Whither the value of academia?


I HAVE always considered myself a traditional academic, not a “contemporary” one. What’s the difference?

To me, a traditional academic is one who does a modest amount of research, spends a modest amount of grant money, produces an acceptable number of peer reviewed papers (mostly in national journals), has a number of books under his or her belt, many articles in the mass media, and a lifetime of talks, forums and interviews by the press on a variety of important social, cultural, religious and political issues (most of the time leaning towards being against the establishment).

However, a “contemporary” academic in Malaysia, since 20 years ago, does a lot of research, spends millions and millions of ringgit on research grants, produces a truckload of papers in international journals (mostly written by their postgraduate students), has barely even a single book to his or her name, can’t trace one iota of media articles, and hardly gives any public discourse on issues in forums, talks or interviews.

The powers-that-be nowadays call this “contemporary” academic a “high impact contributor in academia” while the traditional academic will probably be referred to as just “an unfortunate troublemaker and an underachiever”.

The manner in which an academic is promoted based on achievements is something that the Malaysian public needs to be made aware of. To begin with, let me comment on publishing and research grants.

The strangest criterion for me in academia is book publishing. This criterion was obviously set by professors who know nothing about books. The highest marks for a book goes to what is known as a “research” book. What the hell is a “research book”? The closest I can think of is when I converted several of my postgraduate students’ thesis into books. Fair enough that these types of books are important in expanding the boundaries of knowledge in one small field of study. However, I have found that these books are not widely read and are only used by scholars.

What about a book explaining a subject to the public? Oh, that’s just a “popular” book, similar perhaps to a children’s book, worth only very few marks when considering promotion and university rankings. Excuse me? Are you kidding? Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is worth just a few marks because it tries to explain the complex theory of how the universe was born and its possible demise – this is not important because it’s popular so it can’t be a “research” book?

The famed theoretical physicist Michiu Kaku has published many books explaining complex theories of science and the possible impact they have on society. These books require a certain talent to write so they cater to minds that are not trained specifically in the difficult subject matter.

Many of these untrained minds become members of parliament, presidents and prime ministers who might just write science-based policies that are informed by what they have learned from such books.

If we were to ask our professors to write similar books explaining their subject matter to the public and to postulate the impact their area of study could have on society, I don’t think they would know where to begin even.

Many academicians in the West and Japan and China even write books to explain aspects of their knowledge to children in an attempt to inspire the next generation of intellectuals. It is not an easy task. But in Malaysian academia, key performance indicators deem that popular books are “not as important” as a “research” book.

Perhaps that’s why our society doesn’t produce many science innovators (and the less said about the intellectual abilities of our members of parliament the better). Try inviting a local professor to speak to primary school pupils about quantum physics or string theory in Malaysia and watch what unfolds!

And then there’s the fact that being published in an international journal is marked higher than appearing in a local one. Why? Well, it seems that if some mat salleh somewhere recognises your paper, then it must be a good one.

I am most frustrated by this criterion of achievement because, to me, any paper contributing to your own society and country should be ranked higher. Many good papers in Bahasa Malaysia are rated lower because they are published locally only.

When I surveyed the best professors in the world in architecture, all of them have papers in their own national journals, even local state-published journals. The contributions of these academics to their home state, not to the United States nation, is considered a high achievement. But not so in Malaysia.

My articles in the media have always been awarded the lowest marks although, judging by circulation figures and online analytics, my writings have been read by millions of readers.

When I comment on architecture, politics, religion or education in the media, it is considered by university managers as “popular” writing, no different than if I write a travelogue or a recipe for an exotic dish. Yet, I feel that it is important for the people to be exposed to structured and critical thinking on the many issues this country is facing and not hear just the conflict-laden words of politicians.

Then there are the marks given to research grants – the more zeros your grant has, the higher the marks you get. Why? Oh, if your research can attract so much money it must be important. Wah, itu macam kah? I can sit in my house for three weeks reading 3,000 Friday sermons and come up with reasons why Malaysian Muslims take so many controversial stands that seem “unfriendly” to the world of others. How much does it cost? Well, zero ringgit, a neck ache and a sore back. But that research has huge implications for how this country could write social and nation-building policies in the future.

My PhD thesis on mosque architecture was based on reinterpreting the role, management and design of the mosque after scrutinising thousands of hadiths (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) from many religious scriptures, and it required no financial funding. But the research fundamentally impacts relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in this country as well as how millions of ringgit should reach the needy rather than be spent on monumental works of architecture that may not reflect the true values of the religion.

It seems that our academic managers are too busy to look at the quality of work being produced by actually understanding the work and its real contribution to society. These managers prefer to look at the spreadsheet of numbers rather than the individual book, paper or research.

We may be “soaring high” with the number of papers and research produced but why are we not progressing as a people and as a nation on so many social, religious and health issues?

Perhaps we are trusting the wrong managers of our higher institutions of knowledge, those who prefer numbers and ringgit and sen to actual contributions and common sense.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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