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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  • H. Alexan­der Ivey

    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.

  • 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.

  • Lyon­wiss

    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.

  • TruthIs­ThereIs­NoTruth

    The whole uni­ver­sity sys­tem?

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

  • koonyeow

    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.

  • Lyon­wiss

    @ 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”.

  • TruthIs­ThereIs­NoTruth

    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.

  • 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:

  • Bhaskara II

    Calvin and Hobbs Car­toon:

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

  • Lyon­wiss

    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.

  • 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.