22 May 2014

Dimensions of academic dishonesty*

About 18 years ago, facing an interview for a junior academic position in a university in Sri Lanka, I was asked to describe what I thought were the key differences between the US and Sri Lankan systems of higher education.  Among the differences I pointed out was a relative lack of classroom democracy in our universities.  There was, I argued, a perceivable distance between teacher and student.  The interview board, comprising the Vice Chancellor of the University, the Head of the Department that had advertised the post and some other academics, asked what I thought might help bridge this gap. 

I said, ‘students should be given their answer scripts back’.  This was the logic of my answer: ‘If the teacher has the prerogative of giving a mark, then he or she should be able to defend it as well.’  There were howls of protest.  Someone said that there are too many students for a single teacher to handle; that he or she can’t be responding to each and every grade contestation.  I observed, with what I thought was due respect, that there have been enough and more cases of teachers allowing personal grudges, envy, friendship and even love to influence the grading process to warrant such a mechanism.  I didn’t get the job, but probably not on account of this little exchange.

If any academic in any of our universities claims that academic dishonesty and sloth are non-existent or are insignificant, it would be a bare faced lie.  It is not just in how teachers treat students.  For example, the criteria for a person to be eligible to apply for a professorship has been watered down to such a level that even newspaper articles on subjects totally unrelated to the particular candidate’s area of specialization including obituaries and appreciations are considered legitimate examples of ‘scholarship’. 

I remember one Dr. Kumara Kaluarachchi challenging the redoubtable Prof. Carlo Fonseka to mention even a single refereed article he had authored and was published by respectable academic journals since 1967 (the year Kaluarachchi was born).  I believe that stumped the good professor.  I am not claiming that all professors are undeserving of title and lacking in research-weight (shall we say?), analytical rigour and so on.  The system is made for slacking and rewarding ineptitude and sloth, but there are those who rise despite the sophomoric culture.  Still, it was not ‘in passing’ that Prof Sasanka Perera, Sociologist, speaking on this subject at a felicitation for Siri Gunasinghe said that there was a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka Universities: ‘New Marksism’.  Yes, it had nothing to do with Karl Marx, but was about a flawed point system that had been instituted to ascertain professor-worthiness.

Sometimes, the system and its guardian angels (un-winged for the most part), operate with the acumen that is sadly lacking in their academic pursuits (non-existent) to reward themselves and/or sideline the real article.  Recently, a ‘College’ of clinicians based in Colombo refused to award a fellowship to one of the island’s most distinguished scientists (the only FRS and internationally recognized expert on flu) because he was considered ‘too young’.  The London Royal College of Physicians however awarded the man a fellowship. Not that things London are necessarily better of course, but age is only one and not the only criteria for volume of knowledge/skill that a person may have acquired.  Citing age as factor is telling.  Telling of misplaced arrogance.

Sloth and lack of integrity manifests itself in other ways too.  Suppose, for example, that Mr. X is tasked to revamp the teaching of a particular subject.  Common sense suggests that the person should consult those who could be expected to know something about the subject, if Mr X is himself from another field.  He could avoid those who might call to question his qualifications to direct such a project or who he might fear might cause embarrassment by pointing out ineptitude.  He can surround himself with people he could lord over using language skill, political weight and age.  He can also take refuge behind the convenient shield, ‘this initiative was the brainchild of Mr. THIS BIG MAN or Ms. THAT BIG LADY’ as the case may be.  It would all be trivial and worth a few laughs.  On the other hand, what if the project is a serious exercise that envisages giving important life skills which, arguably, could help erase lots of privilege conferring distinctions in society?  

What if the person, contrary to all norms and ethics associated with academic pursuits deliberately squashes dissenting opinion by doing the equivalent of ‘running to the head master’ (who may very well be ignorant about the particular subject) and spiking written objections? 

There is a certain shamelessness in the way some ‘academics’ operate, abusing inter alia on the cultured ways of those who would not stoop down to their level and would spurn their ways of being and ‘becoming’.  On the other hand, the silence of ‘the thus cultured’ can help encourage the mediocre and mediocrity, we should not forget. 

I remember speaking with Dr. S.B. De Silva, Economist whose perfectionism and not sloth has stopped him from producing anything that complements his doctoral work, ‘The political economy of underdevelopment’ about 15 years ago. This was in the Senior Common Room of the Arts Faculty, University of Peradeniya.  The time was around 3.30 pm. The place was empty.  I asked him why.  ‘They are all in tuition classes’.  They may have been in classes or at home reading/writing of course.  But I think he was correct.  One hardly ever sees lecturers in the Peradeniya library.  Some write. The vast majority do not.  They get along from BA to Masters to Doctorate, Professorship, retirement and death without too much of a fuss. I am sure others will know if things are different in other faculties, other universities and other institutions devoted to research and other academic work.  My sense is that there is no reason for anyone to be thrilled at this point. 

This is the era of currying favour with the powers that be, wherever they may be.  That’s the preferred path to career advancement.  Nothing wrong in furthering career of course, but it is astounding that many of these people who do ‘advance’ are unaware of or ignore the fact that good and solid work is not necessary an impediment. 

I am no academic.  I am hopeful however that this prompts those who are academics and who have some integrity and are no slothful to respond so that the full dimensions of the problem can be ascertained and remedial measures instituted by those mandated to do so.  Or else, if that be the case, assure me that things are all lovely and worthy of mindless celebration.  

*First published in the Sunday Observer about 4 years ago....still valid, I believe.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com



Anonymous said...

Malinda, I don't think your words can ever be contested. Classroom democracy is unheard of in this country, when it's non existent at University level, what is there to talk of school level?
I only feel sorry for the future so called graduates of this country. Only a superficial learning of a subject is done and with the institutions closed most of the time, SL is producing more and more half baked products, sad to say having gone through the hands of equally half-baked academics. Let alone research, hardly anyone expands horizons through good reading. Sad...

daya dissanayake said...

great article Malinda. totally agree. we have academics and academics. Once i was attending an international conference and presenting a paper. an "academic" wanted to know how a "non-academic" could present a paper, and wondered what he was doing at the conference then, if people like me were presenting papers!

Jaya Weerasinghe said...

This is true and I totally agree with Malinda. I have experienced those as a student as well as a teacher in a leading University in Sri Lanka. As far as students' democracy and the freedom of expression are concerned, It is a 'Mafia Law' in the most of Sri Lankan Universities. Any honest University teacher will agree with that. I personally thank Malinda for breaking ice bravely.

Anonymous said...

..probably not on account of this little exchange..indeed:)

Senal said...

I can recall that I had some reservations and disagreements about some of your previous works on Sri Lankan academics. However, I 100% agree with the contents in this article. Being a newly appointed lecturer, I have to agree that accountability is severely lacking in our university system. It is true that academics are not adequately resourced. However, a better effort (such as giving back graded exams) is needed. This would, as you said, will ensure that personal prejudices are kept at bay.