Wednesday, September 26, 2007

UPM: A university, a resort inn or a correctional facility?

By Rustam A. Sani

When I was an entering graduate student at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut, USA) in 1978 I remember clearly the welcoming address by the then President of the University, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti.

He was an internationally renown scholar in the field of English Literature and had the reputation of being the youngest person ever to hold the position of the President (equivalent to our Vice-Chancellor) of a top Ivy League university at the tender age of early forties.

In the speech that impressed me to be rather introspective in mood and tone, he invited the newly enrolled graduate students to help him in carrying out the heavy burden of being the President of Yale.

According to him, tasked with the hectic duty of the day to day running of the university, there is a tendency for someone holding the position to slip into what he described as the “innkeeper’s ethos”.

Such an ethos would give the President a false sense of satisfaction as long as he keeps receiving enough paying guests (students) year after year, have every one of the guests’ needs and idiosyncrasies attended to, indeed pampered, and then let them leave after all their outstanding bills are paid.

But the President of Yale, according Prof Giamatti, cannot afford to live by such an innkeeper’s ethos alone. Nor can graduate students like us perceive our role within the institution as paying guests merely seeking temporary and immediate gratification of our mundane needs.

The whole Yale community, he implored, must continue to live and work together as members of a reputable intellectual community in pursuit of scholarly, academic, scientific and creative excellence – in an ambience of study, experiment, discovery and discourse.

Only by defending, indeed renewing and reinforcing, the traditional characteristics of the Yale community, he said, can the real qualities of the reputable, indeed ancient, institution be retained and continually enlarged and enhanced.

After I returned to teach for years at our local universities, indeed helping to run some of their academic programmes, it became painfully obvious to me that one basic weakness, indeed the reason for the continued deterioration, of the local universities as academic and intellectual institutions was the pervasiveness of the innkeeper’s ethos among their leaders (i.e. vice chancellors).

The first university, the Universiti Malaya, which had its root in the colonial period was undergoing its initial rather impressive development under the influence of the great British tradition and model of institutions of higher learning. (I am talking of the ideals and characteristics of the true university here, not just of the use of the English language as medium of instruction).

But by the time this “first” university was reinforced by a number of other universities of the post-independence era, the deterioration in the university tradition in this country has become almost complete – with the vice-chancellors not just labouring under a false satisfaction of the innkeeper’s ethos but indeed as mere “executive” innkeepers labouring to the dictates of the “real owners” of the inns, i.e. the government in power.

With the recent development in the privatisation, commercialisation and, indeed, vocationalisation of higher education in the society, the development of the universities under these executive innkeepers who have not even a basic understanding of, let alone a deep commitment to, the real characteristics of the universities as true intellectual and scholarly institutions has expectedly derailed.

Indeed, with the recent statement of the Vice Chancellor of the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), [Prof. Datuk Dr.] Nik Mustapha R. Abdullah, in support of his officers’ action of ransacking the hostel room of one of the students and confiscating his personal belongings such as his laptop personal computer, mobile phone and private documents for scrutiny, I detect that even the innkeeper’s ethos has now deteriorated even a notch or two lower.

The vice chancellor is now not just being governed by an innkeeper’s ethos but indeed by a “jailer’s ethos”. He does not just perceive the university to be an inn, but it is indeed a jail in which the “guests” are no more than prisoners who need to be controlled and hemmed in, and their basic personal rights and liberties, normally respected and defended in a decent human society, removed.

The vice chancellor may see his role as defending and promoting the higher good of this society, but everybody else knows that it is nothing more than an attempt to keep his own political masters securely in power – especially with the so-called campus elections lurking round the corner.

It is little wonder, therefore, that an idealistic young man from Tawau, Sabah, by the name of Yee Yang Yang, 19, who hopes to undergo an intellectually liberating experience of being a university student at UPM, is already a frustrated and disillusioned person just three months into the first year of his life as a student in the “fake” university. (Read his views here).

That of course begs the larger question of what UPM really is. Is it a university, a resort inn, or a correctional facility? I believe only the learned vice chancellor can, and should, answer this question.

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