Five Dilemmas: Establishing “rule” on campus
THE changing of the guard at universities can be as colourful as those at well-known palaces. Perhaps the process of appointing a vice chancellor can be likened to the installation of a monarch who will “rule” over the campus.
There are mixed feelings about the future (mis)direction of the academia in an era of uncertainty where changes seem inevitable. Expectations run high and there is pressure to deliver both internally and externally, giving rise to a number of dilemmas.
Tertiary institutions are bound by principle to function as points of reference for knowledge generation.
Firstly, there is the issue of exercising persuasion rather than power. Vice chancellors are leaders among equals. They do not have “power” as such. As the so-called “power” often resides elsewhere, it is important to develop the power of persuasion based on argumentative thinking and intellectual discourse which are basic to the culture of the academe. It demands acceptance of dissent and criticisms, and broad-based consultations which can often provide a sense of ownership among those involved. The rest will be plain-sailing, at times with pleasant outcomes (for example Universiti Sains Malaysia attaining The Accelerated Programme for Excellence status).
If for some reason, persuasion does not cut it (assuming that the skill sets are absent) then the second problem arises: exercising principle over patronage. More often than not, it is the latter — where the “real” power resides and decides - that is implicated! It may be difficult to discern but invariably it is related to influence, financial matters or due to sheer ignorance or arrogance. This is where the power of principle comes into the picture. Tertiary institutions are bound by principle to function as points of reference for knowledge generation, transmission and dissemination. Principle-bound means it is ethically compliant without fear or favour in ensuring that the knowledge approximates the “truth” as much as possible. Patronage, without an understanding of this, will inevitably compromise the “truth”, giving rise to a culture of mediocrity and falsification of knowledge over time. This is the reason why academic freedom is deemed critical to asserting principle over patronage, though not without risk.
The third challenge is about taking risk instead of playing it safe. The latter is more “seductive” since it requires little or no effort to remain in the comfort zone reinforced by the belief that leadership is all about position rather than action. It is natural to cling to the post for as long as possible without rocking the boat! In the course of pursuing a principled action, risk is inevitable, especially in bringing about major changes which is what education is fundamentally about. By playing it safe, an individual and his proxies have much to gain which explains, in part, the reluctance to initiate meaningful changes that challenge the status quo.
This takes us to the fourth difficulty: institution over individuals. Personal legacy can become an obsession. It is diametrically opposed to institutional legacy for the simple reason that the latter is here to stay. Personal legacy comes and goes while the damage it inflicts can lead to permanent scarring of the institution. It is even more confusing when the demarcation between the institution and individuals is blurred. It is important to revert to the choice of principle over patronage.
The fifth matter is humility over authority. Jim Collin, the author of Good To Great, contends that the “level 5 leader” is essentially about genuine humility blending with strong professional will in line with the saying ikut resmi padi, lagi berisi lagi tunduk. It opens up opportunities for learning from others and respecting the authority of ideas instead of the ideas of authority. It allows for autonomy and making calculated risks based on the principles of collegiality, mutual trust and sincerity. All these are vital intangible elements in a respectable institution of knowledge where pulling rank in a control-and-command style is regarded as despicable, if not downright destructive to the morale of the academic community.
Dzulkifli Abdul Razak NST Channels Learning-curve 29/12/2013