Monday, January 22, 2024

David Lillis: The Future of the University


Here in New Zealand we should be proud of our universities. Up to now they have performed as well as most of the best universities of other nations and they have produced graduates who had acquired necessary knowledge, skills and know-how, and could move into the workplace with confidence.

Over the last few years, however, an element of post-modernism and social justice ideology has emerged at the executive levels of the universities and in some cases freedom of expression suppressed. Ideology-driven research of questionable quality has become increasingly common in New Zealand and elsewhere, especially in education and health, and some of it does not meet standards of objectivity expected of published research.

Such ideologies must be challenged if our universities are to match the best of other nations. In addition, under no circumstances should excellence as a qualitative criterion of evaluation of research and as a condition of funding, be compromised. There must be no hint of downward adjustment of the notion of excellence for any reason. Re-configuration of excellence in order to include “other ways of knowing”, or to satisfy social justice agendas, is not admissible and must be resisted at all costs.

Imbuing science with ideology harms the scientific enterprise and leads to a loss of public trust. If we continue to undermine merit, our universities will become institutions of mediocrity rather than places of creativity and accomplishment, leading to the loss of the competitive edge in technology. Thus, we need to restore our commitment to practices grounded in epistemic humility and the meritocratic, liberal tradition (Abbot et al., 2023).

The world views of communities of the past have a valued place today and substantive contributions to make, but in the discovery of empirical, universal truths fall short of science (Corballis et al., 2021). Such world views and associated forms of knowledge do not justify any reconfiguration of the notion of excellence which will lead to systemic delivery of lightweight research of limited reach and diminish the good reputation of New Zealand’s research effort. Those who disagree are free to review the contributions of traditional knowledge to:

1.  The world of the invisibly small (i.e. beyond that which can be seen by the naked eye)
2. The Universe and all that is involved beyond those parts that are visible to the naked eye
3. The processes of plate tectonics and geology
4. The oceans beyond where fishing nets were cast by indigenous people of the past
5. The disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, molecular biology, computer science etc
6. The idea of complexity beyond the obvious nature of networks and things being composed of other things and having history
7. Most of medicine.

The above list could be expanded considerably, but in any case we see only small overlaps between the domains of traditional knowledge and the broad sweep of world science (Lillis, 2023).

For now, here is a possible statement of the roles and responsibilities of our universities of a kind that may provoke ongoing dialogue on how our universities could fulfill their obligations to society at large.  

A Statement on the Roles and Responsibilities of the University

The Mission of the University

This statement articulates the Roles and Responsibilities of the University of the twenty-first century and beyond. It follows directly from both the Kalven Report of 1967 and the Bologna Accord of 1988 (Magna Charta Universitatum), but is intended to reflect economic, demographic, social and political pressures on tertiary education and on the wider society that have emerged since those historic processes were conducted.

Recalling the Kalven Report, the mission of the University is the discovery, improvement and dissemination of knowledge; its domain of inquiry including all aspects and values of society. Its main purposes include the delivery of teaching and research, but not to engage in political action or to advance positions on societal issues that lie beyond its power and jurisdiction. The University provides the environment for criticism, challenge and the contest of ideas, but does not itself play the role of critic. The unit of social and political criticism, challenge and contest of ideas is indeed the individual member of staff or student, but not the University as an institution.

The University must sustain an “extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry” and remain independent of social and political activity if it is to perform its primary missions concerning the provision of excellent teaching and research and the dissemination of knowledge. At all times, it must encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.  

The University cannot adopt perspectives or take action on social or political issues, as otherwise it imperils the very environment and the preconditions necessary for its effectiveness by suppressing freedom of dissent. It cannot insist that its community accedes to a given position on social or political policy without diminishing dissenting views. Further, it should not resort, either to majority vote or to the imposition of the authority vested in its executive, to reach positions on public issues.  

Policies and Practices of the University

The independence and neutrality of the University indeed arise from the critical need for free inquiry, the commitment to embrace diverse views and the freedom for its community as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. The role of the University is not to serve primarily as an instrument of social justice, nor to espouse any particular ideology, nor to attain equity for the wider community that it serves. Rather, in addition to its engagement in teaching and research, it should focus on the achievement of merit and social, political and professional good that is based exclusively on merit. Consequently, where possible, it should adhere to policies and practices that are independent of culture, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation.

In maintaining those policies and practices, it must deliver the highest quality of teaching and research and at all times the strictest and most rigorous definitions of research excellence must be preserved. Always, the University must protect the highest academic standards across all disciplines and areas of research, and there must be no diminution of established definitions of excellence in order to satisfy either political or social agendas, however compelling those agendas may appear to be.

The Nexus of Teaching and Research

Recalling the Bologna Accord, teaching and research should remain inseparable and morally and intellectually independent of political authority and economic power. Thus, the business model should prioritise teaching and research, recognising the complex reciprocal relationships between itself and society at large, including the requirement for adoption of its research for the public good.

Consequently, recognising the value of research that enhances knowledge without evident material gain, where possible its teaching and research should support industry, the health and wellbeing of the people and their education, the protection of our environment and the economy. 

To achieve its mission, the University should adhere to practices of employment of academic staff exclusively on the basis of potential for teaching and research, and must guard against intrusion of forms of knowledge that are not testable or falsifiable and therefore that are not based in science. Further, it must guard against the imposition of artificial equality between such forms of knowledge and science.

To the extent that it is possible, the University must attempt to support the emotional and physical wellbeing of its staff and students, but cannot always guarantee their wellbeing.

The Great University

Finally, recalling the Kalven Report, our basic conviction is that a great University can perform greatly for the betterment of society. We have duty of care to ensure that the University remains great across all dimensions of its legitimate activity and that its reach transcends geographic, political, social, racial, ethnic and cultural frontiers.  


D. Abbot, A. Bikfalvi, A.L. Bleske­ Rechek, W. Bodmer, P. Boghossian C.M. Carvalho, J. Ciccolini, J.A. Coyne, J. Gauss, P.M.W. Gill, S. Jitomirskaya, L. Jussim, A.I. Krylov, G.C. Loury, L. Maroja, J.H. McWhorter, S. Moosavi, P. Nayna Schwerdtle, J. Pearl, M.A. Quintanilla­ Tornel, H.F. Schaefer, P.R. Schreiner, P. Schwerdtfeger, D. Shechtman, M. Shifman, J. Tanzman, B.L. Trout, A. Warshel, and J.D. West.

In Defense of Merit in Science. Journal of Controversial Ideas 2023, 3(1), 1; 10.35995/jci03010001

Corballis, Michael;  Clements, Kendall; Cooper, Garth; Elliffe, Doug;  Nola, Robert; Rata, Elizabeth and Werry, John. "In Defence of Science". New Zealand Listener, 31 July 2021. p4. 

Lillis, David (2023). Fighting for Science

The Bologna Accord (Magna Charta Universitatum), 1988.

The Kalven Report: Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action (1967).

Dr David Lillis trained in physics and mathematics at Victoria University and Curtin University in Perth, working as a teacher, researcher, statistician and lecturer for most of his career. He has published many articles and scientific papers, as well as a book on graphing and statistics.


MPHW said...

Agree entirely David. However, the system is already corrupted by racialism eroding meritocracy,as evidenced by higher PBRF ratings for those of Maori blood - thereby insulting top performng Maori scientists such as Garth Cooper who have made it on their merits.

There also needs to be fundamental reform in the RSNZ.

Anonymous said...

I am soooo relieved that I completed my degree in 1979. Sure there was sexism and general social dimness but that was being grown out of. Unfortunately it has now all been sidetracked by wokeness and Maori propaganda.

Call me old - lol it’s true!!!!