International appeal for the protection of academic independence

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A group of Swiss academics have recently launched a petition to call for the protection of academic independence. Personally I think it’s gone well past the point where protection is the apposite term, given the extent to which the function of Universities has been eroded over the last 4 decades. But we have to start somewhere. Please read their petition below and sign at the relevant web page for yourself:





International Appeal for the protection of academic independence

Now that cooperation between the private sector and public universities has all but become the norm, in Europe as elsewhere, it is time to ask some basic questions: What is a university? And what is its role in society?

Universities grew out of the idea of establishing a place where freedom of research, education and scholarship is protected and beyond venal influence. They serve the common good and in turn are supported by the community. Directly linked to this founding idea is the academic ethos that preserves the institution of the university as a special place, free from political, ideological and commercial interests. Freedom of teaching and research is protected by the Swiss Constitution.

Against this background, it is self-evident that a public university should neither cooperate with nor accept sponsorship from institutions associated with public scandal or unethical conduct. That is damaging to the academic reputation of any university. And it impinges upon the independence of the scholars concerned, particularly those directly funded by such institutions, undermining their status as guarantors of independence and ethically-minded scholarship.

The University of Zurich was born of this same spirit of independent thinking in 1833. It is “the first university in Europe to be founded by a democratic state instead of by either a monarch or the church”. This proud claim stands to this day on the university’s website. The question is: are today’s universities still sufficiently independent in an age of cooperation and sponsorship?

In April 2012, the Executive Board of the University of Zurich concluded a cooperation agreement, in camera, with the top management of UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland). The agreement entails sponsoring of the university by UBS to the tune of 100 million Swiss francs and the establishment of a “UBS International Centre of Economics in Society” within the scope of the university. Neither the public nor the research and teaching staff were asked their opinion. The agreement between the university and UBS was concluded secretly in the spring of 2012.

This procedure brings the issue of sponsorship into sharp focus. The Executive Board of the University concedes that the bank is using the university as a platform to further its interests. However, UBS is a particular case of a business that has been shown in the past to have engaged in unethical practices. The fact that the bank was able to place its logo at the University of Zurich has nothing to do with scholarship and everything to do with marketing.

It is a glaring example of the problematic nature of academic sponsorship. But there are many more instances, in other European countries, of questionable university sponsorship deals. In one case, in June 2011, Deutsche Bank had to withdraw from a controversial sponsorship arrangement because of justified public criticism. This shows that sponsorship involving specific vested interests and secret deals – in contrast to altruistic patronage and donation by benefactors – represents a threat to the impartiality of university research and teaching. The very academic ethos is at risk.

As citizens, researchers, academics and students, we appeal to the leaders of the universities and all who bear responsibility for our educational institutions, at home and abroad, to safeguard the precious heritage of free and independent scholarship, and to avoid endangering the academic ethos in controversial collaborations.

About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.
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13 Responses to International appeal for the protection of academic independence

  1. Pingback: Links 3/4/13 « naked capitalism | Fifth Estate

  2. Pingback: International Appeal for the Protection of Academic Independence « Homologus

  3. H. Alexander Ivey says:

    Quite agree with the point of this blog, but will quibble, or rather, strongly add, that the purpose of a university or school is to prove to their students that, in exchange for the student’s time and money, the student will be taught a skill and, with the posting of the student’s grades and certificate, other people can be sure of that student’s level of knowledge in the field of knowledge the student studied in. In other words, the first universities were established due to pressure from the paying students to ensure that their money and time was not wasted by fraudulent or incompetent “teachers”.

    Having a school link its funding to institutions that desire a goal that is at odds to the student’s goal of getting and proving he has gotten a level of skill by attending and passing his courses, is wrong, and a betrayal of one of the main purposes of forming an accredited school or university in the first place.

  4. Steve Keen says:

    Alexander, Universities also evolved out of the monasteries that kept learning and scholarship alive after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and those two tasks–learning and scholarship–are the ones Universities are now finding are being attacked by treating them as producers selling a product called education and accreditation to paying customers. That process of commodification, combined with governments using it to cut back on their own funding, is one of the reasons why Universities are failing to do what you want them to do.

  5. Lyonwiss says:

    The whole university system has become a whore house: fee for service. The service is selling meal-tickets and the fees or payments are dictated by business profit, where the revenue is mostly student fees and the cost is mostly academic salaries. Profit maximization requires issuing as many meal-tickets as possible at the lowest cost. Since there are no measures of standards, it is economically rational to lower standards to save on the cost of production. Meal-tickets are for jobs or vocation, not education or thinking skills. Millions of graduates cannot find jobs for which they are trained, but have no skills to create the jobs themselves.

    University revenue is also subsidized by government grants and business donations, which largely determine the research budget. Since research is the main criterion for promotion and other career prospects, grants and donations largely control the directions of academic research (as noticed at Zurich). For example, since business favours free-markets and deregulation, it simply (a) give grants and donations only to neoclassical economics research and (b) finance the prestigious journals to accept only those research papers. Before long, government bureaucrats and all policy makers are trained to accept the neoclassical economic paradigm. This provides a deeper explanation for the global financial crisis.

    Change will not be easy. Suppose a bright economist (like Steve) has discovered the right economic theory and is given the opportunity to teach it at a university. None of those graduates are likely to be able to get a job, because they won’t “fit in”, as they will question orders and debate policies with their superiors who must know better. If anyone thinks the government or business puts truths or right answers above all else, then they are incredibly naive. The intellectual corruption has taken several decades to put in place and it will take
    several decades to dismantle, even if there is a will to do so.

  6. TruthIsThereIsNoTruth says:

    The whole university system?

    There are still arts, philosophy and literature degrees aren’t there?

  7. koonyeow says:

    Why don’t they hire a lawyer and challenge the constitutionality of the University of Zurich/UBS agreement?

    Personally I think it is very hard to have freedom of mind without financial freedom (due to our fear of death), unless one practices Stoicism; something which Seneca had achieved.

  8. Lyonwiss says:

    @ TruthIsThereIsNoTruth March 5, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    It is the whole system, regardless of individual disciplines, which runs as fee for service. Universities have to close down departments which do not earn enough fees for the service they provide.

    The arts, philosophy and literature departments have been shrinking for a long time, constantly struggling with finances. Departments, such as the classics, have been closed down in most universities.

    Meal-tickets are needed by most to pay off student loans, as an economic imperative. To the extent that there are still jobs for arts graduates, the arts faculties still exist. Not many are prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars “for the love of knowledge”.

  9. TruthIsThereIsNoTruth says:

    Well, for candidate suitability, the finance industry needs to know that graduates are able to establish a feeling of self importance after being subjected to 3yr of mundanly boring banal subjects in business degrees.

  10. Steve Keen says:

    In fact, David Williamson was on ABC radio last night making precisely these points about creative arts funding. I heard it by accident last night while driving back from Centennial Park, and it was excellent:

    And as for the comment “would have loved a class where I get to build a dynamic model of the economy”, that’s what Minsky is designed for: I gave lectures in Mexico in November where I had students build the Goodwin model in about 20 minutes in a computer lab, and a basic comparison of Endogenous Money and Loanable Funds in another 20 minutes.

    Speaking of which… Funding has slowed down quite a bit. If you’d like to help speed it up:

  11. Bhaskara II says:

    Calvin and Hobbs Cartoon:

    “It’s no surprise to me that nobody’s sold a a house on this street for six years.”

  12. Lyonwiss says:

    David Williamson confirmed the parlous situation of funding for arts education and argued for the importance of training in fostering creativity in the arts. But he provided no arguments for why sports shouldn’t get much more funding than the arts (according the current philosophy), as he was preaching to the converted.

    According to one questioner, a university VC actually admitted that a university is “in the business of selling credentials”, i.e. degrees, qualifications or meal-tickets. So long as this remains the raison d’etre for universities, economic rationalism will continue to destroy the true meaning of university.

    The greatest danger is the loss of intellectual integrity, leading to universities being propaganda machines for a fascist state. Arts, through various forms, help us be conscious or aware of human treachery and the capacity to create disasters. For this reason at least, it is more important than sport.

    We need privately funded universities, independent of government or business, where students are selected by merit for real education funded by free scholarships, without any intention of jobs or careers. This could overcome the intellectual corruption caused by money pulling the strings. The University of Zurich is resisting further corruption, but still does not have full independence.

  13. Steve Keen says:

    Yes, that was close to the nature of Universities in Australia before the 1980s “reforms” turned it into a poor clone of the corporate sector.

    Here’s a depressingly accurate cartoon from Doonesbury on precisely this topic:

    “Divert scarce resources from instruction to marketing”… Indeed.

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