An academia trapped in chains

South China Morning Post  |  Sep 4, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

Universities would be shackled if they operated as some business figures suggest they should, writes Sin-ming Shaw

MANY IN THE business elite are unhappy over university polling, while the University of Hong Kong (HKU) inquiry continues into whether pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu was subject to political pressure from the Chief Executive via senior HKU staff. Peter Woo Kwong-ching, prominent tycoon, former trustee of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a current trustee of Columbia University in New York from where he received a master of business administration (MBA), has argued that politically sensitive projects by an academic generate "unnecessary" controversies, inappropriate for a university to sponsor.

Mr Woo has cited the absence of poll-taking by academics at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, and Harvard and Columbia universities in the United States, to cast doubt on whether Dr Chung should be doing such work on campus. He also questioned whether the pollster could commentate on his findings objectively.

Since this view is broadly shared in Hong Kong's business and political establishment, it would be useful to examine the argument if only to promote a broader public understanding of what a modern university should or should not, does or does not, do.

An elementary point must first be made: whether an academic should be conducting polls, designing spaceships, or advising presidents or dictators under the name of a university is a matter between the academic and the university. It is not self-evident that a university should or should not shelter any of these activities under its name.

Princeton University in the US, one of the world's richest, to this day has refused to establish a law, business or medical school. Yet Princeton's position does not negate the rationale of having such schools at its peer institutions. By the same token, if academics at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Columbia did conduct polls in the universities' names, should universities in Hong Kong follow suit?

Great universities thrive on controversies. The top American universities and politics have been intimately intertwined since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a graduate of Columbia Law School, and President Dwight Eisenhower, a former president of Columbia, drew heavily on the university to form their brains trusts. There is nothing controversial about academics getting involved in political activities unrelated to teaching. Many do both at the same time. These "public intellectuals" have long claimed that their work in the real world helps their purely intellectual endeavour as professors. No one has proved otherwise.

At other times, influential conservatives in American society harshly criticised Columbia and Harvard for being too liberal, labelling them communist outposts to subvert American minds. Liberals and conservatives often attack these universities at the same time for opposite reasons: one cries, "Too liberal," the other, "Too reactionary".

To avoid controversy just to stay out of political trouble has never been high on any academic agenda. In fact, academics thrive on it. Among many examples is the work done at Harvard and Columbia for the US Government during the late 1960s and early 70s, while the unpopular Vietnam War continued, and which led to vigorous protests by the researchers' teachers and colleagues; and the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb, undertaken at Columbia in New York.

The lay society welcomes academic involvement in such controversies precisely because it looks to the universities as a source of critical thinking to help evaluate whether its government is wasting taxpayers' money and is therefore abusing power. Polls are just one channel for the public to express feelings along the way to the next elections.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government has extensive connections with politics and has many programmes funded by foreign governments, including China, to train their officials. Scholars have strong and opposing views on this. It is not self-evident why a university founded on openness and democratic values should be training officials from those governments that consider democracy a threat to their power and who would not blink at crushing unarmed professors or students. On the other hand, those who favour such programmes argue that it is better to have them study at Harvard so that when they return to their homeland, they know there is a better way to organise a society than through tyranny.

The proper forum to discuss such issues is the university itself. Once it decides a project can go ahead, it should stand by its academics regardless of whether the work is controversial, unpopular, displeasing to the powerful outside the university, or to idealistic students and scholars within. That is what academic freedom is about. Without it Harvard and Cambridge could never have become what they are - symbols of academic excellence and sources of creative ideas. A university's leaders stand at the front gate to ensure its independence. Only the mediocre ones cave in to outside pressure.

Mr Woo and others claim that famous pollsters such as the Gallup group have never commented on their polling results, and suggest that Dr Chung has compromised his objectivity by doing so. In fact, the analysis pages of The New York Times have published articles by American pollsters, including Mr Gallup, on their work. But the argument is irrelevant.

All social scientists know that absolute objectivity in studying human behaviour is rarely, if at all, possible. Social scientists would agree that a study is objective if its assumptions are clearly stated, data is adequate and the methodology defined. The act of commenting on research results does not compromise the validity of the study. Each is complementary to the other.

A generation ago, Professor Alfred C. Kinsey at Indiana University in the US carried out research on American sexual behaviour in his times. Not only did he produce statistics, he wrote reams of comment and analysis. He was widely attacked by religious groups, parents, and even university trustees for lacking professional ethics and objectivity. Some accused him of corrupting the morals of American society, especially of the young. These were serious charges. But the university stood by him and his Institute for Sex Research on campus. His work is now considered a classic.

When Harvard was planning its business school at the end of the 18th century, many scholars there objected to having a trade school in their midst sharing the name of a great university. Until recently, Oxford and Cambridge were against having such schools since their main purpose - to train students to make a buck more cleverly - is barely related to turning out young ladies and gentlemen of culture and intellectual rigour, which they saw as their principal mission.

It is debatable whether an MBA graduate really knows how to make money faster or whether the world is better off with so many holders of such degrees, but few would now argue that a university should not establish a trade school on its campus. Could not the same rationale apply to having an academic institute specialising in taking polls?

Polling techniques are derived from mathematical statistics. It is a discipline at least as defensible academically, if not morally, as training future investment bankers and brokers, many of whom will someday end up peddling over-priced Internet stocks or property to the less sophisticated retail investors. At least polling by academics is done with some intellectual rigour. Academics jealously guard their reputation, as it follows them to their next job.

What often distinguishes a good university from a mediocre one is whether its leaders stand by what their members do, and do not succumb to powerful, non-academic figures who would not blink at walking over academics for political expediency, sometimes even in the name of academic freedom.

Sin-ming Shaw, a visiting scholar at Harvard, was a lecturer at Columbia University

 Back to home page