Monday, April 07, 2008

World Class Vice-Chancellor Needed for UM

Datuk Rafiah Salim was appointed as the vice-chancellor of Malaysia's premier university, Universiti Malaya for 2 years ago to replace the disgraced Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob, to reverse the rapidly failing standards and her contract ends this month.

While not many persons will dispute the fact that she was likely to have been a better vice-chancellor than her predecessor, her performance to date has been at best mediocre.

Under Datuk Rafiah's tenure:
  • Universiti Malaya continued to decline in terms of global rankings by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) dropping from 169th in 2005 before she took over, to 192nd in 2006 and 245th in 2007. The university remains unranked in the other respected Top 500 global universities ranking table compiled by Shanghai Jiaotung University.

  • Instead of taking the necessary steps to rectify the declining quality, Datuk Rafiah chose to comfort Malaysians with the fact that UM was ranked 13th among nations belonging to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).

  • She also hauled up a university academic after he wrote an article that criticised the nature in which the university student elections was held which appeared in a local daily last year. He was ‘advised’ by the vice-chancellor not to write on matters related to the university, clearly perpetuating the limited room for critical thought and constructive dissent within our academic institutions. Despite that, Datuk Rafiah had the temerity of suggesting that "public university students had the freedom to express their thoughts and ideas" at a student forum held in August last year.
Therefore, I call upon the new Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Khaled Nordin to take the all important step that no other ministers had the courage to do - open the search for a new vice-chancellor for Universiti Malaya, not only to all Malaysians, regardless of race or religion, but also for all qualified top academics around the world in order to revive the fortunes of our premier university.

The Higher Education Ministry needs to:
  1. Establish the independence of the search and evaluation committee to ensure that the only criteria used for selection is the candidates' ability to improve the quality and standard of education at the relevant university, and not instead, the candidates' political links or connections.

  2. The quality of the committee members should be improved over time with greater emphasis on prominent and high-achieving academics. There's no reason why foreign “world class” academics could not be appointed to identify quality academics with sufficient intellectual prowess and administrative experience to lead our local universities.

  3. The shortlist of candidates should not be provided by the Ministry of Higher Education. We should not limit the candidates to civil servants who rose up the ranks or the deputy vice-chancellors who are part of the current malaise. The shortlist should instead be derived from the applications which are sourced from advertisements made globally in search for the best available candidate.
Only when a world-class academic cum administrator is selected to lead and given the free hand to reform and transform our universities, who won't be shackled by denial syndromes and political interference, then we can reverse the fortunes of the declining standards at our local institutions of higher learning.

And only when the standards of our institutions are raised, will we be able to provide the best quality education to our future generation, without which they will not be able to achieve their full potential. Correspondingly, Malaysia's ability to compete and progress in the competitive global environment would otherwise be impaired.

The end of Datuk Rafiah Salim's tenure provides the new Higher Education Minister the golden opportunity to execute what's best for Malaysia's future.


Shawn Tan said...

I like the idea of advertising widely for the position.. This should really be done, not just for the VC post but for all academic posts.. However, there is also a caveat.. The best tend to want to work in a suitable environment.. I was once told by a professor that although they manage to secure some good foreign academics, often, these academics go home very quickly after seeing the conditions here, even to the extent of breaking their contracts..

So, it may not just be an issue of the government not being interested in hiring the best, it may also be an issue that the best are not interested in working here.. Now, if that was the case, that'll be a problem..

Might be, that in the end, they will need to hire some former UM alum who still has some sentimentality attached to the way things were.. I know some professors who certainly like to reminisce about their past..

Anonymous said...

I am not sure University of Malaya is ready for a foreign VC.

It's a chicken and egg problem isn't it? Why would a world class person want to come to University of Malaya? See my posts on the structural difficulties faced by Malaysian universities and the post on the idea of joint appointments with Malaysian academics. I think we would have better luck with a Malaysian born academic who has made it overseas.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with the 3 criteria that you have spelt out for the selection process of the VC. Would like to add that this process should be extended to include the Deans and Deputy Deans of all faculties at UM.
In any organization Leadership is critical, especially when you are attempting change. Thus, beyond a symbolic Change Leader, UM also requires a critical mass of Leaders at all levels to push through the changes from the top.
On another note ; has it not been under the leadership of the current VC that the outlandish proposal to sell of UM land for commercial development has come about. While this does not fall under the realm of academic excellence I think it is telling of the mindset of the leaders at UM.

plato's disciples said...

Yes how exactly they choose people to fill up positions? It's very obscure.

I like to see openness. I definitely like the idea of advertising and maybe they should have some kind of board to review the candidates. The same like they do in US...takes months to elect a chancellor.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

I am looking for an online/research PhD in Islamics. Is this an option available in Malaysia?

I am an American who lives in Africa. I have earned B.Th. (Africa) and M.Div.(USA).


Anonymous said...

Only UM only?????

How about the rest of the public uni?????

Some not in the radar of the global ranking.... and even worst some we, local never even heard of.

Anonymous said...

Before UM , esp in certain faculties had eminent external examiners to gauge the university academically. Even now...but the question is are the advices and recommendations by the external examiners followed?
Its no point saying we have external examiners but not following their comments...
as long BN and UNMO politics around and abound, the rotting system will persist

Kong said...

Whenever I see the previously on par National University of Singapore being listed as No.19 in the world, I just shake my head and wanted to cry.

Anonymous said...

i am sure there at least a few malaysian who are established academic adminstraotrs overseas(forgot bout here). shouldnt be too much of a trouble geeting at least one back here to lead UM.

Anonymous said...

Don't need to mention about VC from overseas. They are even afraid to hire overseas Malaysian academics who just want to come for short-term stays. Probably afraid to let them see what is actually happening inside.

Anonymous said...

How about privatizing UM?

1) Malaysia itself is a huge market. I do not have any statistics, but I do believe that there is a substantial amount of Malaysians considering/taking tertiary education, both local and overseas.

2) Exposing UM to the right amount of competition will force UM to respond to market forces. UM will have no choice but to improve or face elimination.

3) To prevent tuition fees from sky-rocketing, there should be a phase where the government continue to subsidize tuition fees for a fixed period of time. During this period of time, UM will have to developed its own strengths and competencies to attract both local & foreign students.

Anonymous said...

If we hire someone from abroad, we must be careful not to repeat the mistake of KAIST (in Korea) who hired as their president a Nobel laureate who turned out not to be a good administrator, to say the least. After spending a great deal of money over a short period of time (I believe two years) they 'did not renew his contract'.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sunbear,
They tried privatising or corporatising UM earlier. It was an exercise in futility. All I am aware of UM corporitization projects are creation of so many units, centres and divisions. And colourful UM vehicles in corporate colours
Nothing works because its just the case of old wine in new bottle

With the teaching staff and admin staff working like typical makan gaji staff and buzy spending time at canteen and Rihat and Duduk, any attempts to corporatize or restructuring will fail

The first point I believe is even if 50% of the staff is sacked across the board, UM can still survive. Secondly I think UM is good at spending money rather than making money.
Any company functioning like UM i guess would have collapsed long ago

WY said...

perhaps Prof Danny Quah, the head of economics department at London School of Economics can be persuaded to come back and to rejuvenate UM??

or maybe UM favourite boy - Prof KS Jomo?

ps: sorry, i only know the economics proffesors.

Anonymous said...

Are the professor titles given by UM, etc., in Malaysia valid for life?
In the US and elsewhere, the title is only valid when the person is still at that faculty position, but not valid when he/she left the position; unless if he/she has retired with an honorary "Emeritus" title.
I notice recently that some people in Malaysia still referred to as Prof. so-and-so even when they are no longer attached to the universities.
Is that a Malaysian thing or just a wrong use of title?

Anonymous said...

Tony, sounds good. Except, practically it will be very hard.

You see, for academia, the decision to move is very different from professionals and executives.

I had the priviledge to speak to academia from Standford, Manchester, Singapore, Harvard, etc

One of them, which I will quote, said something which sums up a lot.

"A short walk down the corridor, 4 doors away, is an expert in statistics. 2 floors down, is an expert in Keynesian Economics." He is a sociology academic.

The depth behind this statement, Tony, is that academics when doing research and writing papers, don't do it alone. They need experts in relevant fields. And UM over the years, has lots most of our experts.

Yes, there is skype, msn, etc. But Tony, academia are like top Management who make business deals over golf, instead of skype. Academia prefer coffee, lunch, and tea.

Changing the VC does little, if anything, if the rot in UM is not cleared up. We will continue to lose to all Universities around the world.

I take comfort, that at least NUS is accepting our STPM even though they can now snub us for being in the bottom, while they are in the top.

Anonymous said...


My wife is an academic at UM. Let me share with you some of my opinions.

According to my wife, the current VC of UM is much better than the former one. We can't blame her totally for UM's poor performance because she has very limited power. Even if UM can get a world-class VC, nothing much can be improved under the current system.

The problem comes from the deadwood professors who are not removable. Currently, all public universities are parked under JPA. These universities long time ago have already offered permanent positions to many mediocre professors with pension even if they perform poorly now and then.

Under this scenario, there is simply no motivation for them to work hard and excel due to their permanent position. Many of these deadwood professor can't even get a lower academic post in overseas renowned universities. They will occupy the positions until they retire. They will stop the truly outstanding academics from entering their faculties and compete with them.

This is the reason why UM's ranking keeps plunging. The only way to improve this situation is to remove the mediocre professors and replace them with good ones. But the problem is how to remove them?

It seems to me that a solution can only be found when we have a new federal government. Then we make public universities indepentent from JPA.

Ying Khai 穎凱 said...

Instead of allowing these non-performers stay and rot, could we just spend a big sum of money and ask those "deadwood" professors to retire early? That will empty up precious positions for younger,energetic people to fill in the position.