Chapter 8: Reforming Higher Education (Cont’d)
The two major problems with personnel are how to break down the intellectual insularity and to retain precious talent on campus.
An example will illustrate this insularity. A senior academic sociologist reviewed my The Malay Dilemma Revisited. I was flattered to receive such high level attention, and even more thrilled when the newspaper splashed her review over the entire page, with bold headlines no less. Pleased as I was for the attention, what intrigued me was that she did not address the issues I raised or the validity of my observations. Instead she took me to task for daring to comment on social issues. To her such matters are best left to professional sociologists like herself; us mere mortals should rest our writing quills. To her way of thinking, since I am neither a sociologist nor currently residing in Malaysia to boot, my views have no merit. Would she have been differently disposed had I been a social scientist or living locally?
While artificial boundaries separating the various academic disciplines are fast disappearing in the developed world, in good old Malaysia the academics still think that only sociologists should comment on social issues, and doctors should stick only to medicine! Such insularities are expressed in other silly and destructive ways. A former colleague, a distinguished cardiologist, was keen to teach and the medical school could have definitely used his expertise. Not surprisingly he did not want to give up his lucrative private practice to go into fulltime academic medicine. He asked the dean for a part-time honorary clinical appointment, but was rebuffed. The dean considered such part-timers as interlopers, trying to get the best of both worlds – a lucrative income and an academic title. “Professorships are not like datukships to be dispensed liberally,” he sniffed. Such exclusivity! Never mind that such an appointment would benefit the faculty and students.
I am pleased to note some recent positive changes. UUM has appointed a number of leading industry figures as adjunct professors to its business school. This definitely reduces the silly town-gown rivalry and the attendant destructive “us versus them” mentality, quite apart from reducing the intellectual insularity on campus. UUM however, is a poor learner. Most of its adjunct professors are individuals residing hundreds of miles away; I fail to see how they could contribute effectively to the teaching program. Once a year visit to the campus does not qualify one to be on the faculty. I am surprised that the many universities in Klang Valley do not follow UUM‘s example, especially considering the wealth of talent in their midst.
I would go further. On American campuses each faculty or department has an advisory committee of major employers, outside experts, and alumni. In this way changes in and the realities of the outside world are quickly communicated to the campus community. As a result of such input, what my wife is teaching today bears little resemblance to what she did a mere five years ago. Today her students do their assignments on computers and submit them on discs or via email.
Yet another way of breaking down the artificial barriers is to encourage interdisciplinary studies and joint academic appointments. An economist studying Islamic financial instruments could have joint appointment with the Islamic Studies department. Likewise, a sociologist studying rural health could seek a joint appointment with the School of Public Health.
The impact of this intellectual insularity is initially subtle, but in the long term the cumulative consequences can be devastating. The decline of the great traditions of Islamic scholarship can be attributed to the insularity of its later scholars. Early Muslim scholars in contrast were open; they learned from the Greeks and Romans, synthesized the knowledge, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions.
Much of what we know today as secular knowledge is deeply rooted in the contributions of those early Islamic scholars. But sometime after the 13th century Muslim scholars became insular. They began to differentiate between religious knowledge (ilm’ ain) from the secular (ilm kafiyah). Later Muslim scholars concentrated purely on the religious, leaving Western scholars to pursue secular knowledge, which they did with vigor, armed with inquiring and critical attitudes imbued in them by the early Muslim scholars.
A measure of the insularity of modern Islamic scholars can be gauged by the fact that until recently the oldest Muslim university, Al Azhar in Cairo, had no disciplines outside of religious studies. Only in 1966 did it begin to have other faculties in an attempt to expose the ulama to the realities of the modern world.
Knowledge is knowledge; they all ultimately originate with Allah. This artificial division between religious and secular is just that – artificial. The great Malay philosopher and ulama, Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (HAMKA), said it best. Allah gave us two books of revelations: one is open – the Quran – which He revealed to His Chosen Messenger, Mohammad (pbuh); the other is closed – the universe around and within us. We have an obligation to read this second Quran just as much as the first. In pursuing the natural sciences we are doing exactly this.
It is significant that before he was a religious scholar, HAMKA had broad education and experience, very unlike the cloistered upbringing of present-day ulamas. He was a journalist, novelist, and even a politician; he brought his vast secular experience and knowledge to bear on his religious studies. This reinforces my earlier point on the importance of broad-based liberal education.
If we keep our scholars tightly in their own literal and intellectual cubbyholes, they too will suffer the fate of later Muslim scholars, and will stagnate and be left behind.
The second problem of retaining talent on campus is more problematic. For one, the pay scale is rigidly tied to the civil service. Promotions too are like the civil service, more on seniority than academic productivity. Additionally, the pay differential between university and private sector, especially for professionals and scientists, is very large. For those with desirable qualifications from elite foreign universities, there is the attraction of academic appointments abroad with their more lucrative pay and far more satisfying work environment.
Malaysian universities can greatly reduce this brain drain by adapting some of the innovative ideas used successfully by Western universities. One, reduce the income disparity by allowing faculty members to supplement their income by doing private consulting work or by providing them with market allowances. Two, supplement the academic staff by appointing private sector experts as Adjunct or Clinical Professors. And three, establish International Tract appointments with globally attractive salaries to attract world-class academics in disciplines that are badly needed.
Before expanding it is helpful to remember that in dealing with highly talented individuals whose skills are in demand worldwide, we must be flexible and accommodating. Simply dismissing those who leave as greedy or unpatriotic does not solve the problem. Let me illustrate this.
A Malaysian with a PhD in engineering from a prestigious American university returned home. He had a number of patents to his credit and needed some protected time to develop them. Instead of capitalizing on his expertise, the dean made him teach introductory calculus – a colossal waste of talent. Without support from the university he soon left. For the university and nation, a lost opportunity.
Contrast that with the experience of another engineer I know here in California. He has a senior appointment with IBM and is also on the faculty at Berkeley. But the National University of Singapore (NUS) was eager to recruit him even though he is not a Singaporean. But he did not want to give up his IBM job or Berkeley ties even though Singapore’s remuneration package was more than attractive. In the end NUS agreed to have his service part time. Every three months he would fly to Singapore for two weeks to give lectures, seminars, and supervise the graduate students. Imagine the amazing length and ingenuity NUS went through to secure his service. Malaysia would need to be not only flexible but also imaginative in trying to entice top talent. Exhortations to patriotism can only go so far.
Market allowances could be used to compensate those academics whose skills are in great demand by the private sector. The advantage of an allowance over a general salary increase is that it is both selective and adjustable. With the present glut of Islamic Studies experts there is no need for special allowances to retain them, but should the situation change in the future, then by all means use the incentive. Meanwhile, why waste money on a problem that does not exist? Universities certainly need incentives to keep their scientists and professionals.
Instead of or even in addition to the market allowance, universities could permit their academics to supplement their income by doing private work. English professors could work with The New Straits Times in improving the writing skills of its journalists; Management professors could consult for private companies. Guidelines would have to be drawn to prevent abuses and conflicts with academic duties. The plan could be modified to benefit the university. One suggestion would be for the income (after expenses) to be shared with the department and university. The community would benefit immensely with this rapid diffusion of expertise from the university. The academics too would enhance their skills and ideas by having them tested in the real world.
Appointing adjunct professors would be one way for the university to acquire the services of experts and yet be spared the expense of paying the full salary. There are many outstanding individuals working at the Rubber Research Institute, Institute of Medical Research, private corporations, and think tanks whose skills and expertise the university could usefully tap. Many are former academics. The university could not afford to offer them their regular salaries but it could get their services for a nominal (compared to their regular income) sum by giving them an adjunct academic title. To be successful, these adjunct and clinical professors must be afforded the usual university privileges lest they feel slighted.
The Governor of Bank Negara could give seminars on monetary policies; and trial lawyers conduct moot courts. For those whose experiences and qualifications do not merit a full professorship, a lesser academic title could be substituted. On many American academic departments, over half of the faculty members are part timers. These outside experts bring much-needed practical perspectives to the academic program.
The present pay scale is attractive only to academics from the Third World. To widen the pool this needs to be substantially increased, but that is not a realistic possibility. The universities can however, have a few selective Distinguished Professorships that would pay globally attractive salaries to bring top talent in disciplines that are desperately needed. By globally attractive I mean at least RM300,000 annually, with matching funding for research.
To the argument that paying top dollar for these talented scholars would be too expensive, consider this. That professor would spend about half of it on housing and living expenses, and a third on income taxes. He would be lucky to have RM30,000 to remit home at the end of the year. Contrast that with the present policy of sending students abroad at an annual cost of RM120,000 each. In 2002 Malaysian students spent RM6 billion abroad, many times the total budget for all the universities in the country. That money is totally lost from the country, with no spillover to the local economy. Had that money been spent in Malaysia, imagine the benefits not only to the local economy but also to the universities and students.
The spin-offs to the nation from such high caliber appointments would be immense. These professors would in effect be our intellectual seeds and catalysts. Taiwan successfully lured a Nobel laureate from UC Berkeley to head its ambitious chemistry program. The economic benefits are also substantial. Singapore‘s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology has spawned many successful joint ventures with leading biotech companies.
The university could assign local junior faculty members to be “post doc” fellows to these senior professors. These professors would be our contact with the leading universities where we could send our best students for graduate studies and post-doctoral appointments, or start collaborative academic programs.
These International Tract appointments should be open to all, and if Malaysians qualify, so much the better. Nationality however, should not be the criterion for selection. The key to success is in the careful selection of candidates. The right scholar, far from creating resentment and envy from his colleagues, would instead inspire them to greater heights.
In the 1980’s UKM recruited an expatriate professor of surgery, someone complete with hisBritish knighthood. Unfortunately that gentleman was way past his professional prime and thus did not (or could not) contribute much.
The ideal candidate would be someone in his forties, already a full professor at a leading institution. How can we entice such individuals? By appealing to their sense of mission in meeting new challenges, and in helping another nation. More importantly, by assuring them of generous research funding. With their children now grown up and a salary scheme that would not result in a diminution of their living standard, an academic appointment in Malaysia would be an easy sell. Besides, many Western universities have generous leave-of-absence policies so these individuals need not sever their academic ties to their old institutions.
Excellent pay alone is not enough. Apart from supporting their research, we must also give them the freedom to explore wherever their intellect and curiosity lead them. And give them their due respect. When they apply, do not treat them as if they are applying for a peon’s job. Treat them royally; remember you are out to entice them. Do not make life difficult for them. And for heaven’s sake, do not make them line up at our embassies or the immigration department to secure their visa or working permit.
In addition to these distinguished professorships, the universities could establish less remunerative appointments for lesser-known but on-the-rise academics. America has thousands of these talented PhDs who are languishing from one post-doc position to another, unable to secure a permanent position. With the abolishment of mandatory retirement age, academic vacancies are scarce. Given the appropriate incentives, these individuals could easily be recruited. In Eastern Europe there are thousands of scientists and artists who are poorly paid. The West has already recruited the best, but there are still many capable and talented ones left. To them a Malaysian pay is quite attractive. Many are also fluent in English. Recruit them.
By adopting these innovative schemes and by being flexible, our universities could not only retain their present talent, but also attract many new ones.
Next: Other Post Secondary Institutions