When I first got involved in activist groups challenging corporations, and their consolidation and abuse of economic power and political influence, I assumed I was supporting a Star Wars style rebellion with just two sides, communities and their activists vs. for-profit industries and their apologists (both private and governmental). As I branched out into supporting an increasingly diverse range of anti-corporate causes beyond purely environmental ones; complementary currencies, independent media, software freedom, free culture, and so on, I couldn’t help but notice that things were not so simple.

As an activist against corporate power, it’s easy to fall into the habit of trusting anyone who appears to be independent of any funding from businesses, and ignoring other people’s arguments because they are involved in or funded by businesses. But over time, I’ve noticed that the people on “our side” of an issue have sometimes been businesses (eg organics businesses supporting GE Free group), and that sometimes people took “their side” for no more conspiratorial reason than trusting the official positions of public institutions like government departments, or just finding the opposing arguments and evidence more convincing (eg many of the people who support fluoridation). The distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit positions is further muddied by the rise of astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups covertly funded by industry), and the concept of “social enterprise”, where people try to set up self-funding businesses to achieve social or environment goals, instead of funding-dependent charities whose freedom of action can be constrained by whoever controls the funding.

I started examining all this when I noticed that people I was working with in activist campaigns and community projects - people who were equally passionate about human freedoms and environmental integrity - were taking opposite sides in important debates about issues like genetic engineering, animal research, vaccination, fluoridation, peak oil, and climate change. This realization meant I couldn’t decide what was the “right” answer on an issue just by finding out what position “our side” were taking on it. In the end, I had to admit to myself that the whole idea that there was “our side” and “their side” was a convenient fiction that was excusing me from doing my own research and my own thinking.

My attempts to scratch this itch, and learn how to find out the truth behind an issue, had a lot to do with my involvement in Indymedia, and also why I drifted away from Indymedia. Scratching this itch has also been the main driver behind one of the projects I’ve been developing over the last few years, which has gone by a few different names, but the one I’ve settled on is CounterClaim. What I’m mainly trying to do with the topic-based pages in CounterClaim is to expose just how badly advocates for any one position in a public debate, can misrepresent and oversimplify the views of those who take other positions, and how much more complicated these debates are than almost anyone acknowledges. Among other things, the attempt to develop CounterClaim pages in a strictly neutral, evidence-based way, has shown me just how difficult this is, when there are whole industries whose job it is to confuse and misdirect us (eg marketing and PR), and how much time it takes to do a thorough job of researching even one controversial topic. Which brings me to the universities, because at least in theory, this is their job.

Here in Aotearoa, universities have traditionally been organised in a way that is mostly independent of governments and business, and this independence allows them to function effectively as the “critic and conscience” of our society, and to educate their students to be critical thinkers, willing and able to challenge both law-makers and profit-makers. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, as public funding of universities has been steadily reduced, they have been significantly reformed in ways that hamstring their ability to properly fulfil the “critic and conscience” role.

One consequence of reduced funding is that student fees go up.  As students take out ever larger loans to pay these fees (except for a lucky minority whose parents pay them), there is more pressure on the universities to target their courses towards vocational training (preparing students for jobs), traditionally the role of polytechnical institutions (”polytechs”). This limits their ability to teach students to question authority, as this is not considered a desirably quality in employees, and pushes students towards choosing narrow courses in subject areas like commerce, law, and industrial technology, which appear to provide a smoother path into well-paid jobs, even if this is not actually the reality. Worse, with more limited funding options, universities have become more dependent on research grants (whether public or private), which are slanted towards producing short-term, profitable research outcomes, not deeper understanding and critical analysis. This, in turn, affects what students learn from this research.

As public funding for universities is limited, they also come under more pressure to enter into partnership and sponsorship deals with corporations. One of the most concerning consequences of this is what happens to the research work created in university labs and offices. The internet, and especially the web, make it not only possible but cheap for university-based researchers to freely share their research outcomes with each other, and with the general public. For example, open access to the academic papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But partnership deals with corporations often oblige them to turn their research outcomes into trade secrets, copyright publications, or patents, which allows the corporations controlling the funding to control and benefit from research conducted at public universities, by publicly-funded academics, rather than the public as a whole getting to benefit.

The other major shift, as we see in the current proposals to eliminate a number of jobs in the Humanities division at Otago University, is to erode the job security of academic staff. Academics are responsible for researching, publishing, and teaching the university students who will become the next generation of academics, as well as fulfilling a wide range of other social roles in the governance of the universities and in their wider communities. Once they go through suitable vetting processes, which check their research skills and their ability to put truth before other interests, we need academics to have the freedom to ask challenging questions without worrying about how these questions, or the answers they find, might affect their ability to pay the bills. This is what people mean by having “tenure”.

The current trend, driven by a combination of underfunding and managerialism (corporate-orientated management theory), is towards replacing tenured positions for university teaching staff with increasingly precarious, short-term contracts. This undercuts their ability to carry out long-term, critical research and teach their students challenging ideas that some groups in society may find threatening, for a whole range of reasons. It opens up the possibility that groups can silence academics who make comments they disagree with. Take for example the firing of Steven Salaita for his positions on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, positions which are no doubt threatening to those on the neoconservative right who believe that Israel can do not wrong, and any criticism of them is “anti-semitism”. I find it just as disturbing when my fellow activists on the left attempt to silence academics who don’t take safe, politically correct positions on complex and controversial social issues like how society should deal with transgender identity. Whether the positions these academics defend turn out to be right or wrong, when these silencing campaigns work, it hurts all of us, because academic freedom is essential to challenging the powerful and exposing inconvenient truths.

My experience with researching for CounterClaim pages has convinced me that we currently live in a globalized society where we cannot rely on the news media, nor concerned citizens groups, to be neutral and unbiased. We desperately need knowledge institutions that are carefully structured to be independent of governments, businesses, religions, and any other powerful social force. We need them staffed with secure academic researchers who can do their work free from threats of ending up unemployed for saying the wrong things. Whether the 21st century universities will take the traditional form of secular monasteries, where scholars gather on a physical campus to research, debate, and teach, or whether they will become distributed networks of peer-to-peer review and open teaching, I don’t know. But I know that we need them. I’m concerned that if we don’t make the effort to educate ourselves about why we need them, or what we can do to make sure they continue to exist in an effective, independent form, we will only realise how important they are after it’s too late.

Filed November 3rd, 2016 under free culture
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