would you do. Im scared that we will have a conficus future as endorsed by the herald so that will mean slums and social outcast status hmmmm.

  7. Dan:

    You have me stumped because of the “not allowed” remark. I thought that NZ universities were open admission and only money was the barrier to enrollment (hence student loans). As to the larger point, the truth is that there is no need for everyone to go to university and many students should not be there while others go through the motions and graduate with useless degrees. There are a whole range of trades that contribute value to society in which a university degree is not needed, and many of these have apprenticeship programs where one can learn the requisite skills. So in short–No, a university degree is not needed for success in life.

    Pat: I have heard about the second chance after penance but have yet to have it applied to me. I am thinking laterally, though, hence the move to consulting.

  8. Pablo, you never taught me at Auckland, that pleasure went to Raymond Miller and Steve Hoadley.

    But your attitude displayed in this post reminds me of my favourite lecturer at law school when I was there: Scott Optican.

    Scott was unmerciful on slack or lazy students. He himself was professional, hard-arsed and unflailangly helpful, if you were prepared to work.

    You seem the same and I suspect it is the American in both of you.

    I feel very sorry being a New Zealander knowing how you were handled. It is a sad indictment on academia and our society in general.

    All the best going forward, from someone who doesn’t often agree with your political views but enjoys listening to them regardless.

  9. Paul, I was in the first class that you took at Auckland – Latin American politics I think it was, at the tamaki campus.
    I also did one of your classes at masters level. I was only an average student. I think I got mostly Bs in any assignment, but you were without a doubt, the best teacher and lecturer I ever had at Auckland Uni because of you ability to take what was (for me at least) pretty complex stuff and make it simple and easy to understand.
    I was saddened by how Auckland University treated you. You deserved better.
    The academic community is a poorer place without you.

  10. Gerald:

    Now you are a blast from the past! When I think back to my arrival in NZ and that first semester…crikey a lot has happened since then. The Tamaki days were good ones, and I seem to remember misbehaving at party with you and some others in Howick…dang.

    In any event I hope that you are thriving and appreciate the kind words. One good aspect of teaching was the I made a fair number of friends with (former) students over the years, something that continues to this day.

    One other thing that I will miss is that being a university lecturer keeps one in touch with successive generations of post-adolescents, something that most middle aged people do not get to do once their own children have reached adulthood and left home. For all of the downside of dealing with +/- 20 year olds, it is an excellent window on the taste and interests of successive generations.

  11. Hi Pablo,

    Its so nice to have you back in N.Z. and commenting on things. You were in my top two favourite lecturers! I remember stumbling into your class on day one of the new semester. In the first 10 minutes I thought I shouldn’t stay in your class because you seemed a bit intense, and 20 minutes later I was hooked, so I signed up for all the classes you taught after that. You were always lively and funny. Some of the topics you taught really changed the way I thought about things, and your encouragement of a bit of good old fashioned civil disobedience was always refreshing. You were a wonderful teacher.

    It really sucks that you were unfairly dismissed. A lot of people really support you. I feel like a lot of students are really missing out not having you as a teacher.

    I hope your political risk consulting goes really well. If that doesn’t work out I think you would be a fantastic political adviser or policy adviser. Or you would be a great politician!

    Or you could create some kind of independent left wing adult education class in the heart of the Waitakeres (not quite sure about the funding arrangements but I’m sure we could work out something). I’d be there!

    Its great that you are still enjoying writing and contributing to thoughtful opinions to blogs such as these. Good luck with the next chapter of your journey.

  12. Thanks J.

    I am not quite back in NZ yet (I return in late May) but I am determined to explore career alternatives. As part of that I will be applying for NZ citizenship, which might help me secure policy or politically-related employment. Heck, if I get citizenship I might as well start thinking becoming a politician (although at this point I cannot see any party having me). I will also look into part-time teaching opportunities but the way the blacklisting has gone, that appears to be a long shot.

    At least I can continue researching and writing regardless. I just have to earn my keep and justify my existence less the employed wage earner in the household start thinking that I am a free-loader.

  13. Hi Pablo

    Great to hear you are heading back to NZ!

    I must say that during my years at Auckland U sitting in many classes, my mind always drifted back to the wonderfully inspiring and enthralling lectures you gave in the Political Dept.

    You were sorely missed and a great loss to the Auckland U Political dept. I totally disagreed; still do, in regards to your mistreatment. It was embarrassingly blown out of proportion.

    I was always remember the advice you gave us on the first day to your class. “You dont come to University to learn, you come to University to make a difference!”

    Please continue making a difference and I look forward to reading your continued blogs.

  14. Paul, you were scary as anything. In fact mostly I was too scared to talk to you in case you found everything I said totally idiotic.

    I received a B+ (from memory) for one of your courses. An ok to average grade but the one I was most proud of in my undergraduate degree. I felt I had to really work and challenge myself to pass let alone get that grade.

    In recent years I have berated my students for expecting powerpoints on line prior to the class with ‘ in the good old days of Paul B (and A Sharp) you had to sit with pen in hand and desperately try to keep up with a ‘train of thought’ style discussion. Much more entertaining than bullet points on a projection screen

    You were missed by people other than those who you expected to miss you

  15. Paul,
    You were the only lecturer to make me cry during my time at University of Auckland. (Yes, you were an exasperating dissertation supervisor, at times).
    Although you no longer have a university classroom to teach from, you were also, and remain, my favourite lecturer.

  16. Anton: Thanks for the nice words and reminder of what the university experience in social sciences/arts should be (about acquiring conceptual and analytic skills in order to make a difference) rather than what it has become (a factory of business students, lawyers and engineers destined to become high income wage slaves).

    Marg: Not scary, just a bit intense. My partner says that my normal face is a dark face so perhaps that has something to do with it. I agree that the degradation of the teaching experience is a partial result of the introduction of power point presentation. Students now spend more time looking at the blurbs rather than asking questions and formulating their own notes. If it is any consolation, I have never used PP and in fact this last semester at NUS I refused to do so in an Intro to Comparative Politics class with 75 enrolled. The look on their faces when I told them it was up to them to take notes was priceless, but it certainly focused their attention during lectures. As it turns out a couple of them came up to me at the end of classes and said that not only had they comprehended more as a result of trying to keep up taking notes on the stream of consciousness/ranting lecturing style, but that their handwriting improved as well!

    Hokeypokey: At least we share that experience: students often made me want to cry–and not out of joy. I do remember that you received Honours for that dissertation and that it attracted the attention from some serious scholars of the subject, so a few tears shed along the way was a small price to pay for a work very well done.

  17. Pablo,

    Although I was at AU before you arrived (mid to late 80s), I would like to offer a few comments on your post:
    1. I remember your dispute with AU, and thought the Dean, VC and Registrar were all being extremely disingenuous at the very least, and down-right bad faith liars in all probability. I was not at all surprised that you were vindicated in the end. It really refelcts badly on NZ academia as a whole that they have blaclisted you in the way they have. Provincial, parochial and petty–the reasons I left NZ.
    2. A couple of years before your run in, a friend who had majored in the same subject as me and who had gone on to do a masters and become a full-time tutor told me of his (and others’) treatment at AU. After one of two years, they told him they would only pay him 40 weeks a year. The wages weren’t that flash to begin with, but with a wife and three young childre to support that was the end of that. He applied and got an overseas post-graduate scholarship and completed a PhD all expenses paid. He now has a lectureship at another NZ university. His case was not unusual in that department in the 90s as I know many other good people who left.
    3. Your problem with NZ students unable to meet deadlines I find quite interesting. When I did two bachelor’s degrees conjointly over four years, maybe half of the papers allowed “plussage”, which meant if your coursework was slack you could still really knuckle down for the finals and get a good grade, or at least pass. The ones where course work counted substantially no matter what, everyone knew the rules and few people tried to pull a “sickie”. i cannot recall ever asking for an extension.
    4. Your attitude to setting high standards reminds me strongly of one of the tougest lecturers I had–also an American. She came from an Ivy League background and couldn’t believe how so many Stage 3 undergraduates could not get the basics right. She saw a bad lack of training in basic academic skills, and she was right to a great extent. Some departments really drilled that stuff from day one but many did not. For me, although I thought some of her demands on students were unfair, she had a profound effect on my approach to the subject and really helped me to push myself much harder and higher than I would have otherwise. I think she went back to the US because her highly qualified husband could not get a job at AU.
    5. I feel sorry for students in the “PP generation”. I did postgraduate work at a university overseas in the late 90s and the whole PP thing was just getting going. Another of MS’s crimes against humanity. I very much doubt the best lecturers now use PP extensively. It’s essentially anti-academic and usually leads to serious “dumbing down”.
    6. Best of luck with your consultancy, and hopefully you will get opportunities to interact with young people coming into your field in the future again too.

  18. Kia Ora Pablo,

    Unfortunatly I was never able to enrol in your courses at the University of Auckland as I was doing a Health Science degree. But my boyfriend was a student of yours and I’m pretty sure that you were the only lecturer that he had any respect for as a philosophy/politics student. He raved about your classes and encouraged me to do his readings so he would have someone to talk to about them. It was your course in Latin American politics that led to us spening a year in South America, which was life changing. So I really can’t thank you enough.

  19. Thanks Esther:

    That was heart-warming. The fact that you decided to head to South America–which you know is my geographic first love–is especially gratifying. Saludos y un abrazo para ti y tu companero.

    Tochigi: For some reason you comment was held up in the spam trap, so I just released it. The reaction of that American lecturer mirrored mine–I had UA Politics graduate students complain about having to read less than 100 pages a week (more or less 3 scholarly articles per week). That compared to the +/- 2 books of reading I had to do per week during my graduate studies at Georgetown and Chicago. My partner had the same experience at Notre Dame. Because of the pressure to pass these students (especially the foreign students)–something that resulted more than once in my final mark being changed by the HoD after the fact–I gradually began lowering the page numbers in order to avoid the hassles of student whinging and ex-post arguments about marks. Yet even under those diminished standards the student who caused my downfall was clueless as to what was expected and over the course of three assignments was hopelessly out of her depth. I gave her C- for her first two assignments while encouraging her to seek help with her English writing skills from the Arts Grad Student Centre. When she stopped attending classes without notice in early May (she missed the last 4 seminars), I figured that she had dropped out, only to have her pop up five days before the last assignment to say she had a family tragedy. I explained the process of seeking a bereavement certificate to her, only to have her write me the day after the assignment was due to say she had the “paper.” But that was a day late–extension requests have to be made before the assignment is due. That is when I wrote my bad email.

    As it turns out, no bereavement certificate was ever produced and she handed in a atrociously written essay that was not what was expected (a literature review) 10 days later. I gave her a C- for the essay and the course because I did not want to flunk her given the pressures involved, only to have an outside examiner from Otago mark her essay as a D- (which would have made her flunk the course). At that point the HoD, Ray Miller, stepped in and raised her essay and course marks to a C, claiming that she had been adversely affected by my attitude. Miller, of course, was at that time actively involved in the disciplinary process against me (which I did not know at the time but which came to light later), so to say the least the ethics of his handling of that affair were questionable at best. My understanding is that the student dropped out the following semester after failing all of her courses except mine, went to Massey, and repeated the failures there.

    The bottom line? That MA degree in Politics from AU has been devalued exponentially over the last ten years, which is a pity for the top ten percent who have worked hard to earn it.

  20. thanks for your reply, Pablo. i left full-time univerity studies in NZ at exactly the time fees were first hiked, and coincidentally it was the same time that the full-on effort began to turn foreign students into a giant money machine for the universities. at undergraduate level that debasing of the standards is unforgivable enough, but at masters level, what is the point? they have totally trashed any academic credibility they might have had. “selling dodgy degrees: NZ’s great value added export industry!”


  21. Mark:

    If you are want to be snide try not using one of the Politics tutor’s IP addresses. And also be honest enough to provide a real email address.

    As it is, you provide evidence of the decline in standards I have alluded to.

  22. A post on a website called reddit concerning your overreaction to a quotation on facebook (which I cannot ascertain the veracity of) brought me here.

    Whilst I cannot claim to like some of your ideas and occasionally rude/condescending demeanour, after digging around and seeing the former-student testimonials here I have come to respect you.

    We’re all flawed in a way, and you seem an obviously intelligent and inspiring professor. I find it’s sad that your over-zealous nature got the better of you and caused you to be drummed out, as classrooms and lectures need more teachers like you (on their good days).

    I hope you find your footing with a stable job again soon, though I think a short spell outside of academia will do you a world of good. I think I’d be plotting the blue murder of students after dealing with them for 25 years straight!

  23. Ed: It was a trivial matter and my reaction came across more strongly than I felt, but the issue was that there is a lot of problems with students engaging in plagarism/failure to credit sources and I wanted to call the individual on it. The comment went viral and now I get the pleasure of receiving dozens of venemous messages about what a bad person I am. Blunt yes. Bad no.

  24. One more thing, Pablo. Despite your perceived flaws, you clearly have been inspiring to many of the students who have commented here. I hope you learn and grow from the experience. I’m sure you’ll land on your feet.

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