Thursday, April 27, 2023

Grant Schofield: A falling out of love letter to the university (….we need to talk)

What does an academic actually do and do they have any useful function in society today? This is a question I’ve been asking about myself 30 years into my academic career.

It’s not a mid-life crisis, at least so far as I can tell. I haven’t bought a Harley Davidson. Yet.

New Zealand universities are facing serious budget shortfalls, dwindling domestic enrolments, and catastrophic international student declines. My employer, engaged in a cost-cutting restructure which I survived, only to find out they botched it so badly they had to re-employ everyone they sacked. We will start the process again mid-year. The University of Otago announced staff cuts will be in the several hundreds, Massey, Auckland, Victoria and Lincioln have already been and are in these processes. Only Canterbury has somehow shown growth. Overall the sector is in trouble in New Zealand. It’s the same in Australia.

For most of my career I was in love with the “university” and the role it had in society. I’m gutted now to have lost that love.

I think I lost my love because we no longer deliver on the most important part of what we promised to do. We are no longer the “critic and conscience of society”.

It used to be that we were free to pursue the role that I think academics have in society. That is to conduct quality science, engage in robust public and scientific debate in our fields with a broad mandate of making the world a better place, and moving knowledge forward for the betterment of humankind.

Overall, I’d say I’ve done okay. I’ve published hundreds of scientific papers, written some books, bought lots of research funding, graduated students, including many masters and doctoral students, and made myself a public profile which influenced practice.

I’ve had something to say and I’ve said it.

Being an academic seems like a stellar lifestyle, and it is. Who wouldn’t want to have the privilege of all this? Freedom, but with full knowledge that challenge to anything I said was part of the deal. Other academics also knew that I would challenge them. Universities were places where you came for debate, controversy, and differences of opinions . It’s a fight the public are welcome to join as well.

Academics can and often are high in disagreeableness. I am.

Not disagreeable in a personal ad hominem way, but a robust, often fiery discussion about what the facts really are sort of way. This jousting comes with all sorts of thorns, but at the end of the day scientists changing their mind as new ideas come up has been and must be the future if we want to advance the human and planetary condition. You could and would be offended in these discussions, nothing surer. Feelings were hurt, egos battered, pride swallowed.

Our role has never been, nor should it be to have political views left or right. My view has been that we are radical centrists. A radical centrists will judge all views on evidence. We train the next generation to do the same.

I want to let you know if you haven’t set foot in a New Zealand university recently, or as most of us these days attend a Zoom or Teams meeting on a University account, then you might not be aware that we are no longer a place for debate. We are no longer centrists. We have drifted to the political left, way left. And that leftist view which has many merits, and many downfalls cannot be debated with impunity. We are strong on virtue signaling. We are strong on stating opinions rather than facts. We are weak on confrontation, but strong on behind the scene bullying.

Academia’s COVID response is a great example of how we transitioned. The wholesale canceling of fundamental human rights around vaccine mandates without robust arguments, let alone sufficient evidence caused more harm than benefit.

Who knows what writing this will actually mean for me, but it has been written, and it must be. I’m way nearer the end than the start of my career. I could stop tomorrow and I will be immensely proud of what I achieved. But I would be ashamed, embarrassed, and most of all not me if I failed to disagree with the elephants in the lecture halls and labs of our universities right now.

We have a culture where debate is refused on principle because someone else doesn’t like your view. You might “trigger” or “offend” someone. And this is true, in robust open societies where debate is raging, then people are triggered and offended all the time.

There are guard rails in place. This is called the law. We have a legal framework to make sure of this – to keep people for crossing a lone we agree we don’t cross.

My point is that a free, fair and open society has a requirement for hard on the facts debates. We need debates everywhere, all the time. Science literally can not advance without this. Neither can society.

I’m here to tell you that this is no longer what is happening in our universities.

The cancel culture and avoiding debate about issues of race, health, fairness, economic policy, and much more is now endemic in university culture. The great irony is that universities may end up inadvertently canceling themselves.

It used to be that you needed access to a university to have access to knowledge. We were the purveyors and keepers of this knowledge. That’s no longer true – anyone with curiosity can access all of humanity through your cell phone, listen to podcasts, and learn from Youtube.

We offer courses of little substance over actual substantial content, at least some of the time. I overheard my oldest son who recently finished a degree talk with his mates about the 24 courses he had taken over three years. As he listed them off, he categorised them as “good”, or “lame”. In his opinon, half the courses fell into the lame category. He was considering going on to a Masters’ degree but didn’t because he reckoned that the debt wasn’t worth it, he would learn much anyway, he was learning more on the Huberman Lab podcast, and half the courses were “irrelevant”. I don’t disagree.

With all the news of declining student numbers, we recently had a curriculum restructure day. We wheeled out some past students who only say good things about the degree. We rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, and leave congratulating ourselves on our team work and how we run the best program, with the best people, and that everyone needs to work a bit harder to tell young people about how awesome our degree is.

The point is we are laughably out of touch with reality. We have annoyed a solid section of society. I reckon about half of society, maybe more. Everyone from the center to right politically. That’s because we have taken political, not scientific positions.

If there is a future for the university going forward, then we need to change. Not back to what we were, but forwards to what the role in the world we will play. Here’s what I think is going to need to change:

1. Many young adults aren’t ready to go straight into the workforce, nor in fact come to uni. They need extra skills. Many need more literacy because our school system is failing at this. I’m not sure on its own this is any reason for us to exist. We aren’t the place to teach basic literacy. Primary and secondary education needs to have achieved close to 100% literacy and numeracy. Then many can go straight into the workforce, and those who are ready and see value can come to university.

2. We do need to train professionals, and will clearly continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I’m thinking of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists, engineers, and many more. The cost of this should be a shard burden on society (public and individual). But it is the responsibility of universities to provide value for money. My view is that we have lost control over spending money on what matters. We are overcapitalised with expensive real estate. The under-use of university buildings is astonishing. Walk into any university department on a Friday afternoon and it’s a ghost town. Actually any day it’s a ghost town, the working at home, if at all phenomena will be on stark display. It was bad before COVID, now it’s a comedy. Single person offices have been gone in the real world for decades. They are still the norm at universities.
3. On value, I wonder how many people would actually be prepared to hand the money over if the full cost in cash was on the student. Fees only represent a small proportion of the actual money the university gets for a student enrolment from the Tertiary Education Commission. I reckon if the full cost was put on students virtually no one would think it was value for money. Yet that money still comes from all of us. If a student had to pay the actual cash directly to the university proportionally after every interaction with the university it would be so laughably bad value we’d all be gone right away. The fact that the private sector can offer decent alternatives for a fraction of the cost but without the university parchment and stamp of approval should be a clue that we can and must do much better

4. Continuing on cost, and being divorced from reality the New Zealand universities have a full cost model of funding research. That means 133% overheads on researcher salary costs. No private research business would ever be considered seriously in such a cost arrangement. They’d just be laughaly overpriced. Yes, some research is really expensive, and critical infrastructure needs to be funded. We need a better system for universities to find the money.

5. We should not shy away from restructuring and reinvention. The world changes and so must we. It’s great that we expand when times are good, but contraction when needed is the way the rest of the world outside academia works. Our management has become increasingly expensive over the past few decades. This should be the first target, but sadly is the first area declared “out of scope” by those with the obvious conflict of interest. We will need to rethink what offices, lecture halls, and campuses look like. We have lots of real estate. Do we still need it all?

6. These managers must understand that continued growth in student numbers isn’t a sustainable business plan. We will be better served to be fit for purpose. But first we need to have a purpose.

7. If we can offer value, have a clear purpose in society, and young people want to come and learn and are ready to learn. Then it’s obvious that the current arrangement for young people isn’t satisfactory. What I see is this. Students are in poverty, they often work at least fulltime, often more, and also do a full time course. Even then they rack up debt. A student loan is the one unforgivable debt you have in society. . They are in no position to come to the campus and engage in learning. Under these conditions it’s little wonder they aren;t that engaged in the learning, and don’t come to lectures (30% attendance is normal these days). Conversations with many undergraduate students are centered around what the minimum requirements are to get a grade. Its completely the wrong environment to learn anything. On top of that we are one place that treats its customers with contempt. We charge for car parking, we are often cold and unwelcoming. Good luck here if you are a first generation university student coming out of poverty.

8. Last, but most important, we must make a comeback as the critic and conscience of society. Academics can and should debate issues of national and international importance and do so in public. How is it thinkable that my field of public health wouldn’t include the public? The importance of the free and open university in society should not be underestimated. Cancel culture, lack of respect for others’ arguments and invention of new, previously unknown words like “misinformation” and “disinformation” simply must go. In my experience this means your opinion is so unworthy that I don’t even have to lower myself to have to debate you on facts. I’m simply right because I’ve labeled you as a harbourer of disinformation. This is dangerous and a sign of non-functioning science. It’s a sign of a university which is no longer relevant.

Look university, I still love you deep down, but we do need to talk, all of us, openly and with freedom to express (and challenge) a point of view.

About me: Professor Grant Schofield
Here’s the script for the academic CV – what we get judged by. But have I actually contributed and can I still contribute to society?

I’ve worked in Australian and NZ universities for my whole adult career. I climbed my way to tenured full professor in my mid-thirties and was the youngest full professor in NZ that I knew of at the time. I’ve started and directed a research centre, which has brought in many tens of millions of dollars in external funding. I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and working with super smart and driven young people who have gone from where I started and lost focus to be leaders in their fields and full professors and leaders themselves. I’ve published hundreds of scientific papers in reputable scientific journals. Fair enough, hardly anyone reads scientific papers, but at least mine are well cited, another measure of research impact. I’ve authored six books, all translating my health research into forms for everyone to benefit, some have been best sellers in NZ and elsewhere. I’ve had a good public profile advocating for changes in exercise, diet, mental health and more which all align with my research and practice. I’ve spent time starting and selling businesses in health and well-being. I’ve worked as the Chief Health and Nutrition Advisor for The Ministry of Education. I’ve sat on government committees and boards. Right now I also work part-time as the Chief Science Officer for Prekure training health coaches, a new part of a functioning health workforce for the future.

This article was first published HERE


Robert Arthur said...

Very reassuring to discover that at least one academic can still communicate in comprehensible English.

Last Truth Standing said...

Universities are at the end of their life cycle. Like England's monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, they need to be shut down and replaced by something that is more in tune with 21st century reality. There is no fixing them.

DeeM said...

It's good to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about our universities from someone in the know.

Everyone who reads this website must be aware of the awful state of our tertiary sector, and education as a whole.
As in any free market economy, if you provide the consumer with a product which is sub-standard and not fit for purpose they will not buy it.

Hopefully, our Unis will start to go bust, with wholesale redundancies. That will surely prompt a warts-and-all inquisition.
It will be so satisfying seeing all those woke academics getting their just desserts.

Jan Macdonald said...

I listened to Prof Schofield on 'The Playform ' this morning. Thank you for speaking your truth, it was alarming, and deeply concerning for the education of our next generations, to say nothing of society and life in NZ going forward. We need debate in so many areas and we must not shy away from speaking our truth.

Anonymous said...

The CCP infiltrated and indoctrinated universities with communist ideology decades ago. Wokeism is straight out of the CCP playbook.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

No surprises for me here. As in North Korea, candidates for academic positions especially in the social sciences/humanities must pass an ideological purity test to be considered. I had a hatchet job done on me at one university by one well-known political activist. It was degrading to see candidates with a fraction of my qualifications and very few or no publications getting those jobs so I took my university career overseas instead.

Lesley Stephenson said...

Too many students go to university. Should be for top 10%. Too many graduates not equipped for workforce.

Anonymous said...

The Communists who’d begun colonising our universities in the 1930s to use them as political indoctrination factories had by the 1970s achieved critical mass in many departments, especially those specialising in the study of society.

Their growing dominance on faculty hiring committees allowed them to systematically exclude anyone holding alternative views. It was now possible in many disciplines to go all the way from Undergraduate to PhD. level without having been lectured by a single Conservative or Libertarian professor.

Controlling the universities was based on the writings of Antonio Gramsci, one of the many disreputable Communists held up as intellectual icons by the academic Left. The theoretician of Italian Communism, Gramsci had been imprisoned by Mussolini in the 1920s. He’d used his jail time to think long and hard about why violent Communist revolutions hadn't occurred in the advanced capitalist countries where Marx had predicted they would first occur.

Gramsci's answer was that the capitalist ruling class controlled the West’s social discourse. Its stranglehold on intellectual life made it impossible for the "subordinate classes" (workers, women, ethnic minorities, and alternative sexualities) to discover the truth about their institutionalised oppression at the hands of capitalist society. Without Communist assistance, these groups would never develop a revolutionary class consciousness.

Revolution must therefore first take place on the level of consciousness. Like throwing a stone into a pool, this would start with the formation of a body of Communist intellectuals who would take over the Western academy to use it as a factory for ideological reproduction. As their students graduated and moved into opinion-shaping roles, the Communist world view would progressively achieve “Cultural Hegemony,” or control of the West’s social discourse.

Naturally, recruits from the "subordinate classes” were needed as a revolutionary spearhead to spread the good word. But the wider Communist goal was to capture the largest possible cohort from the "dominant classes" who could be induced by propaganda to switch sides. This would be achieved by teaching that Capitalist society can be divided into groups that oppress and groups that are oppressed.

Gramsci’s academic adherents helped their students to understand that the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology, were not neutral and impartial. They were instead instruments of race, gender and class oppression.

The only moral position for someone born into a Communist-designated oppressor group was that of totally supine and penitent victimiser, desperate to make it up to those whom they’d learned their group had historically victimised.

Anonymous said...

These views are now considered "mainstream" in the Western academy. Students were told they were learning “progressive” new ideas about race, gender and class, not Communism. They were programmed with all the principles of Communism without the label then flattered for their cleverness in accepting the programming. If you told them they were Marxists or Communists, they’d respond with a pitying smile, roll their eyes, and accuse you of “seeing Reds under the bed.”

US political columnist Joe Sobran uses the metaphor of a hive of bees, united by a kind of “group mind,” to describe the largely informal body of Leftist Groupthink to which these people belong. There’s no central direction as such, but the bees can sense an enemy, and know when to attack.

Sobran says: “To become a bee in this hive is to surrender, voluntarily and eagerly, your own personality: to submerge the self in a collectivity; to prefer the buzzing cliché of the group to individual thought and expression; to take satisfaction in belonging and conforming to a powerful mass while punishing others for failure to conform ... The similarity to an insect colony - where the individual exists only functionally, being both indistinguishable from and interchangeable with its fellows - is not superficial, it is of the essence. To be an insect is to be relieved of the burden of having a soul of your own.”

Most of the Bees are “Pinks,” not “Reds.” A small hard core of Communists derives a sense of superiority from knowing that they are manipulating the situation. But the vast mass of the Hive’s inhabitants consists of the Left-leaning approval seekers whom Lenin once referred to as “useful idiots.” These are people who have adopted a value system that originated with Communists after being helped to see this as their “Club Virtue” membership badge.

Having internalised the readymade system of values upon which their “Club Virtue” membership depends, most university graduates over the last forty years display a strong emotional resistance to having it questioned. If you disagree with them, you are racist, sexist, fascist, misogynistic, homophobic or just plain stupid. Since a label is not an argument, rational discourse with Lenin’s useful idiots is impossible.

After completing their studies, the newly ‘woke’ Bees sallied forth into the media, education system, trade unions, legal profession, judiciary, central and local government, entertainment industry, film and television industry, advertising agencies, churches, and other institutions that shape society’s governing ideas. There they embarked, with little conscious awareness, upon their pre-programmed transformational project.

Over the last 40 years or so, these largely unwitting “agents of social change” have completely altered the way our society sees itself. And over time, the views and values of our existing society have been quietly supplanted by the views and values of the Leftist counterculture.

Our universities thus served as a transmission belt into wider society for a raft of Communist narratives. As a result, the political centre of gravity has moved steadily leftward over several generations.

Communists are like cockroaches, I say.

They should be ruthlessly stamped on wherever found.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, your insect analogies are curious. Human life and our food chains would cease to exist as we know these without bees. And fortunately anonymity prevents me from stamping on you and your extreme views, which are hardly respectful by the way.