Multi-cultural view from ivory tower
Jun 26, 06 1:31pm
What are we fighting for in our varsities? It seems we are fighting over stale crumbs held out by dying ideological hands. Same old story.
Is university education all about quotas and unthinking graduates? Is it about making sure that all the vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors are from a particular ethnic group? Or must we do better in our national will to create citizens who will help the helpless members of society evolve with dignity - regardless of ethnicity, color, creed, and national origin? We can do better if our university administrators are more ethnically diverse.
Let us do a better job with our policies of affirmative action in order to find a peaceful solution to the dead-end issues of quota, meritocracy, dread, mundaneness, blind nationalism, cemented racism, closing of doors to the best and the brightest, and a spectrum of malaise in our public universities. Our vice-chancellors must enculturalise what is good, new, and true that they have learnt from their alma mater in foreign lands, so that they can govern institutions with purity of thought.
The problem is that many get afflicted by philosophical amnesia as soon as we are back. We let ‘this old house we inhabit’ define the culture that will intellectually disable us. The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US proclaimed its commitment to diversity in a statement issued on Sept 20, 1999:
“At UCLA, a public university located in one of the most heterogeneous regions in the world, diversity is an indispensable element of academic excellence. We are fundamentally committed to including and integrating within the campus community individuals from different groups as defined by such characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, and intellectual outlook.
“This commitment requires efforts to attract to the campus members of historically under-represented racial and ethnic groups. However, to create a rich academic experience and intellectual and cultural environment for everyone, we extend our concern beyond representation to genuine participation. Our commitment to diversity entails devising strategies and programmes to realise its benefits fully in education, research and service. This commitment inevitably means an openness to change - indeed, to transformation.”
Einstein once said that we cannot solve problems from the same plane on which the problem was created. We would be going around in circles, looking for the door to equality, justice and wisdom in our collective hope of creating a nation of peace-loving Malaysians. The New Economic Policy and the problem of race in governance of our universities must be framed within the Einsteinian maxim.
Many would like to see a diverse team of top leadership in our public universities. Chinese or Indian Malaysian students would like to see a vice-chancellor or a deputy vice-chancellor of their ethnicity. Our foreign students are not lured here to learn more sophisticated political-economic forms of racism.
A multi-cultural mix of top leadership will ensure a good sense of student belonging to the university and will show the world that not Malaysia will not only has a ‘world-class’ image but also practises a ‘world-wise’ educational policy. Universiti Utara Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Mara, for example, can be made less Malay and more multi-cultural, so that we may teach students to view success not solely in racial terms but through a transcultural lens. The two universities will benefit intellectually and culturally from a good composition of multi-cultural leadership. A multi-cultural university senate may help heal ease the migraine of the quota mentality and will educate the top leadership on the need to evolve wisely thorough good affirmative action policies that are also in line with the teachings of the great religious traditions and humanistic educational philosophies.
Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and even atheism teach us to look at human beings not through the eyes of race alone. A good system will look at class as a basis of creating a just system that brings out humanism in all of us. The concept of democracy in education demands us to integrate all the diverse cultures so that each may learn to better respect, and next, help each other build better visions of an ethical society.
"Dare we create a new varsity order?"
Borrowing the words of the great American social reconstructionist George Counts, who wrote of the need to reconstruct society through education, I propose that we seriously engage in a national dialogue on the beauty of diversity in our public universities. It will be a guarantee that whatever we have set up as a multi-cultural nation will be achieved if we begin with this vision from the top of the ivory tower.
If we let the higher education minister restructure the culture and nature of who should constitute the leaders in the ivory towers, we will see discrimination being properly addressed and resolved. This may be painful in the beginning and the healing process will not be pleasant, but heal we all must. An all-Malay, all-Chinese or all-Indian educational institution may not educate well but will indoctrinate excellently. Education in the broadest sense of the word should train people to become transcultural citizens able to build a strong foundation of radical multi-culturalism so that society will continue to be critical of governments that lie to their own people through policies that give new meaning to the colonialist policy of divide, conquer and rule.
How much have our universities progressed in the area of cross-cultural understanding? To what extent will our graduates be colour-blind in their work for national development and ultimately, for human liberation? How much do the universities perpetuate racism through their hidden curriculum of excluding each other based on race matters? The 22-year policy of the previous administration has reached its ideological shelf-life.
The universities need to evolve beyond the paradigm of blind nationalism which has never been healthy for this nation. We need the ‘sensor-fused’ technology of eliminating the vestiges of hyper-addictive neo-feudalistic educational pill we have been made to swallow en masse. We need to radically reconstruct the composition of our university leaders to put a stop to this conveyor belt of disabling and paralysing strategy of social reproduction.
"Truly diverse senate"
Monthly university senate meetings would be more vibrant if we choose to create a culture that will celebrate the diverse perspective that addresses the issue of class, the marginalised, and the criminalisation of the best and the brightest students. We may even discuss how to apply diverse statements to meet the diverse needs and intelligence of students. We will learn to become less suspicious of our ill-derived and acquired ultra-nationalistic sentiment. Our senate room will be a beautiful forum and may also in decades to come evolve somewhat like the “Conference of the Birds”, as the great Sufi Master Sheikh Fariduddin Attar would call it. In it, we will see the faculty seeking wisdom and truth rather than arguing their biases using politically-correct academic jargon.
We will see a beautiful senatorial culture in all universities. The common goal would be to celebrate humanism, not to dehumanise students and faculty through discriminatory policies. We will gradually free ourselves from the shackles of shallow politicking that has plagued our universities ever since Independence. All voices will be heard and the voices of social justice and intellectual freedom will be the most celebrated. We can become like America and its insistence on diversity in its universities. Walk into a good American university and you will see a diverse faculty - white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander - all appointed on merit.
We can embrace such multi-culturalism and trumpet to the world how we truly value diversity. This will add more meaning to the idea of a truly world-class Malaysian university. Our university senators will spend more time discussing the philosophical and transcultural foundations of university education, rather than argue tediously over this or that quota and then go home scheming against one another and using their intelligence for less noble purposes.
Let the rakyat insist on the diverse composition of our university leadership. Let us see which Malaysian university will embrace this idea of projecting a ‘world-class’ and ‘world-wise’ university. After all, aren’t we supposed to be a world model in racial harmony? Let us then quickly put an end to racial segregation in our ivory towers.