Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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 UP as far back as I can recall, 50 years ago, when I was an instructor in zoology. Today democratic governance is often included in visions 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 (review in my last post). Data on research performance of UP in the last 30 years has clearly shown this. After 2 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 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 working together successfully requires that members are 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 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 in needed in debates on controversial national issues. The result: debates on science-based and science-related issues have been dominated by nonscientists and largely without any useful conclusion.

A more effective alternative to democratic governance, to solve the crisis in science and education, is to exert executive decision, as 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 let himself be intimidated by superiors or powerful officials in high government positions, who are science-incompetent. When a known reformer and physical chemist Zhu Qingshi was appointed president of a new Chinese university, he insisted, making clear, he would be calling the shots (University Head Challenges Old Academic Ways).

To finish the job, outdated UP policies entrenched by group decisions, should be changed. They include practices that are inconsistent with the innovative systems started during the last decade; examples are obsolete policies in faculty hiring, promotions, and giving awards. They reduce the gains achieved by research incentives and objective criteria in performance evaluation. Such review is necessary for UP‘s transition from a primarily-teaching university to the country’s first research university. As a research university, UP can be the national center for preparing qualified mentors in graduate schools, instructors in post-secondary education, and teachers in primary and secondary levels. This will start real reform in the country’s educational system.

(Editor's note:  In line with its policy of seeking alternative points of view, the Diliman Diary has sought and has been granted permission by Dr. Flor Lacanilao to repost this article. Dr. Lacanilao obtained his Ph.D. (specialization in comparative endocrinology) from the University of California at Berkeley. He served as chairman of the Zoology Department at UP Diliman, chancellor of UP Visayas, and chief of SEAFDEC in Iloilo. His email address is at: florlaca@gmail.com . This article also appeared at: http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20110314-325325/Democratic-governance-impedes-academic-reform)

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