Some inherent risks of small and closed academes

This is the edited talk that I gave at the international workshop of the Croatian section of the Scholars at Risk Network, held on 19 January 2012 at the University of Zagreb, Croatia.

There are various criteria for classifying academic environments, but I would like to start by focusing on two: size and openness. Small academic environments are those in which everyone knows everyone else working not only in the same area, but in the related areas as well as wider fields of study. Closed academic environments are those which do not foster, or which even positively discourage, cooperation with other academic environments, especially more progressive and successful ones.

What is the inherent problem of small academic environments? Like in every academic community, it is the members of that community – through various boards and committees – that decide how the resources of the community will be allocated. The problem with small academic communities is that academics who make decisions more or less directly know the academics who will be affected by these decisions, and those who are affected more or less directly know who made the decisions. In such a situation it is extremely difficult to allocate resources on the basis of academic merit. Fairness in this situation tends to be understood as equal distribution of resources, such as to minimize the possibility of individual resentment and possible retribution. However, equal distribution of resources just is not good for science.

What is the inherent problem of closed academic environments? Apart from their inability to keep pace with global trends in teaching and research, closed academic environments tend to rely on their own resources in decision-making processes. This makes closed academic environments highly susceptible to inbreeding, cronyism and other forms of corruption. In such circumstances decision-making process is blind, or even openly inimical, to academic achievements outside the closed academic environment, which inevitably leads to parochialization of research.

Now the two criteria I have chosen are not necessarily correlated: you can have a small but open academic environment, like in the Netherlands, where the perils of smallness are positively mitigated by the advantages of oneness. Or you can have a large and closed one, like in Italy, where the advantages of largeness are only partially mitigated by the perils of closeness (which explains why Italian academia is in a slightly better shape then their politics and economy).

However, there are academic environments which are both small and closed, in which these two features – smallness and closedness – reinforce one another. The small size helps keep a community closed, and the closedness prevents it  from growing larger. In other words, the small size of a closed academic community protects its parochialism and susceptibility to all forms of corruption. It is the small size of an academic community that makes the corruptive setup easily manageable. I’m afraid that Croatia is an example of such a small and closed academic environment, which is testified by poor performance of Croatian academics as well as by the number and size of academic corruption affairs in the media over the past years (the code-name ‘Index’ rings a bell with the faculty of the University of Zagreb, painfully so with the members of its Faculty of Economics).

There are several ways to change this situation, but I will here mention only two that strike me as most urgent. One is opening the Croatian academe. This means that the universities and research institutes ought to adopt and implement effective strategies of internationalization, which would include opening our academic market to foreigners, introducing international standards of academic performance, and involving unbiased foreign experts in decision-making processes. I think very little or nothing has been done on that front, but I hope that entering the EU next year will change that.

The other way to change the present situation is to work out effective mechanisms of ensuring academic integrity. Now some progress has been made on that front in the past 10 years, or more precisely since Croatia got involved with the European accession processes. Various bodies ensuring academic integrity have been introduced, including the national Committee for Ethics in Research and Higher Education, appointed by the Parliament (Odbor za etiku u znanosti i visokom obrazovanju). Also, universities and research institutes drafted their Codes of conduct and modified their statutes to include ethical provisos.

However, the situation is far from rosy. First, there is a hyperinflation of ethical bodies. Take the example of the University of Zagreb. Each of the 33 components (we call them ‘Faculties’) is supposed to have its own Ethical Board (Etičko povjerenstvo sastavnice) and Ethical Code, and most of them do have one. Then there is the Ethical Council (Etički savjet) of the University with an overarching Ethical Code of the whole University. However, the Ethical Codes of the Faculties have been enacted years before the Ethical Code of the University, so there is little normative coherence among them. Second, none of these  ethical bodies has much power. The Faculty Boards can issue private or public reprimands, but very little else. The Ethical Council of the University is an advisory body of the Rector which issues statements, but it cannot sanction offenders in any way, not even by imposing a restriction or a fine. The same problem of limited authority holds of the national Committee for Ethics.

Third, there is the problem of legitimacy of ethical bodies, since there are often reasonable doubts that appointments to ethical bodies are motivated by personal or interests of smaller groups of academics. This was especially the case with the national Committee for Ethics, which appointed two junior academics (at the rank of Assistant Professors) for the President and the Deputy, whereas it was specified by the relevant law that members of the Committee have to be senior academics ‘of outstanding scientific record and reputation for integrity’. Not that these two junior academics are , they just haven’t had a chance to display the specified outstanding qualities. Worse still, the mandate of the members of the Committee expired in December 2009., and it was only in June 2010 that the Ministry announced that the  institutions should propose candidates for the Committee. Ironically, the announcement yielded no result up to date, presumably because the drafted legislature on science and higher education made no provision for the existence of a national Committee. The drafted legislature was dropped by September 2011, and we still do not have a functional national Committee. Fourth, in the four years that the Committee was operational, it was extremely slow in reaching decisions and issuing their verdicts. I know of a case of pretty straightforward and well documented plagiarism which was filed on 24 October 2007 with the verdict coming on 17 May 2010. Similarly, Faculty Boards are sometimes found to procrastinate or simply to refuse to process complaints, even those well-documented ones, without any explanation.

If you think this situation is bad enough and utterly discouraging for filing complaints of academic misconduct, hold your breath. You will be delighted to learn that the laws and codes make no provisions whatsoever to protect whistleblowers. Whistleblowers who do not act in good faith, are subject to moral, and possibly legal, sanction for ‘misuse of ethical bodies’, but whistleblowers who do act in good faith are left entirely without any protection. I personally know of academics who filed complaints to ethical bodies only to find themselves prosecuted for defamation before criminal courts.

In such an environment academics are discouraged from reporting academic misconduct. And if one does file a complaint, it is presumed that one had ulterior motives for doing s, personal or departmental feuds or whatever. That is a climate fostering high tolerance for academic misconduct.

In small and closed academic environments many scholars are at risk from perils generated by the sheer smallness and closedness of such academic environments. Unfortunately, the risk is increased for good scholars who break the confines of their academic communities, who publish and collaborate abroad, as well as for scholars of moral fiber who are willing to ‘rock the boat’ by reporting academic misconduct. Although it is not their life and limb that is jeopardized, these scholars also deserve protection, and it is my hope that the resources of the Scholars at Risk network can be used to protect scholars who are at risk from perils inherent in small and closed academic communities in which they work, thus effectively contributing to the opening up and development of such academic communities.

Zagreb, 19 January 2012.

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3 Responses to Some inherent risks of small and closed academes

  1. Luka Rek says:

    I actually think that the smallness of an academic community can sometimes be a positive thing – or it would be if people were able to distinguish between the personal and the official. The closed communities are a much bigger problem. I also do not see any reasons for any academic institution to be closed off from the rest of the world, while there could be many just reasons for such an institution to be small. There should be no choice in the matter; an academic community cannot be a closed community. Building up a fence and distancing yourself from the rest of the world may be understandable (though not reasonable) for some religious communities or people who don`t like to wear clothes, but do we really want to put institutions of higher education in the same basket with them?

  2. I must applaud. This talk described the situation and its basic outline. I would add that problems go deeper and wider though.

    • Sure there are other problems, and at different levels. I would be interested, though, to hear what you think are the deeper and wider problems of small and closed academic communities, or specifically of the Croatian academic community.

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