“The work and the power of professors and journalists” (21 December 2014)
“The work and the power of professors and journalists” (21 December 2014)
Professor Wadan Narsey
It has been a personal paradox that this professor can be castigated by a university management for being too “journalistic”, and at the same time be criticized by journalists for being “too academic”, allegedly having “only text-book knowledge”.
This paradox took on more significant dimensions recently, when elected parliamentarians, without any challenge, openly ridiculed a parliamentary professor of economics and trade expert, over his knowledgeable 2015 Budget criticism that the Bainimarama Government was protecting unsustainable industries.
The strange juxtaposition of these events poses wider questions not just for our universities, but also for our communities and taxpayers, who usually value the “learning” that university academics provide their children, enough to pay the high costs of training them with certificates, diplomas and degrees.
First, do our universities value “journalists” as worthy professionals just as they do lawyers or professors of economics?
Second, what do USP’s stakeholders (governments, students, people USP Council) expect as “appropriate” work from any “professor” and does that exclude “journalistic” media contributions directed at the wider community?
Third, what practical steps should universities and the media industry take, in order to enhance the developmental contribution of both journalists and academics through the popular media?
What are the underlying social conditions which allow the knowledge and learning of the only two local professors of economics to be publicly ridiculed, by journalists and parliamentarians without any opposing public voices?
USP and journalism
In 2011, under pressure from the Bainimarama Government because of my criticisms of their policies, the management of The University of the South Pacific strangely complained about my “overly journalistic writing instead of academic analysis” as a good enough reason for wishing me gone.
They warned that my “journalistic writings could “bring disrepute to the professoriate because some people have said, is this what you expect from professors?”
Of course, journalists can take comfort that a military dictatorship implicitly fears the power of popular media, while articles in academic journals by the same academics would not even be on their radar.
But USP management’s disparagement of “journalistic” writings was astonishing, given that USP has developed a well-respected School of Journalism and programs which had been approved by the University management and Council, after rigorous accreditation.
Indeed, the USP Journalism School, its academics, and students had been winning awards and recognition regionally and internationally.
It was also surprising given that the USP management (including the Vice Chancellor and two Deputy Vice Chancellors) were experienced educators and administrators who ought to have been fully aware of the important role that journalism (whether by dedicated journalists or academics) played in community education and development, and especially as a watchdog on government.
Why would any university think that “journalistic” writing did not befit “professors”?
What work should professors do?
While it is generally accepted by universities that professors need to teach and conduct research and publish, the nature of the publications and where they are to be published have been an issue at many universities internationally as at USP.
Several years ago, an Appeal Committee ruled that USP was wrong in denying a promotion to the solid academic, Professor Jayaraman (now of FNU) because he was publishing in journals which while relevant to the Pacific, were supposedly not “A” grade according to some universities’ narrow definitions. A similar ridiculous controversy affected the reputable Pacific Economic Bulletin journal at ANU, whose downgrading was eventually reversed.
Of course it is accepted that publication in regional and international academic journals is important, and I have continued to do my bit there.
But after three years as Shadow Finance Minister in Parliament between 1996 and 1999, my research and writings became far more focused on applied policy research and analysis, and my writing leaned more towards community education through newspaper articles, and TV and radio interviews.
USP management was well aware that many of my so-called “journalistic” articles were based on solid academic research and analysis, for example of Fiji Bureau of Statistics national household surveys on incomes, expenditure, or employment, or their census reports, and had launched many of my research monographs. Two years previously, this professor had also been awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Prize for Research.
For me, these “journalistic” newspaper articles played the critical role of communicating serious research findings and policy implications to governments, NGOs, the private sector and the communities at large, and in simple jargon-free language that the public could understand.
This last step was indeed critical in ensuring that the public understood and valued the end result of the time-consuming detailed Fiji Bureau of Statistics questionnaires they filled out for two weeks, enough to not chase them away from their doorsteps.
The USP management was well aware that USP’s Mission and Vision statements required its academics (and I quote from both):
“…to provide relevant and sustainable solutions across the spectrum of contemporary challenges in the Pacific… (with) applications for the Pacific region and benefits the people who occupy it; … to effectively engage with stakeholders throughout the Pacific region, particularly with our Member Countries, to enhance political, economic, social and cultural development”.
It cannot be questioned at all that many of my “journalistic” articles were fulfilling the core objectives of USP’s Mission and Vision Statements.
It could even be argued that these community education articles are far more useful for the taxpayers who fund USP, then irrelevant articles in international academic journals.
Indeed, in 2010, when my contract had not been renewed normally, an Appeal Committee of USP Council (chaired by Ikbal Janif, the current Chair) expressed similar sentiments in criticizing USP management:
“that the criterion of publishing internationally was over-emphasized … that the matter of teaching, research and publications in areas of regional relevance ought to have carried “more weight” … The Committee also noted that he was an exemplary academic and a teacher of very high caliber”.
This is an issue that needs serious debate by USP stakeholders including USP Council, staff, students and the people of the region, and would be critical in determining the nature of the KPIs that universities set for their academics.
It is a pity that my economics colleagues at USP have shown little inclination in communicating their research findings to the public, through the popular media.
The few who have tried, probably understand very well how much more difficult it is to write a thousand word “journalistic” article that the ordinary public will understand and find interesting enough to read, than reams of academic articles.
Journalists’ contempt for professors
The contempt shown by a few journalists for academics has been quite a new development, sadly unchallenged by the Fiji public.
A particular newspaper columnist has commented at various times, as follows: “the opinionated Wadan Narsey”; who “does not fail to pontificate on the media”; who “writes about everything under the sun”; the “unhappy Narsey” complaining that MIDA Chairman (Ashwin Raj) has “allegedly not taken action over some of his complaints”.
This columnist was probably not born when this academic began writing newspaper articles on Fiji’s economic, political and social issues, most of which are still relevant today.
There is a wider problem here than criticism of me personally, as the same newspaper also regularly disparages Professor Biman Prasad, an elected parliamentarian, Shadow Finance Minister and Chairman of the important Public Accounts Committee, as do some of his parliamentary colleagues.
Parliamentarians’ contempt for academics
The contempt for academics has caught on in the Fiji Parliament, where Professor Prasad’s knowledgeable contributions on the international failure of badly targeted protectionism have been rubbished by the Minister of Finance and several of his Fiji First Party colleagues, as being too academic, theoretical, and “text bookish”.
Despite his well-known academic record on development issues and personal sacrifice in leaving USP to contribute to national development through parliament, his parliamentary critics even accused him of having little concern for the livelihoods of the protected dairy farmers or the workers employed by the so-called “manufacturer” of exercise books.
Their views are understandable, even if incorrect, as my “journalistic” article explained two years ago to The Fiji Times readers: https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/the-costs-and-hidden-hand-outs-of-protectionism-the-fiji-times-14-august-2002/
That article explained in simple language why it is easy for the public to see the visible benefits of protectionism for employment and local business survival, but far more difficult to understand that the value of these benefits may be worth far less than the invisible extra costs to consumers who pay higher prices, often for lower quality products.
Of relevance to the 2015 Budget, this so called “text-book theory” applies to both the protection of imported milk products which Professor Prasad was talking about, as it does to the tariff protection of exercise book “manufacturers”.
It is a tragedy that the economists in the Ministries of Finance, Planning, Trade, the Reserve Bank of Fiji, and even the CEO of Consumer Council are not able (for whatever reason) to explain to the public the unacceptable costs of protectionism.
It is a bigger tragedy that the Minister of Finance and some FFP Members of Parliament, displaying their ignorance of economics, suavely and gleefully rubbish the advice of professors of economics, without being questioned by the apathetic public.
Of course, merely being professors does not entitle academics to respect, but surely their considered opinions deserve greater scrutiny from parliamentarians than superficial barbs such as “too academic” “too theoretical” or “that’s just text-book stuff” or “why don’t they become businessmen.”
I suppose in the context of the protectionism debate, some Fiji businessmen will understand only too well how contributions of a few hundred thousand dollars to powerful political parties, can easily generate dividends of millions of dollars of profits through tariff protection, while costing millions extra to consumers.
The need to recognize “journalistic” contributions
The last eight years of military dictatorship in Fiji has severely curtailed public discussion of many policy issues, by both journalists and academics.
Yet there continue to be many contentious issues on which academics and analytical journalists can, through articles in the popular media, help form public opinion and influence government decisions.
For example, where should one draw the line between commercial development creating jobs and incomes and mangrove and environmental protection; what will be the costs and benefits of banning foreigners from buying freehold land in urban and peri-urban areas or even rural areas; should young children be taught in their mother tongues or in English; should the State interfere with legal contracts such as between Fiji TV and World Rugby; and the list goes on.
However difficult it may be politically, the media must give time to its own journalists to do the kinds of investigative analysis and feature articles that used to be so common before the media censorship.
All tertiary educational institutions (not just universities) must also encourage their academics to write popular media articles on serious policy issues, by giving them due credit during staff assessments.
The media industry in co-operation with tertiary institutions, can encourage these trends by giving awards and cash prizes for best journalist and academic contributions in print, video and radio.
To ensure wide developmental impacts, the awards could be differentiated by economics, politics, society, environment, sports, education, gender, and whatever other fields the media industry and tertiary academic institutions deem relevant.
There will surely be no shortage of sponsors of the prizes and awards.
With a well publicized annual media event, the public at large, and not just the few and further diminishing numbers who read a full-page serious media article, might also begin to think differently about the value of popular media contributions by both journalists and academics.