Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why Rafiah should stay

Tempinis has written this very well argued post on why Rafiah should stay on as the VC of UM. I've reproduced it below for the benefit of our readers and see what they have to say.

Kian Ming has a post in Education Malaysia re-iterating their (Tony and Kian Ming’s) position that Rafiah Salim should be removed as the VC of University of Malaya. I believe that this is a such a wrong and populist position that I feel compelled to reply.

First, Rafiah Salim has been reported to be implementing many sensible moves in improving the university. These steps include (a) making annual publications in two peer-reviewed journals a key performance index for lecturers; (b) consulting external dons in matters of promotion; and (c) the signing of student exchange agreements. Rome was not build overnight. Tony Pua is being completely unfair to blame Rafiah Salim for the continued decline of University of Malaya’s ranking. Rather than taking a knee-jerk reaction (e.g. recruiting graduate students from the Middle East to improve the foreign student ration), Rafiah Salim seems to have the courage and wisdom of taking the bull by the horns in the unheadline grabbing task of trying to promote a research culture in the university.

Second, Khaled “Save Sufiah Yusof” Nordin’s move of extending Rafiah Salim’s contract by only six months puts her and the university in an invidious position. This effectively creates a ‘lame duck’ Vice Chancellor. Matters are on hold. Nothing will get done. See story below from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Third, Kian Ming’s gripe against Rafiah Salim’s qualifications is again unfair. It is true that she does not (save for an Honorary PhD) have a PhD. But you have to consider what discipline she is in and what generation she is from. Rafiah Salim is a lawyer and many lawyers in her generation even in Oxbridge do not have PhDs. In fact, in many US Law Schools where law is a postgraduate degree - PhDs are not a pre-requisite for faculty members. I am sure Kian Ming will agree with me that a PhD is not evidence of leadership abilities. I have met enough dumb people with PhDs to last me a life time. While a PhD is an absolute must for new faculty hires especially in science and the social sciences, Rafiah Salim should not be faulted for not having a PhD. As the Vice Chancellor she is an administrator whose most important quality is leadership ability. Thus far, I think she has shown remarkable leadership abilities. Also, Kian Ming’s comparison with the Harvard President is totally unwarranted. University of Malaya is not Harvard and will never be Harvard. To benchmark University of Malaya to Harvard is just so wrongheaded I do not even know where to begin.

Fourth, universities are not corporations. Universities are mysterious organisations where sensitivity to culture matters. You can’t just come in and fire all the deadwood. The Vice Chancellor will face an open revolt and won’t last very long. See the story below on the ill-fated Oxford Vice Chancellor, John Hood, who tried to institute changes too abruptly. Needless to say, he didn’t last too long. I believe that Rafiah Salim being an insider of University of Malaya is the best person for the job currently.

Fifth, superstar professors may not work out in the long run. This is related to the culture point. A superstar professor might not stay with the university for long. See the story on NUS Business School’s Chris Earley who left after only 2 years as Dean. There is also a problem of ‘fit’. I don’t believe University of Malaya is ready for a superstar foreign Vice-Chancellor yet. Such an individual would probably leave the university in frustration after a while. We need someone like Rafiah Salim to raise the standard of the university to a respectable level before anyone abroad who is remotely decent would take the job. Also, witness the appointment of Dr. Tan Hock Lim by the Vice Chancellor of UKM, Sharifah Hapsah. Dr. Tan Hock Lim is no doubt a superstar but his appointment has created such ill-will and jealousy in and outside UKM that Sharifah Hapsah is now subject to (in my opinion, wholly unjustifable) attacks by Harakah. Change needs to be handled sensitively and incrementally in universities.

For all these reasons, I believe that Tony and Kian Ming are completely wrong when they argue for the removal of Rafiah Salim as the Vice Chancellor. This is a move which is populist and ultimately misconceived. I expect our politicians like Tony to be bigger than this. I do not see a better person in the horizon. The only argument that remains for the removal of Rafiah Salim is that she ‘censured’ Azmi Sharom for something he wrote. Now I have the greatest respect for Azmi Sharom’s writings, but there is always two sides to a story. What exactly was said to Azmi? Even if Malaysiakini’s version is to be believed, I do not think this is such a major transgression that merits as a ground of removal. The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that Rafiah Salim is doing a good job. And that is why she should stay for at least 3 more years.


Anonymous said...

Wow! A "well written and convincing letter" in support of Rafeah. Very smooth and flowy, if only what is written in the letter is the truth and fully executed

What is important is not to get fully mesmerized by the letter and really see the facts or the truth of the statementts. Politicians and salesmen are very good in such " convincing" communications

Let us see the points raised in brief:
1 Publishing two peer reviewed papers in international journals? There were such attempts but was it really implemented? Or is it just a proposal only? Look at the Professor appointments during her many really published on quality peer reviewed journals? If I am not mistaken its more proceedings local or regional
2 Using external dons as referees. This practice was done even during Ungku Aziz time. If this system is properly amployed now I doubt thar there would be so many professors in the university. What I am aware is how close you are to the selection comitee will be the criteria
3 Signing of agreements and MOUs.
This was excessively done during Abdullah Sanusi and Billboard Hashim era. In fact too many MOUs signed but how many were really implemented?
4 It was in Rafeah Salim era that the knee jerking response were taken in view of improving the THES ranking. Now you see so many Arabs and Africans doing their postgrads here...Wonder why those from USA or Europe did not come here?
5 Km proposal that she should have PhD is valid irrespective professional courses may not be that demanding. PhD is the license to do and appreciate research. In fact in her Law fac there are many with PhD. Saying her work in a university more as an adminstrator is wrong but should be more as a respected and leading academic leader. The PhD degree is in fact almost a BASIC requirement compared to DSc or FRS which are often shown by eminent VCs in UK

Khaleds move to remove her is right. The university should not be a safe haven for administrators but shouldbe the place for academic leaders

I fully concur with KMs opinion on the matters. Remember when BillBoard Hashims term was terminated the same response of loyalty was shown by his kings men..

Charis Quay said...

All the points raised by tempinis are good ones; however, one problem I have with this discussion is that we are all talking in the dark as it were. I for one cannot judge the merits of tempinis's arguments against Kian Ming's. I don't know if tempinis is a UM academic, but for those of us who are not inside, we know next to nothing about how things really are. I can well believe the anonymous comment on the previous post that the VC doesn't have the power to do very much, but without knowing details, there is very little that we can suggest that the VC do that would be effective and feasible.

This unavailability of information is a general problem with Malaysian universities. As Kian Ming noted, you can't even find Rafiah Salim's CV on her own website. I've had a lot of trouble trying to find publication lists and CVs for other Malaysian academics as well, particularly since it is never clear how they might report their names to journals.

(I wrote to Physical Review about the way the handle 'foreign' names, in response to a general announcement that they are thinking about changing the way they do things, but that is another matter.)

I have spoken to quite a few people 'inside' but these discussions are always difficult because they have no basis for comparing local universities to anything else. What we need in this discussion are people who are insiders both in Malaysia and at least in one other place abroad.

From this paucity of information, from the outside looking in and trying to 'guess' what is actually going on, I can only conclude that our academic community is at a significant disconnect with the outside world. In this day and age, when CVs and basic descriptions of research are 'basic information' that are made available 1. as general publicity 2. to aid in the recruitment of students and academics (you never know who might be browsing), it is incredible that most of our departments do not have this on their websites.

Anonymous said...

This argument is really much ado about nothing.

It is not a question if Rafiah Salim should be removed. It is simply a question of getting the best VC; if we can find someone better, so be it, and if not, Rafiah should stay. Simple, isn't it? No one should be arguing that she must leave just for the sake merely of getting rid of her, or as a punishment, etc.

Since day one, she KNEW she was on a contract, so the argument about being a lame duck by virtue only of a short extension is a non-starter. Could we say that if she stays for another 3 years then she is not a lame duck, but if she stays for any shorter period then she is. That kind of argument is tantamount to saying that no VC need to do any work if the tenure is less than 3 years, because "there is no point"!

Rubbish! If one is paid for a day, one better make sure you do a fair day's work. If Rafiah proves to be a lame duck in the next 6 months, it only goes to show that she has done nothing during her tenure, in which case, it is certainly good riddance.

I have no issue with her qualifications at all, and I also do not see how that could be an issue. What we need is a good visionary cum adminstrator to take UM to a higher level of recognition and achievement. It matters not if that VC has a BA only. Problem is, I do not see Rafiah as dynamic at all, just full of ego and arrogance, always indulging in self-praise. This is just my perception, and I could well be ignorant about her achievements. But, again, if she is the best the authorities could appoint, then let her be, and let's all just pray for Divine intervention.

One point I share with that writer. If the Ministry vested a person who campaigned to rescue that Briton Sufiah Yusof with any involvement in appointing the next VC, UM is doomed; a person who has no appreciation of priorities for the country cannot possibly have any idea of the qualities required for a VC nor, for that matter, be intellectually able to recognise those qualities.

Personally, I am totally pessimistic wrt UM's future, seeing the qualities we have in the powers that be.

Anonymous said...

As an insider my comment is that the VC's "sensible moves" look good on paper. In practice, "peer-reviewed" can include all kinds of journals as pointed out by Anonymous above.Furthermore, a few conference presentations can be equated to one journal paper through a point system. Reports of external referees for promotion can be overruled (depending on who you are).Rafiah Salim is a good administrator but with deadwoods around, and more dubious promotions (go see CV's of academic members available online), it is doubtful a new VC can turn UM around unless there is great political will and concerted effort to recruit good academicians.

Charis Quay said...

I'm curious to hear from all these anonymous insiders what you think would be needed to turn UM around, not just in general terms which sound good on paper but also in implementations details which address present problems on the ground.

Anonymous said...

Everyone really knows what is ailing UM and why it is difficult to change!
It is more about the 'hidden powers' that is behind the scene determining how UM is in this quagmire.

UM was great in the golden days of sixties and early seventies... you know why dont you? ( I thought you are well educated and doing your PhD some more...find out yourself)

The insiders have to remain anonymous because of the OSA and UCA acts...hehe

Charis Quay said...


I appreciate your desire to remain anonymous, but I honestly do not know what you are hinting at. If you could be a bit more explicit that would be helpful. I'm not among the 'everybody' who really knows what is ailing UM and from Kian Ming's posts I'm not sure he is either.

I don't know much of the UM story simply because:

1. The first person ever to go to any uni in my family was at UM as an undergrad in the mid-late 70s, apparently after the heyday according to you. There is a limited amount undergrads know about these things especially if they have not moved in those circles before and are simply in awe of the institution. I simply don't have access to academics who were there during that era and so don't know what has changed.

[As a child, I remember being taken to UM on our rare trips to KL and being told that perhaps one day I could be there too. At the time the Coop was the single biggest collection of interesting books I had seen in my life, so obviously I thought that that and the fact that one gets to eat chicken apparently all the time in the residential colleges was enough reason to want to go to UM. This was almost my last memory of UM as I left Malaysia quite young.]

2. As I said, the people I know at local public unis are limited in their perspective, having never interacted with the global academic community. So I know petty details like which supervisors are popular and which not in certain faculties; the strange hoops one had to jump through in applying for promotion; the teaching load at various places; that the UM library has a limited journal collection which is very difficult to access from off-campus; and other such things, but have no sense of the big picture and often have no way of judging even responses to direct questions.

For example, to the question 'Can you get good students?' one response was 'Usually. The supply is greater than the demand and there are duds but one can pick out the good ones.' Now, what does that mean in terms of how these students compare to a 'typical' group of students I know elsewhere? In terms of what is needed to supervise them? It is very difficult to say.

Finally, having a PhD in physics from a foreign uni doesn't mean one automatically understands UM and the local uni scene. I've been trying hard over the past few years to piece the bits and pieces together and have concluded that I don't have enough bits and pieces.

I think it would be good, even if the insiders remain anonymous, to have an open conversation about 'what ails UM' that doesn't focus on irrelevant news-making things like rankings. Some things need to be articulated to come into focus. Ten years ago 'everyone knew what ailed Malaysia' but one can see that the conversations on the blogs just for example have helped everyone gain a better understanding, not to mention (according to our PM) make huge changes on the ground.

Charis Quay said...

I see the 'insiders' are not interested in having a discussion, at least not here. Well, so be it.

Anonymous said...

i hypothesize that it is not possible to have a world class university in a third world country. there is not enough world class industry, govt and people to support the creation of a world class univesity.