Posted tagged ‘University College Cork’

Bringing the veil down on the fruit bats

May 19, 2010

For the moment the story is not going away, though I think it should. In fact, it should never have turned up in public anyway. It has been suggested by some commentators that UCC lecturer Dr Dylan Evans had no choice but to make his case public. I just cannot see that. There is always a choice. The discipline imposed on him was a confidential matter, and if he felt he was treated unjustly he had several avenues by which that could be addressed, including at least one that he has in fact adopted. He had not exhausted all appropriate remedies.

Instead he decided to press the higher education community’s hot button and claim he had been denied academic freedom. But as we know from the documentation that he has (quite wrongly) made public, this was not an issue of academic freedom at all. Nobody in University College Cork, from the President down, has at any point suggested he can not work on, be interested in, read, write, publish and disseminate studies on the sexual habits of fruit bats, or indeed anything else. The complaint was about the manner in which Dr Evans presented the article to the complainant. The investigators found that what he did amounted to ‘a joke with sexual innuendo’ and that ‘it was reasonable for [the complainant] to be offended’. In fact, Dr Evans’ statement in the letter he circulated widely and which was published in the Huffington Post that ‘external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment’ is grossly misleading, suggesting that he was cleared of any wrongdoing. He wasn’t.

We are not asked to judge any of this. Maybe the complainant was too sensitive, maybe she didn’t demonstrate openly to Dr Evans that she was uneasy. Or maybe she was completely right in her assessment. That’s not a matter for us. But for Dr Evans to pick all this up and place it in the tray marked ‘academic freedom’ is dishonest. No issue of academic freedom is involved. What he has done by making all of this public is to use the ultimate weapon in the academic armory to attempt to silence a colleague who has raised a personal issue through the university’s procedures. And what lots of no doubt honourable people have done is to allow him to proceed with that plan by backing a campaign they could not really have understood. Since people started raising doubts about Dr Evans’ case, another 500 or so people signed his petition.

This episode has not been good for the academic community. I am not suggesting Dr Evans is in the wrong regarding the original issue. I have no idea whether he is or whether he isn’t. But he is most certainly in the wrong as to how he has pursued his case in public. And a few thousand people have shown an extraordinary lack of judgement in backing him without having any real knowledge of the circumstances (though some, including Stephen Kinsella of the University of Limerick, have very honourably re-considered their stance). But through all that, we have let down those who may at some point in the future want to protect their personal space and dignity.

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Fruit bats and the limits to academic freedom

May 18, 2010

Right now it seems the whole world, and not just the academic part of it, is talking about the tale of the University College Cork lecturer and the article on the sexual habits of fruit bats. Indeed the story has been awarded the ultimate accolade of the electronic world, a hashtag name on Twitter, #fruitbatgate. There are now over 6,000 blog posts on this affair, and nearly 30,000 other references on the web.  The UK journal Times Higher Education has picked up the story. A total of 2,826 people (so far) have so far signed an online petition to ‘stop UCC from abusing its harassment policy to limit academic freedom.’

I have to confess I have felt uneasy about the story from the moment I first heard it. The way it was being told suggested that a demented political correctness had persuaded the President of UCC to discipline an innocent lecturer who had merely shown an academic article to colleagues, where the topic was known to be of professional interest to him. What an assault on academic freedom! What a failure to observe fairness! What prudery on the subject of over-sexed fruit bats! In fact, what a lark with serious undertones, what an amazing opportunity for indignant finger wagging!

But is it really that simple? Actually, I don’t pretend to know the full facts here, and maybe if I did it would turn out to be that simple. But I have looked at the documentation on this case that has been put online, presumably either by or with the help of the disciplined lecturer (because I cannot see where else it could have come from). I have looked at it slightly reluctantly, because it contains very personal information written (presumably in strict confidence) by the complainant, whose name has been crossed out but who can be identified easily enough. This documentation does not wholly support the case being made by the disciplined lecturer, it seems to me.

Many of those supporting the UCC lecturer have stated that this is all about academic freedom. Whatever the merits of the case may be – and I still have an open mind – it is not about academic freedom. Academic freedom is about the right to develop, defend and disseminate scholarly views and findings, however uncomfortable these may be to others. But there are still limits. I may have the right to publish uncomfortable views, but I don’t have the right, to take an extreme example, to enter your bedroom at night to hand the published version to you and insist that you read it. I don’t have the right to harass you with my published output, or even the output of some other author that I admire.

But most of all, this story is doing massive damage to the future victims of harassment. I don’t know for sure whether there was harassment here, and it’s not for me to say. But here we now have the confidential documentation of this case published across the whole world, and what must this be doing to the person who made the complaint? More importantly still, what is it doing to those who may one day fall victim to harassment and who may now fear that if they complain they will be ridiculed in the world’s media? Indeed, what is it doing to future perpetrators who may feel that they are receiving a masterclass in how to escape from it all?

This case may well be as the disciplined lecturer says it is. But his methods are suspect, and the way in which thousands of intelligent people have bought into the case without knowing much about it is alarming.

There have been better days for academic freedom than this.

Universities and wildlife

May 16, 2010

In my role I spend a lot of time trying to ensure that my university, DCU, gets serious media attention. But there are some things you don’t want to be in the media for, and our colleagues in University College Cork have just discovered one of them: getting edgy about the sex lives of fruit bats.

I don’t really want to take you through the alleged facts of this episode, and if you haven’t come across it yet you can read about it here. In very short summary, it is alleged that a lecturer in behavioural science was disciplined when he showed a colleague an academic article on the sex lives of these animals, and when the colleague concerned took offence. As far as I can see the matter became public when the lecturer being disciplined distributed a letter to friends and colleagues, and a copy got into the hands of the online news site, Huffington Post, on Friday.

Well, this is the age of the internet, and before you could say ‘moral outrage’ the story was spreading in a viral manner, and as we speak there are nearly 5,000 websites (one more when I have finished writing this) offering a view on it. I deliberately am not saying ‘views’, because there is only one view coming across, which can be summarised as: ‘have these guys in UCC totally lost it?’

This is where you need strong media management. As far as I can tell – and I have looked – the university has made no attempt to tell its side of the story, or even just to explain why it cannot do so. Right now they are at risk of being subjected both to anger at the apparent denial of basic academic freedom, and to ridicule because of the subject-matter of the article that apparently caused such offence.

I have now read 30 or so articles brimming with righteous indignation about this case. We should perhaps be just a little slow to follow that example. We haven’t heard the college’s side of the story. More importantly, we don’t know what it was, or what underlying circumstances existed, that caused the colleague to whom the article was shown to react the way they did. Really we should know this before rushing to judgement.

My guess is that this bandwagon is now full, and we should perhaps wait for the next instalment in the saga before saying any more. Though I must admit I am rather curious now about it all – so come UCC, get moving on this! And fruit bats: have fun!

Higher education participation: quality vs. quantity?

November 3, 2009

As a PS to my recent blog post on access to higher education, I see that the President of University College Cork, Michael Murphy, has said that we should focus on the quality of students rather than on the quantity. He expressed the fear that student were being admitted into university programmes as a result of the drive to increase participation, whose ‘academic abilities are not sufficient for the particular course.’ His message is that if we continue to drive up participation we shall encounter serious quality problems that will undermine the reputation of the Irish higher education system.

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that as participation increases even more, the reality is that students will be targeted for a third level education whose academic achievements might suggest that they will find it hard to succeed in their studies.

On the whole it seems to me that we could, if we had the resources, educate a still higher proportion of the population; there are, I believe, many young people out there who do have the talents and the ability, but who have assumed (perhaps because of their backgrounds) that they could not proceed to higher education and who have not directed their efforts for that purpose. This means that they can still succeed in a university or college, provided they get strong and individual support and some remedial teaching. This is expensive, but it is also usually successful: in DCU many access students had an unpromising academic history at school, and yet they have a strong record of success in their degree programmes at university.

So maybe I would qualify Michael Murphy’s statement slightly, and suggest that if we want more quantity together with high quality, we need to accept that it is expensive to do it right; but also rewarding, and I suspect that any public money invested will be repaid easily.