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The lost dignity of universities and academia

  • The incident places shame and total lack of dignity not on the solitary student, but on the whole reputation of our public universities and academia.

By Professor Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi

The support of the discredited National Council of Professors in withholding the degree of a UM student after his demonstration against the racist speeches of his Vice Chancellor at the ‘top university’ in Malaysia spells an almost total lost of dignity in academia and university.

I said ‘almost’ because the Council of Professors was discredited by over 50% of Malaysians in the last general election.

When students whom I guess are Malays petitioned for revoking the degree of the two Chinese students, I just smiled at the ignorance and stupidity of the petition. After all, these are just Malay graduates and I have seen these graduates almost my entire life. I know perfectly well their strengths and weaknesses, especially weaknesses. But when full support was given by the Council of Discredited Professors, that was more serious.

We have seen how four public universities proclaim what many consider as racist and unfounded statements. But recently, the Council of Discredited Professors found nothing wrong or racist in the statement of the UM Vice Chancellor.

It was stated in their press statement that 50 professors met in Kajang and deliberated and agreed to the statement. My question is who were all these 50 professors and from which universities were they from?

We now know that four universities are racist universities at the moment, but are there more from the remaining 16 public universities? It would not be at all surprising to find that these professors are from all the remaining ones.

Twenty seven years in a public university and watching the selected discourses of academics in the media, I had arrived to that conclusion 15 years ago which prompted me to write the book titled ‘Why Listen to the Vice-Chancelor’ which was launched by Mr. Lim Guan Eng, then the Chief Minister of Penang.

After that book, I found my invitations to give talks at public universities becoming less and less as well as invitations to be examiners and government committee members in national issues few and far between.

My application to be professor after my early retirement was rejected by three public universities despite my publishing 50 books with four national book awards.

When I asked friends about the rejections, the word was my ‘controversial writings’ criticising Malays, Islam and most ‘sinful’ of all, academia.

I have had to leave my dream of heading a public university to make academia the frontline warriors of social and political change for the New Malaysia.

Now, I have to work at that objective through civil society and leave academia to rot with time.

With respect to the issue of revoking or withholding the degree of the two students, I have this to say. First and foremost, as an academic, the single most important role of those in academia is to ensure the student graduates on time with his or her choice of degree and discipline. My present and past deans of the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment have always reminded sternly to academic staff that they allowed flexibility in the staff’s time at the office with the caveat that there are no complains from students about the quality of instruction as well as availability of consultation and that all students must graduate within the specific time allocated.

When I was appointed to the Student Disciplinary Board five years ago, I made sure that any infractions done by students must be measured wisely on the impact of their academic performance. For instance, if the student was caught cheating in examinations, I would never hesitate to fail the student even though that was his or her one and only subject left before graduation. This was because it involved the quality of his academic content.

If a student was faced with charges of physical bullying or fighting that involved hurting another party, I would not hesitate to suspend the student even if it was his or her final semester as long as that semester was not over yet.

But if the student had finished his or her semester and was faced with charges other than cheating in an examination, I would recommend a misconduct charge and fined a certain amount of money.

The point is, we at the board treated the student’s graduation seriously and avoided at all cost anything that would prevent them from graduating because this represents the parents' hope and the student’s dream of a life in his or her own destiny.

What irked me greatly was the callous statement of the Council of Discredited Professors that gave the impression the Senate of the university is all powerful and can do whatever the hell it wants! There is absolutely no dignity in that irresponsible statement.

What the student had done, if seen as a moral or university infraction, I would consider a misconduct and the punishment would be just a fine. The student has finished his courses. He has not cheated or bribed his way to the degree. All he did was to disrupt a two-hour ceremony and the ‘reputation’ of the VC and university.

Now, I ask Malaysians in general, is it justice that revoking or withholding four years of work, money and effort over a two-hour ceremony of people dressed in robes? Is disrupting the future life of a student justified by such vain reasons as ‘mencemar nama universiti’?

Heck, I have been faced with the same accusations half of my academic life because of my exposing the truth about Malays, Islam and academia.

When a university places its own dignity over the dignity of a student and the dignity of a future life that the student has worked all his life for, then that university no longer commands any moral or academic respect at all.

If a group of professors also agree to the severe line of disciplinary action, then that whole group of discredited professors representing the whole group of universities financed by the Malaysian taxpayers deserve no place in our hearts and honour.

The Wong incident places shame and total lack of dignity not on the solitary student, but on the whole reputation of our public universities and academia.

Malaysians must now be scratching their heads on where we go from here about revamping our public universities.

I do not know…and no longer care any more.

Twenty years of writing is enough. It is a lost cause. I am intelligent enough to know when I have lost a fight and move on to other things.

This single incident is the final straw that has broken my will and my back.

(Professor Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor at a local university.)

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