Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Free Speech has its limits ... even at the LSE

I've always been proud of the fact that I graduated from the London School of Economics. I had a great experience in my undergraduate years there (1995-1998) intellectually, interacting with the wonderfully bright and diverse student body, making some good friends and enjoying the city of London. I admired the energy of the school and the fact that they were attracting the bets faculty in social science there, in the UK anyways. But tonight, I have to say that I'm less proud of my LSE degree and here's why.

Earlier today, I blogged about the advice given to prospective Asian PhD students by Erik Ringmar, an ex-LSE lecturer who's now a professor in National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan. Upon reading his blog further, I began to realize why he had left LSE to go teach in Taiwan.

To cut a long story short, he gave a speech in early 2006 to an incoming undergraduate 'class' and also wrote certain things in his newly started blog that were interpreted as being 'defamatory' to his employer i.e. LSE. He was reprimanded by the head of his department, George Philip as well as the director (equivalent to the VC or president) of the school, Sir Howard Davies, former head of the FSA in the UK because of his actions and was subsequently forced to resign (or at the very least, was put in a position that made it very difficult for him to stay at LSE) his tenured position at LSE.

You can read the contents of his Open Day speech here. Find anything controversial? If you do, please let me know which part. Apparently the part which the LSE authorities found offensive was the following:

The LSE is often referred to as an ‘elite’ institution. What does that mean? In a way the elitism follows from what I just said. The School is lucky enough to be able to pick the very best scholars and the very best students. Then we put the two together in the same place and make the scholars teach the students.

This is a great idea, of course, but also one that in practice may be difficult to realise. After all, the greatness of a scholar is measured in terms of output — that is, research. It is more than anything the number of books and articles written that matters to academic promotions. If you want a high-flying academic career you have to publish.

This means that the first-class teachers usually will have their minds elsewhere than on undergraduate teaching. They might be away on conferences, and even if they are not absent in body, they may be absent in mind. This is too bad of course. In fact it could indeed be that students have more opportunities for interaction with faculty members at lesser institutions — like the London Metropolitan University, say — where research is less heavily emphasised. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the in-class student experience often differs very little between the LSE and a place such as the London Metropolitan University. This may surprise you but it something students tell me. Instinctively I rebel against this conclusion, but I have come to believe that the students who make this point are correct.

Think about it! The kinds of courses taught at undergraduate level are pretty much the same everywhere you go. The courses use the same kinds of reading lists, with the same kinds of books, set the same kinds of exam questions … The lecturers too are not that different from each other. This is easily explained. Often after all we went to the same universities.

I have a friend at the London Metropolitan University who I did my PhD with. He is a very charismatic person. I cannot really, hand on my heart, say that I know that I’m a better lecturer than him. Most likely we say more or less the same things in our lectures. And he is funnier.

He goes on to say that LSE is a great place to be in because of the diverse and intelligent student body:

Let me suggest to you why transferring down would be a mistake. What makes the LSE unique not only in Britain but in the world as a whole — and into a vastly different kind of institution than all of its local competitors — is the quality of its student body. We are able to recruit some of the smartest, most interesting, intelligent, rich, successful and all-round attractive people on the planet. That is, we are able to attract people just like you!

Nothing wrong in this, right?

Not according to the LSE authorities. You can read about the aftermath here. Suffice to say, he hasn't asked to given another Open Day speech.

Erik received tremendous support from the student body and I'm sure that the LSE authorities, namely George Philip (Head of the Government Department), and Howard Davies (director), are ruing their decision to put pressure on Erik Ringmar.

I expected something like this to happen at UM. Indeed, it did happen at UM with regards to our friend, Azmi Sharom, which we've blogged about here and here.

What I did not expect was something like this from my alma mater, the LSE, a place which was full with leftist 'radicals' in the sixties, a place with a great tradition of intellectual inquiry and scholarship, a place of 'refuge' as Erik Ringmar pointed out in his speech.

I am deeply disappointed with the actions of the LSE administrators. I will shortly write the the following people at the LSE expressing my disappointed at their actions.

Sir Howard Davies
First Floor, Columbia House
Houghton Street
London WC2A 2AE

Professor George Philip
Department of Government
Houghton Street
London WC2A 2AE

In addition, I will also write to the Office of Alumni Relations to express my disappointment at the curbing of free speech on the part of Erik Ringmar.

Office of Development and Alumni Relations, U708
Houghton Street

I'd encourage all LSE alumnus to do the same and all those who agree with me that Erik Ringmar was unjustly treated.

You can email Erik Ringmar to express your support here: erik@ringmar.net

I still have a high regard for LSE as an academic institution but certainly, in my eyes, it has lost some of its lustre in light of this incident.


Ahpiau academic said...

Goes to show that the term "academic freedom" is nothing but a myth....

Anonymous said...

This LSE censorship episode is a good example to show that the 'West' is not as free and fair as academia makes her out to be. I hope that your emails to the big wigs are heeded.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from the LSE a few years ago, and to a large extent, I agree with what Mr Ringmar said in his Open Day speech. I believe he presented a very open and honest evaluation of the School, where he essentially summed up my experiences (both the positives and less positive) at the LSE very succintly. He very accurately pointed out the many strengths of the School as an academic institution, but was also quite right to highlight areas where the School could do better (i.e. teaching quality). I am really surprised at how this has turned out. But as we have only read Mr Ringmar's side of the story, it may also be beneficial to investigate what (if any) was the official response of the School before we pass further judgment. Unless such practices are pervasive at LSE, I doubt a single incident like this would significantly impact the School's global reputation as a truly international university which has successfully attracted many exceptional students and academics over the years.

earlofclarendon said...

Having graduated with a BSc from LSE last year i think my two cents is worth sharing here. Teaching quality is no doubt excellent in LSE, but there are rooms for improvement. Enough said.

While i believe teaching quality is a measure of how good the school is, i believe that the 'environment' where you pursue you first degree matters more. LSE is a playing ground where you breed your academic/career interest and i believe in the UK it's almost second to none. At least in my cohort, A LOT of them graduated with excellent job offers in City/HongKong/New York/Singapore, with the rest pursuing further studies in top institutions. Studying together with these people will, i believe, mould you into a better motivated student.

Racism is never a problem in LSE for me, as a Malaysian Chinese. Now that i'm working on a MSc in Oxford i really missed the international ambience back in LSE. Racism is i think more a problem in Oxford. Yes i sweared i get response from a third-year saying 'LSE? what's that', with his companion quickly reassuring him that LSE is a very good school in London, in a somewhat entertaining manner. But what the heck, i really doubt this bright bloke reads FTs.

Given a choice to redo my BSc/BA, i would still pick LSE knowing what i know now.

I too agree with KM of his stance and wish some justice can be worked out for the rather unlucky guy Erik. Here i applaud KM for keeping alumni like me abreast of issues/controversies of LSE. Cheers and nice day! =)

ahpiau academic said...

An Oxford student has never heard of LSE??

Even though LSE had produced more economic Nobel laurates than Oxford...

Emm..... Perhaps he/she is too pompous to admit to ever heard of it...

iamyuanwu said...


Quote: "...for me, as a Malaysian Chinese."

Saja nak kacau you a little, :p
Are we "Malaysian Chinese"? Or "Chinese Malaysians"?

Anonymous said...

Erik's comparison about the teaching experience between LSE and LMU is no doubt interesting. Having spent some years as an academic in the UK, there is a reason that this happens. It's called accreditation. In electrical engineering for instance, our courses are IEE (now known as the IET) accredited. The IEE has stringent rules to meeting it's accreditatin requirements. This includes guidelines on which subjects must be taught. However there are no standardisation of textbooks. The reason that it seems standardised is that every lecturer would logically pick the sets of books that is deemed to be the bibles of the subject.

I would be pleased to learn how courses are accredited in countries like the US and Australia.

Anonymous said...

For the fans ;) -

Jim: I believe in education too. I am a graduate of the London School of Economics, may I remind you.

Sir Humphrey: Well I am glad to learn that even the LSE is not totally opposed to education.