Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rafiah fights back!

I was quite surprised to read Malaysiakini's exclusive two part interview with Rafiah Salim and how frank she was when she was interviewed. You can read the reports here and here. She certainly pulled no punches including a classic 'thing between the legs' line that may have been the highlight of the interview. I'll share some of my thoughts in regard to her tenure and the manner in which she was let go.

When she was first appointed as UM's VC in August 2006, both Tony and I said positive things about her initially. She hit the right notes and said some progressive things in regard to raising the quality of academic at UM.

Then came the 'silencing' of Azmi Sharom, who was initially asked to stop writing his Star column. That decision was later changed to not writing anything about UM in that column.

I also didn't like how she was trying to play up the appointment of Jeff Sachs as the Ungku Aziz chair of poverty studies because I knew that he wouldn't have time to contribute effectively in that role.

In 2007, she came up with a list of excuses to explain why UM fell further (from 192 to 246) in the THES rankings.

Tony has called for her to be replaced when her contract was ending and I think there were good reasons to look for a new VC who is more academically qualified and can take UM forward in terms of its academic standing.

My evaluation of Rafiah's 2 year tenure at UM is mixed at best. I think she tried to emphasize increasing the academic output among academics at UM but she was much more skeptical in regard to opening up academic and student freedoms there.

For an alternative view of Rafiah's tenure, please read Tempinis excellent post here on why Rafiah should have stayed on at UM.

My sense is that she tried her best to implement positive changes at UM but came up against forces that were too great for her to control. She probably had to face many dinosaur academics within UM who probably had never published any articles in peer reviewed journals of standing in their whole academic career, much less the 2 articles per year which Rafiah asked for. She probably had to face political pressures from BN politicians who saw UM as their 'tool' to be controlled and manipulated to serve their own ends.

I also think that she was disadvantaged in what was already an unenviable job in that:

1) She does not have a PhD. While Tempinis is 100% correct in saying that one does not need to have a PhD to run a university effectively, I think that the faculty at UM may have taken her calls to publish more seriously if she herself was a recognized academic with a good publication record. I can half imagine the cynical mocking tones among UM academics discussing the 2 articles per year requirement Rafiah put forward - 'Want us to publish? Maybe she should try publishing articles herself to see how easy it is to get published in peer reviewed journals'

2) She comes across as being too abrasive. This was quite apparent during the Mkini interview. A VC operating in an environment like the UM needs to be able to use the carrot as well as the stick approach. He or she must not only have the academic qualifications and the administrative skills, but also the social skills to be able to cajole when necessary and threaten when necessary. I suspect that Rafiah perhaps was too abrasive for the liking of the staff and faculty at UM.

3) She may not have wanted to 'curry favor' with the politicians. I'm guessing here but she does come across as someone who is less willing to 'play politics' compared to her predecessor Hashim Yaacob. She certainly was not afraid to come out swinging after her contract was terminated. Perhaps this put her in bad standing with her political masters which would have had a trickle down effect to the rest of the faculty. After all, why listen to the threats of a VC who would be leaving soon?

4) Her gender. I'm not sure how much to make of this. I think that regardless of her gender, the job of the VC was going to be a tough one. The dinosaurs there would have rebelled against anyone who wanted them to publish 2 articles a year in peer reviewed journals. But I won't totally discount this factor. It may have been the fact that she was a woman that made some of the faculty and perhaps her political masters less inclined to listen to her. But I do think that it was not gender alone. It was interesting to hear her say that her initial contract was only for 2 years while the new VC's contract is for 3 years. I'm not sure to what extent this is true but it's worth finding out. Of course, the new VC, Dr. Ghauth Jasmon, has much more experience in running universities (he help set up MMU) and is more academically qualified compared to Rafiah which may be reasons given as to why he's been awarded a 3 year contract.

I applaud Rafiah's courage in coming out to say the things which she has said. It certainly takes some courage. After all, she could have kept her mouth shut and try to lobby for some other positions in GLCs after she retires.

But at the same time, I do think that it was time for her to be replaced. I think the new VC has more of the necessary attributes to bring about positive changes to UM. But he'll be up against many of the same forces Rafiah faced - dinosaur academics, political interference, funding challenges, pressures to allow more academic and student freedoms, etc... I wish him well.

P.S. One of the first pieces of 'advice' I would give to Dr. Jasmon is to read the measurements in the THES rankings very carefully. That way, he can avoid making some of the same mistakes made by his predecessors. For example, Rafiah probably should not have tried to take credit for 'improving' UM's ranking from 246 to 230. After the top 100 schools, the differentiation in terms of scores between the rest of the schools is miniscule at best. A measurement error could easily push the ranking of a school from 250 to 210 or from 250 to 290.

Secondly, I would 'advise' him to stay as far away from these rankings as possible. Play down expectations by saying that UM is in no position to compete with the top universities in the world. Instead say that UM is trying to consolidate its academic resources in specific areas and trying to slowly but surely increase the % of PhD holders among its faculty as well as their publication records. This way, he can divorce himself somewhat from the vagaries of the THES ranking system.


Abu Abdullah Anas Al Banji said...

Hi guys

I am surprised to be the early contributor to comment on a topic this flammable but I do not wish to add to the argument.

What I want to point out is that as 'mysterious' as universities are thought to be (as argued in Tempinis), the fact remains that a university is headed by a chief executive as is with any other corporate. 'VC' or 'MD', the responsibility to produce results is all the same. This has been the approach in analysing universities all along, together with the collegiate as well as the political approaches to universities.

Now the million Ringgit question begging to be answered is: How is a VC's performance measured?

My experience with private universities show defined KPIs for the privately owned universities but I am curious whether public universities play by the same rules.

Whilst Datuk Rafiah's outrage is understood, I am still wondering whether if this is a case of not 'reading' the JD?

Any which way, this incident smells a strong need for empirical evidence and making it public at that.


PS: There is this old haji living in Jalan 19/6 who you guys should visit and mingle and hear his grouses. I heard that the last MCA ADUN who came was chased out of his house. Heard.

Anonymous said...

Can u give the house number at jln 19/6?

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming,

Agree with your view that UM and all other local universities should stay way from rankings. We just don't have the resources to compete.

On the other hand, I have to say that as far as I know, KPI is a relatively new thing in public universities. IPTA's are run like any other govt agencies, so even if there is anything like KPI exist, it's more for documentation purposes.

Some things need to change. Abolishing AUKU is one but it has to be more than that. It's about changing the entire culture and work values in universities. How to do that? I don't know where to start. But definitely not by having more and more 'lawatan sambil belajar'.


xenobiologista said...

I read the interview with her and she came across as incredibly ungracious. To say that she doesn't care about what might happen to future woman VCs and faculty is extremely selfish and unbecoming of someone who was given a pioneering leadership position.

Anonymous said...

I am an academic in one of the local universities. About 2 years my name was submitted for deputy dean position... was rejected. They told me...right to my face... they wanted a man for it. So, YES! Gender discrimination does exist... but I think Rafiah Salim is probably the first person who spoke about it in public (at least in Malaysia).

Anonymous said...

He he he, I knew Rafeah Salim right from her PhD days...

res ipsa loquitor

Anonymous said...

All educators and politicians in Malaysia must read the essay by David Baltimore (1975 Nobel Laureate): A Global Perspective on Science and Technology, published in Science, 24 October 2008, Volume 322, pages 544-551.

(Especially page 546: ‘Five Rules for International Science Development’ – ‘Every developing country has gotten the word that education is key to progress, and as they amass the resources to build, they are building. What I’ve seen in India and in China is a desire to build rapidly. These countries have the resources and now seem to want instant excellence. I find that very worrisome because building excellence takes time.’)

This essay is adapted from the Presidential Address David Baltimore delivered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston on 14 February 2008.

Soo Huey said...

Hi Tony and Kian Ming,

I'm not an avid blogger, so mine is not a blog worth following, but I've just posted a one-off discussion on my blog which I would like Malaysians who frequent blogs to read.

I hope you don't mind me using your blog to draw attention to it? Please remove this comment if you feel it is inappropriate.

Thank you.

Soo Huey

Kian Ming said...

Hey Soo Huey,

I agree with the thrust of your post but since it's not about education issues, I don't think we can highlight it or comment on it.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I have met Rafiah on numerous occasions as I am also in the education field (albeit private education / international). To be very honest and direct about it, I was surprised when she was appointed. She does not have the right academic qualifications - she does not have a doctorate (phd). I am told she did not complete her thesis. She is also not a full professor, just an assoc professor. She also had no previous top management experience in the university, just as a dean or deputy dean which she had left for quite a number of years. In the academic world, especially universities like UM which has international standing, such credentials are very important.

In my meetings with her through seminars / conventions, she failed to impress in her knowledge or in her stature. The aura of an academic / VC was not there at all.

She must have done some good things for UM. But those were not enough to warrant extending her contract. Appointing Gauth Jasmon was a good move. He comes across as a proper academic.

I am disgusted and shocked about her behaviour in the interview. Totally unbecoming of an 'academic'.

And about appointing females to the post, we have made some good progress. Under the previous minister Dato Mustapa, 3 female VCs were appointed, UM,UKM and UPSI. Several female TNCs were appointed - UTM, UM , can't remember the rest. So I believe we have made great strides. but we must not rest on our laurels and push ahead for more females to be appointed, albeit the performing and good ones.

Soo Huey said...

Hi Kian Ming,

No Worries. Don't really expect either of you to comment on it, but hope you don't mind me using your comments section to bring people's attention to it, that's all.


Soo Huey