By Mohamad Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi

Ignore your VC, or, the death of our academia

Ever since my firstborn showed an interest to be an academic like me, I began thinking of writing a book about being a good and responsible academic who contributes meaningfully to society and, in turn, gets the rewards of satisfaction in life through the blessings of Allah and the material gains that comes with it.

The one single message I wanted to impart to her and to all my PhD and Masters candidates who aspire to be academics is simple: don’t listen to the vice chancellor (VC), just focus on what your conscience leads your academic area towards and to contribute meaningfully to advancing a better quality of life to your immediate community, nation and, perhaps, the world (in that order).  

At first, I meant no disrespect to the VCs of public universities as the book was meant to tell the young academics that “hey you are supposed to be the expert in your own particular and specific fields, why the heck do you need the head of department, the dean or the VC to tell you what to write, what to publish, where to go and who to be your mentor!”.

You should decide where or with whom you wish to set up a research centre or when you wish to leave your present university and go off to another one that you see fit to advance your academic and scholarly agenda. Simple.

The undergraduate or post graduate students do not care two cents who the VC of a university is ...they want to study with you, the expert and leading figure in the country in your specific area. I thought that was pretty obvious.

But apparently, young academics coming home from overseas with their PhD degrees become overwhelmed - not by enthusiasm of teaching, writing and researching, but by clearly dictated and computerised KPI’s that list difficult journals to be published.

Furthermore, there are so many QA formats, accreditaion formats and God knows what else that syphon off valuable quality time to reflect and philosophise about where we as a people should be as a matured nation. The departmental and faculty meetings at UTM for 24 years have dwelled with teaching subjects, students problems and hardly ever propose any discourse of national importance.

It always starts with, “the dean wants this” or “the VC wants that... and they wanted it yesterday”. So the heads of departments are nothing more than nursemaids to push lecturers to teach and the dean is the mother hen to make sure that the VC’s orders are carried out to the letter.

I, being a lowly lecturer, then senior lecturer, then associate professor and finally a professor grade C knows nothing of what the VC does. If the VC comes once a year to the faculty, that is when I see him (although, to be fair, the present UTM VC makes himself available every single month to see the ‘people’).

Then it dawned on me that the VC’s of public universities have never inspired young academics with the ideals of knowledge that I subcribe to. Their line has always been something like...make the university proud...don’t you dare embarass the university, don’t forget to publish in journals and more journals....earn and get those million ringgit grant... and of course the favourite line of all...get noticed by the ministers or prime minister!

That’s about it. Aside from the present VC of UTM, I have never seen any UTM VC inspiring academics to promote exchange of ideas and discourses throughout my 24 years. At UTM, there are no inter-faculty discourses that I know off. Whatever public lectures held seems to border on an over sophisticated and jargonised lecture about this micro thingy or that chemical formulae.

Our academics, apparently, do not know how to talk public lingo. Why? It is not an important KPI. This is a strange attitude because what I know of our international visiting professors, those mat salleh academics,  have books that speak to the public and their CV is filled with a lot of public lectures. It is clear what their role in society is wheteher in their country or in the world.

Our academics? Well, just scan through the newspapers and see how many are willing to volunteer opinions, write columns and even grant interviews to help the nation understand the implications of their oh so sophisticated areas. One dean of engineering actually mocked me when I ask about explaining things to the public by saying, “Ala, prof your area in architecture boleh lah you explain, tapi kita orang punya banyak mathematics, for the lay public to understand.”

I just stayed silent but thought to myself if the PM wants to give you RM20 million for your centre I am sure you will find an easy way to explain to the ‘layman’ PM ... I’ll bet! On another occassion, a deputy VC also said almost the same thing but this time about making time to write in the mass media or the press.

She said, “Tak ada time-lah nak tulis kat newspaper...lagipun the public only wants to read about jin or tahyul you know... and they have no capacity to understand our fields”. Such attitude is much prevalent in the Malaysian academia I think by virtue of such a person being appointed to that position.

There was also a professor who wanted to strike out the 5 percent allotment of writing to the newspapers as he sees it a totally populist and an unworthy criterion for professorship. I quickly put a different viewpoint. That fellow was appointed to a deputy VC post a few years later.

Lastly, I still remember a time when my colleague professor and I explained to the VC a project to help high school students appreciate electronics engineering. The VC listened and pronounced the project a “third priority”. I interjected by saying that I thought the project should be a “first priority” as we are investing in our future generations to become what the West is now.

It was thus that I explained to my daughters and my post graduate students that the VC knows next to nothing about our specialised areas. For instance, my field of mosque architecture requires me to engage in workshop after workshop attended by mosque committee members about how to make the mosque as a community place for Muslims and also accept visits by non-Muslims in order to project the true nature of Islam from the sunnah.

My field does not require me to get those multi million ringgit grants. I operate quietly well on a zero grant to publish hundreds of papers, articles, over 30 books and supervise more than 20 post graduates. Zero grants. I set up two research centers without any grant or minister’s help and these two are operating well.

The secret? I just went and did it. If I had told the university they would probably say something like ‘oh that is a small private university, or that is not on par with us’ kind of answer. The public universities in Malaysia love glamour and especially basking in the sweet shadows of the political or royal elites.

So I  just let the VC play their game and go on my merry way to do the stuff I think is absolutely necessary to further my field of islamic architecture, mosque and community development and housing for multicultural communities. Now my house in Kajang is becoming the modern madrasah for me to give free lectures to aspiring academics and post graduate students as well as a think tank centre to further my academic agendas without any beauracratic hindrance. Much of my speechess are now transcribed or posted on Youtube for public access by students who are internet savvy. (I only know how to turn on the computer).

In a nutshell, the title of the book ‘Don’t Listen to Your VC’ has gone from simply focusing on youself as an academic without waiting for guidance from DOD, dean or VC, to a situatuion where I see the VC of public universities straying away from the idea of knowledge and community development.

The VCs seem to favour the idea of rankings and ‘world class stature’ without fully understanding the foundation that makes a society truly civilised. To me there is no point being published in a ‘world class’ journal but your neighbour can’t understand anything about the importance of your field in this country.

Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of UKM once told me that whenever he interviews candidates for professorship he would ask, “Well Sir/Madam how can your academic field be relevant to a little old fisherman in the coastal areas of Kelantan?” If he or she could answer that, I would reccommed his or her professorship.

I have the same feeling as that seasoned professor. I often feel a special sense of pride when the many mosque competitions for students and practitioners resulted in creative solutions, such as mosques without domes and compositions of a community centre, which perhaps in a small way was my contribution of sort.

Now, with recent events, the title of my proposed book ‘Don’t Listen to your VC’ has taken a new meaning. With the action of the UIA VC on their law professor Aziz Bari, I think the last nail in the academia’s coffin has been placed.

Not only does this reflects the notion that most VC’s no longer possess or subscribe the traditional views of knowledge and social responsibility, one VC is now the killer of academic freedom. I thank all the VC’s of UTM who had kept silent about my writings to express my ideas.

Until this day I do not have an iota of conception whether they agree or disagree with my statements in the media but I am eternally grateful that they had kept silent and never served me a show cause letter (though I had waited for those letters to come with much apprehension).

Academics like me fully understand the implications of the AUKU or University and University Colleges Act. Now we perhaps have to deal with a ‘newer’ act not yet passed by ParIiament that I dub the EASA (the Ezam Academic Sedition Act).

It is too much to ask a VC to support his or her academic staff talking about their own fields, it is another to sit silent. But to actually become a vehicle of academic assassination...well it is time for people like Aziz Bari and me to say adieu to public universities of Malaysia perhaps.

There is no place for people like us, I suppose, in Malaysian public universities. I am seeking my optional retirement come this January and I look now to private universities in Malaysia or overseas universities (in my opinion Indonesia has the potential to grow intellectually as they have the proper political framework after the ousting of Suharto) to lay the foundation of a new academic culture.

Since I have no clue to any political intervention in the case of Aziz Bari, I am forced to conclude that the apathy of VCs of public universities in Malaysia over the past twenty years concerning the role of knowledge in society, has naturally peaked at the scenario of this case with the forceful demise of academic freedom.

In summary, my proposed book entitled ‘Don’t listen to your VC’ is not a tirade or a condemnation of the office of the vice chancellor of public universities in Malaysia. It is about inspiring young academics to chart their path towards a meaningful career by engaging them on subjects of how to publish books, get on mainstream media, penetrate ministries or organisations, set up centres, find the best post-graduate students, look for a good mentor and many, many more tips that I have learnt across 24 years of academic life.

There is only one section in a chapter on academic leadership where I would take to task the vice chancellors who are irresponsible and who have forgotten the honourable creed of academia; that knowledge is for the development of all, not just the few. I have no time to spend deliberating on vice chancellors and they do not figure in anywhere in my grand scheme of pushing the discourse of Islamic and community architecture in Malaysia and in the Islamic World.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been two or three excellent VCs in Malaysia that I have seen in my 24-year career and I appreciate the work done by these people in general. It is not an easy thing to be in charge of thousands of self opinionated academics who think that they are right and everyone else is wrong! Not an easy task indeed.

But the true worth of the VC is simply to aid and support those idealistic and hard working academics and provide the maximum leeway for their efforts. The best VCs are either great visionaries or simply great supporters of visionariy academics.

Finally, of course I know about the context of political coercion in Malaysia’s academia but that is not an excuse for academics who wear the title of deans and vice chancellors to destroy academic freedom.

If we ‘tak tahan’ (cannot take) the political pressure, we can always tender our resignation as deans, and vice chancellors. But we can never resign from being a scholar. We are academics... scholars... ulama. Upon us lies the fate of the nation we live in to set the path to enlightenment.

We have no armies, no police, no money and no support staff to light the path to a glorious civilised nation. We have only our words, our zeal and our creative ways of explanation. And we also have our conscience, that what we teach or prevent others from teaching will be accountable in this world and the next.