A UNIVERSITY’S most important asset is its academic manpower. Without them, the university’s set-up would not exist. Even in the future, where learning is conducted through the Internet that would dispense with human contact, the function of the human lecturer would be assumed by other forms of delivery apparatus, most probably robotics or computer applications.
But now, the conventional form of knowledge transfer is through humans with the help of technological aids. They are usually referred to as lecturers or academics.
University academics are a mottled crowd broadly classified according to their disciplines of arts and the sciences. The arts encompass the humanities, social sciences and performing and visual arts, while the sciences are divided into pure and applied, medical and engineering. Disciplines that combine both arts and science elements are architecture and town planning, while law stands on its own.
These academics are, in fact, teachers. But, unlike normal school teachers, they do not need a teaching certificate or a diploma in education to teach. They just need at least a master’s degree, but preferably a doctorate. Usually, they learn to teach on the job.
Teaching is their core business. In the process of knowledge transfer, lecturers must motivate and provoke his or her students to challenge ideas and traditions, and not to take everything the lecturer says as gospel truth.
He or she should encourage the students to exercise their critical faculties in constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing ideas, scenarios and official policies that are within the purview of his or her discipline.
A concerned and passionate lecturer will engage his students in more ways than one, presenting ideas, concepts and problems from various perspectives. Such lecturers are few and far between. In addition to teaching, lecturers must undertake research and publications as well as source grants. To both arts and science lecturers, these two are their bread and butter, for promotions largely depend on them.
Science lecturers usually keep to these three markers of academic pursuits — teaching, research and publications — spending most of their time in laboratories exploring the structural characteristics of matter.
Universities reward lecturers who are published in high impact journals and/or are highly cited or even acknowledge as being the best scientific minds in the world. These are diligent lecturers who focus their attention and energy on conforming to the dictates of the university. They do not engage with the outside world beyond their specified tasks.
Another category of academic is the art lecturers — humanities, social science and performing and visual arts — who, like their science counterparts, perform the same functions of teaching, research and publications. While a significant number of these lecturers execute their tasks to conform with the stipulated specifications and are unconcerned with the happenings in the community, there are others who, in addition to fulfilling their tasks, engage the community at large through their writings and physical involvement.
This is especially true of social sciences and the performing and visual arts lecturers whose laboratory and feedback come from the audience in the community. For they, including the core humanities subjects, deal with human behavioural pattern in its reaction to man-made and natural environment, the organisational structure of human engagement and interaction, as well as the regulatory principles that maintain the community in a civilised mode.
The scientists, on the other hand, delve into the structural characteristics of both organic and inorganic matter that make up the architectonic structure of existence. Emotional quotient is minimal or non-existent in such quests. They mull and seek measurable and empirical evidence on the fabric and matrix of the internal (such as quantum mechanics, cellular structure and DNA) and external universe that deal with, among other things, the spatial temporal configuration of matter.
Thus, the arts academics tend to react and empathise with the reality and fantasy of human existence. These lecturers tend to be vocal about social, economic and religious matters that affect the community when they undertake critical appraisal of such situations in their teachings and writings. They challenge official policies, malfeasance in governance, champion the plight of the poor and the downtrodden, and chastise the greed and lust for power and material gains.
The actions of these lecturers that engage the authorities as to the plight of the common man may at times run counter to the regulatory markers of the universities and upset the status quo.
Another no less significant category of the academics that is found in all universities is the academic administrators who hold the positions of programme chairpersons, deans of schools, directors of centres and the highest echelon of university administration, namely the vice-chancellor and his or her deputies, and the registrar.
Their academic credentials are never in doubt but their managerial capabilities are not professionally honed, only gained from on the job experience. The top management are the thinkers and the guiding light of the universities and play an important role in the advancement of the respective academic programmes. And they are able to balance the needs of the arts and sciences and not impose the standards of one on the other. Also, they have to create initiatives to advance their respective university as a whole to be the best among competing universities. Therefore, it is crucial that capable and not just academically correct people are appointed to these posts.
These three categories of academics are crucial and integral to the function of the universities that has a complex institutional structure, which on the surface project a cohesive whole in terms of physical and organizational structure. However, there are normally differing thoughts structure based on the various disciplines and ideologies, which create intellectual tension that may unsettle the local and parent administration. But it is this diversity of intellectual expressions and varying ideological temperaments that gives the vibrancy and dynamism to the university.
Therefore, a university must be flexible to accommodate divergent expressions by its academic staff and students that may at times run counter to the officially sanctioned and correct academic behavior. And that reflects the crux of intellectual pursuit of the inquiring academic mind.
Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin, is an emeritus professor of performing arts in the School of Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org