Author Topic: Democratic governance impedes academic reform  (Read 4100 times)

florlaca

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Democratic governance impedes academic reform
« on: March 12, 2011, 03:29:47 PM »
Democratic governance impedes academic reform
By Flor Lacanilao
 
Group decision has been a major problem in Philippine science and education. It is based on the common belief that two heads are better than one. But is this always true? How can it be improved? Is there a better alternative?
 
Solving problems together, as in democratic governance, has been a common practice in the Philippines. This is true in the University of the Philippines as far back as I can recall, 50 years ago, when I was an instructor in zoology. Today, democratic governance is often included in vision statements of candidates for top positions in the UP system.
 
The academic situation in UP and the country where democratic governance has been a normal practice, however, has shown more deterioration than improvement (see my preceding post in this Forum). Data on research performance of UP in the last 30 years have clearly shown this. After two decades of decline, improved research—the most important function of modern universities—was seen only at the start of this century. And this was largely brought about by cash rewards for publications that meet objective, internationally accepted criteria. UP as the national university is now aiming to be the first research university in the country.
 
How prepared is UP for a role as research university? Officials at all levels and faculties, system wide, have yet to improve their tract record in research. With a group dominated by poorly published members, democratic governance by group decision will not improve research performance. Studies by Chris Frith and coworkers have shown such group behavior in solving problems together; one, for example, is reported in Science, Optimally Interacting Minds.
 
The study shows that working together successfully requires members to be competent on a subject. Joint decisions don’t work when half of the members are not competent. In the UP situation, only a low percentage of officials and faculty members are properly published in ISI-indexed journals. The great majority is poorly-published, or doesn’t have the technical knowledge possessed by the well-published minority. The group decision will therefore be worse than that would be made by the published members only. Two heads are not always better than one.
 
If democratic governance must continue, one way to improve group decisions in research is for the well-published minority to explain the importance of research to teaching and to human development. Adequate explanation would convince most of the poorly-published majority to trust the minority’s judgment. Since not all published researchers (in natural and social sciences) fully understand the importance of research to human development, they will have to start spending part (e.g., to “tithe” 10%) of their professional time and effort to reading and thinking about the benefits of research and S&T (see S&T for sustainable well-being).  Our respected academic scientists have been too absorbed in research, and they have neglected their social responsibility. For example, they have been generally silent when their expertise is needed in debates on controversial national issues. The result: debates on science-based and science-related issues have been dominated by nonscientists and largely yields no useful conclusion.
 
To solve the crisis in science and education, a more effective alternative to democratic governance is to exert executive decision as is done in political and military crises. This needs a strong, visionary leader who is an accomplished scientist. The new chancellor of UP Diliman , the flagship campus of the UP system, is the top Filipino physicist in the country. (Most of the solvers of important problems in the world have been physical scientists.) If Chancellor Caesar Saloma is to succeed, he should assert his competence and not allow himself to be intimidated by superiors or powerful officials in high government positions who are science-incompetent. When a known reformer and physical chemist in China, Zhu Qingshi, was appointed president of a new Chinese university, he clearly and categorically insisted that he would be calling the shots (University Head Challenges Old Academic Ways).
 
To finish the job, outdated UP policies and practices entrenched by group decisions should be changed. Among them are those practices that are inconsistent with the innovative systems started during the last decade, such as obsolete policies in faculty hiring, in giving promotions, and in giving awards. These undesirable practices reduce the gains achieved by research incentives and objective criteria in performance evaluation.

Such a thorough review is necessary for UP to make the transition from a primarily-teaching university to the country’s first research university. As such, UP can truly become the national center for preparing qualified mentors in graduate schools, in post-secondary education, and in the primary and secondary levels. This should start real reform in the country’s educational system.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Flor Lacanilao obtained both his BS and MS in Zoology from the University of the Philippines in Diliman and his PhD, with specialization in comparative endocrinology, from the University of California at Berkeley. He served as professor and chairman of the Zoology Department at UP Diliman and chancellor of UP Visayas. He made pioneering discoveries in neuroendocrinology and led the research group that achieved the first spontaneous breeding of milkfish in captivity.