Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Academic Freedom and the right not to publish

Against the background of a wider institutional-epistemic shift in universities away from knowledge as ‘end in itself’, and towards a demand for the ‘value-adding’ utility of knowledge as a product or commodity, public policy in New Zealand has adopted a set of ‘national goals’ intended to shape the future of tertiary education and research. These new ideas were revealed in the government’s Tertiary Education Strategy (2002–7) (see my earlier article on this), and are now visible in the working lives of university faculty members through the application of the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) – a system that links a portion of state funding to an assessment of ‘research quality’ derived from an aggregation of assessments of all eligible faculty. Noting a trend toward ‘performativity’ (as described by Lyotard), the PBRF has begun actively to shape the behaviours of university managers and individual researchers. Although there have been repeated assurances that the PBRF does not interfere with academic freedom, the values and practices of free scholarly inquiry and scientific investigation have been challenged by this system. There is less attention to the content of one’s actual scholarly work, in favour of the appearance of ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ as indicated by, for example, the status of journal publications and the ability to demonstrate ‘peer esteem’. The new significance of research is not only its ability to ‘drive’ the knowledge economy, but also its ability to assist the universities in ‘improving their share of scarce research resources [i.e. money]’, to quote an internal Massey University policy. Research is performed in order to earn the university money, rather than funds being provided in order to support research that emerges from intellectual curiosity and debate. Staff who fail to ‘perform’ research thus represent a ‘financial risk’ to the university, and disciplinary efforts are proposed to marginalize them. So, have research and publication become the expression of academic freedom, or the output of an academic treadmill? If research activity comes to perform the role of making money for the university, and if the lack of research on the part of an academic may then lead to disciplinary action, is the principle of academic freedom thereby undermined at its very foundations? If cash-strapped university departments find it sometimes difficult to reciprocate by appropriately supporting staff in the ordinary course of their scholarly activities, should information about any resulting ‘research outputs’ be withheld from university records, thus depriving the university of fiscal and reputational credits for work it has not supported? The very purpose of scholarly integrity is undermined when, instead of telling oneself ‘publish or perish’, one’s host institution now says ‘publish or be fired’. Rhetorically, one must now ask: ‘Does academic freedom include the freedom not to publish?’ – assuming that is not the result of mere laziness or incompetence. The new ethics of the knowledge economy, as they are evolving in New Zealand’s universities, can be understood as a redistribution of power relations in these institutions, effecting the disciplining of faculty, accompanied by changes in intellectual norms and organizational customs. Lyotard’s original analysis of knowledge and performativity takes on a prophetic tone when re-read today.


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