On Prof. Arjun Appadurai’s Doctoral Training Inaugural Annual lecture at the University of Oxford Social Science Building Lecture Theatre, Manor Road 29th April. 2014 Title: What’s Special About University Based Research?

While in Oxford last month, I had a great opportunity to attend Prof. Appadurai’s lecture titled  “What’s Special About University Based Research?” I was super excited because in early April Prof. Stambach had given me his book- “The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on Global Condition” to read. The essays in the book provoked my mind although some of them were a difficult read.  I am not sure what I can write about his talk, but I will freely flow as things come to mind.

So Appadurai started by giving an alternative title to his lecture, saying that it can also be titled as ‘Universities as Actors in Global Civil Society”. He gave a disclaimer that his arguments are based on the USA Universities out of his familiarity and experience.  He, however, hoped that his arguments could be generalized. I thought, they could…especially to some UK Universities.  His focus was on top ranks research Universities in USA.

He gave a brief context on the background of research university model tracing it from German model, the mediaeval Europe model, and finally the British model. He then spoke about the American contributions to the research university model. These include complexity of major funding and funds, new relationship with the state and private sector, and the dilemma on liberal education and business education. From there he moved on to explain the expanded role of universities as actors in global sphere.  Examples of those are the role of law schools in affirmative action policies, the role of medical schools, engineer schools, etc in related policies. He then explained how universities are moving from basic liberal education to basic research as globalizations and internationalization are having a trickle down effect on universities.

In connection to that, Appadurai spoke about knowledge revolution and how the digital age has transformed the speed and spread of knowledge. This, just reminded me of Einstein’s quote I had read in Oxford Waterstone’s that ‘Any fool can know. The point is to understand’…my brother, Shirumisha, comment on this was ‘that’s the difference between information and knowledge”…so what I think, the digital age has mainly speeded the information but not necessarily the knowledge…many people have access to information, but who understands it? In fact, Appadurai indirectly touched on that when he mentioned issues of ‘noise’ and disinformation.

He then talked about the rise of other institutions that train and do research. These include churches, corporations, army, hospitals, newspapers, and professional schools. He took time to speak about their impact on funding to universities. Foundations and funders fund less research in universities and they give fund to those other institutions.

I think from there on, what Appadurai talked about had a lot to do with neoliberal world economic system, although he did not mention the world neoliberalism. His explanation of, what I can personally call an osmosis like attraction of bright young people to the American universities through post-doctoral fellowships, adjunct teaching posts, and other research fellowships, who contribute significantly to university research outputs at relatively low costs, is a sign of high level operationalization of neoliberalism in the knowledge industry.  On the opposite side of the coin he spoke of the USA government funding to USA students to go abroad and study other countries along with area studies programs. He mentioned how area studies are directly linked to national strategic interests. He sophisticatedly linked that with the emergence of ‘anti-Americanism’ as well as the ‘anger vs. envy’ towards America. He showed how people ‘hate’ America yet America is like a ‘magnet’ attracting everyone to its lifestyle.

In connection to that, he moved on to speak about “Knowledge Based Elite” underscored by Branding, which is obtained by attending elite universities. So this was very interesting…and may be the sad truth!

Well, so he explains how the global upper middle class across the world sacrifice and buy tickets to this class of “Knowledge Based Elite.”  This is by working all the way to ensure that their children are enrolled in top ranks universities in the USA.  He calls this buying of membership.

The membership comes with three benefits: Brand; Network; and Club.  The Brand gives you an initial success and capacity to break through. The Network gives you a global lifelong access to movement beyond local reach. The Club is a long-term network and capacity to maintain lifelong status.  These memberships are connected and maintained by careers, marriages, and finances. There are no borders.

From there, Appadurai highlighted a paradox asking: how about the progressive mission of mass higher education?  In connection to this, he moved on to explain the hybrid nature of universities as part of the global civil society.  The hybrid nature comes about due to:

–       Universities are market oriented as they sell services

–       Universities are quasi-commercial institutions as they work with corporations

–       Universities have close state relations as they depend on funds from the state.

In spite of those factors, universities are still critical part of civil society due to their contribution to human development.

In conclusion, Appadurai argued that universities should focus more on teaching undergraduate as crucial part of knowledge contribution. He maintained that universities must create environment in which liberal art undergraduate education is given the same attention as advance research education. Universities have to know that liberal art education is distinct and it should animate what we think of as worthy.  It is key to making global citizens.

 I was happy that somebody is again emphasizing on the role of teaching. This echoed my sentiment to Prof. Robert Keohane’s talk that also showed the importance of teaching.  That is why in my previous blog post I mentioned this and contended that universities should promote academics based on teaching also as opposed to solely on research. After the talk, we went for coffee with Prof. Stambach and Dr. Kristin Phillips, a lecturer at Emory University. I asked Kristin, what’s the difference between being a lecturer and an assistant professor in the USA, she told me it’s the same but lecturer are assessed based on teaching and promoted that way. It is apparent a new way of academic structure in the USA.  This resonated very well with my wish.

Well, the Q&A session was excellent as it created room for more critical discussions.  Here are some critical feedback gathered from participants’ questions as well as from my own reflections:

–       Appadurai should have, at least, acknowledge that the “Knowledge Based Elite” membership is not bought only from the USA top universities but also  (in fact very much so) in the UK starting with the very university he was speaking from.

–       The “Knowledge Based Elite” class is mostly created at the undergraduate level in those elite universities. Admissions to undergraduate are more determined by class, money, etc than postgraduate studies.

–       How much can the universities push in? How can they be radical??? Especially in the age of globalization with funding and research competition with other institutions that appeal more to wider population

–       How can universities make more impact to the general population in terms of access to their research outputs etc?

 To sum up, I think that if universities are to be active global civil societies actors, they will need to strike a balance between being “exclusive” to smart people and appealing to a normal person who has not gone through university doors. How can they do that?? It’s subject to discussion….

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