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Litmus test for Bulan Akademia

22 Oct 2019 / 19:36 H.

OCTOBER is Bulan Akademia. It officially took off on Oct 5 and is well into the third week of the month. And many things have happened “unexpectedly” as if to test if the month can stand up to what it is supposed to deliver.

First off, veteran journalist Datuk A. Kadir Jasin was quoted recently as saying: “Many people, politicians included, do not want to study the history (of a university, in this case). They are blind and deaf to history.”

He was also spot on in reminding us that as “a democratic nation, all parties involved should be given the opportunity to present their views”. This is particularly so when universities have been lured into believing that they will soon gain autonomy (Latin, self-rule) where history is an important factor in understanding what it all means to be autonomous in a responsible and accountable manner.

Ethically that means there is an obligation to respect the views of others, which is to respect the decisions made by them according to their worldview. Some call this “the principle of human dignity” – an issue that was thrust to the fore recently.

That this happened during Bulan Akademia adds weight to what the month is reportedly intended to be, viz, “to realise the meaning and to execute the role of a true intellectual”.

As such “autonomy” is imperative for anyone to remain credible in translating this as public intellectuals. Trust, honesty and integrity are the minimum ingredients needed to bring autonomy alive. As Spencer Johnson once said: “Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” Both are illuminated through trustworthiness to oneself, before involving others in a transparent way.

Indeed, truly autonomous organisations are transparent denoting that they enjoy full independence in ensuring that their raison d’etre is well affirmed. Universities are among the few institutions around the world that have been able to sustain their existence until today, thanks to their independence and resilience, though not without challenges. It has been shown that by being autonomous, performance goes up given the room for experimentation and flexibility as in the case of 3M and Google. By providing others with the autonomy to carry out the work in their own way – within an overall strategy that is agreed upon – is the basis for building a high-performance team.

Make no mistake that autonomy is the antithesis of “micromanagement”, in contrast to letting go and focus on major targets and strategic goals set for each member of the team. To let go is to “trust” others which can be hard to accomplish, but a vital action nevertheless. Studies indicate that episodes to the contrary often involved “inexperienced” persons who helmed the team, or organisation. Otherwise, being “insecure” despite many years of experience; or just being “compliant” in order to play safe depending on what is at stake. Here we are reminded what Johnson said: Where is the integrity and the honesty? In other words, are we being truthful to ourselves to start off with? Are we trusting ourselves first? To put it in the current context, where is the “dignity”?

That the Bulan Akademia was proclaimed at the same institution that is now under intense public scrutiny seems to hint that there is a serious disconnect somewhere, which can be very disturbing to say the least because the level of “trust” is hanging in a limbo. Trust is often hard-earned and it takes years to build. Once broken “hell” can break loose, academically speaking, where things quickly turn “opaque”. And autonomy is rendered irrelevant as no more than hypocritical lip service. What with the latest news that the Ministry of Education is ‎stepping in to “resolve” the issue. And that it will be announced soon.

Perhaps we need to heed what Kadir Jasin suggested – study the history. In this case, the institution has had some of the finest moments where “real” autonomy was part of its cherished history for a long time.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the institution was not able to find its own solution involving the academia. This includes the time when the chairperson of the university council was helmed by a prominent opposition leader while keeping its autonomy and dignity intact. So why must things be different today recalling that “micromanaging” contradicts “autonomy” – stripping the institution of its dignity. And ultimately devastating whatever “trust” is left, devoid of its historical perspective. To be effective true public intellectuals cannot be “blind and deaf to history”. Otherwise the aspirations of Bulan Akademia will remain hollow academically speaking. So it is time to rethink.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that “another world is possible”. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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