Political Correctness and Academic Stewardship: Management and (Skewed) Control in Swedish Universities.

Before introducing the lecture and presenting a previous related debate about the situation in Sweden regarding politics versus quality in higher education. We need to keep in mind that multi-layered paradoxes and controversies do exist around the world, but in different degrees, what regards the political correctness, political power and related needs in the society including quality of education, science and R&D. These are import and crucial as education, science and R&D are essential driver for the appropriate development and advance of societies and humanity in general. What do we expect without them?

Let us for example see the relation between science and politics as debated in one of the most reputed scientific journal ‘Nature’ in the article ‘Stick to the science’: when science gets political (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03067-w). It has three parts: history of science and politics; politics of the life scientific; and talking politics and talking science. Science is objective and evidence-based while politics is more about power, economy and balancing the needs of the society as emanated from the voters. The drivers of, and support for, science and politics are very much different but through out history there have been always mutual needs. More recently politics shifted more and more towards the society much more than science, e.g. equity and over many other issues defined by the UN-SDGs. There are also other facts need to be taken in consideration politics is much more short-sighted, in some sense, as compared to education, science and R&D. This is why politics shifts and swings relatively faster than education, science and R&D. In reality, funding of research councils and other funding organisations are based on political and economic decisions and when money and people are involved then science become impacted or even turbulent. Science never acted in vacuum and it has been always mutual interactions. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean that objectivity in science and higher education becomes cloudy and looses its main pillars of being evidence-based. Indeed, what regards science and politics, when science becomes only captured by normal politics, its value declines and drains away (https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/science.aaz7996). That is the case in many places around the world even in modern times where science is poorly needed to solve our existential wicked and complex threats as summarized in the UN-SDGs. Apart from politics there are other actors that can influence the outcome of education, science and R&D including culture, religion, believes and social fabrics.

Now, to the subject of this post, i.e. the Institutional Colloquium hosted by IFA, Uppsala University with the lecture of Prof. Mats Alvesson (Lund University) – Title: Management and (skewed) control in universities and colleges. Text in English is about the same subject and was previously published as an article in Swedish Newspapers (ppl).

The Colloquium will take place on Tuesday the 14th of September on 11:15 AM at Ångströmlab. Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Uppsala Univesity, sal 2005. It can be also followed online at Zoom-link: https://uu-se.zoom.us/s/67413387328

The Lecturer. Mats Alvesson (website https://portal.research.lu.se/portal/sv/persons/mats-alvesson(071de634-ce8c-4f05-ac7d-0e1d06f2b381).html) is a professor at Lund University and also Univ. of Queensland, Australia, and City Univ., London. A Wallenberg scholar and one of Europe’s most quoted social scientists. His research area includes organizational culture, leadership and identity within organizations as well as a qualitative social science method. He has been particularly interested in functional stupidity. The concept was launched (together with André Spicer) in 2012 and is officially used in Sweden. Mats Alvesson is a diligent debater and author.

Institutionskollokvium: ‘Ledning och (sned-) styrning i universitet och högskolor’. Sammanfattning. Universitetets huvuduppgifter bör vara att bedriva god utbildning och forskning. Men dessa mål styr endast och i mindre utsträckning verksamheten. Andra funktioner och intressen tar överhanden: studentnöjdhet (vid kursutvärderingstillfällen), hög genomströmning, lärarnas karriärsoptimering, få allt att se bra ut, göra formellt rätt, imitera andra organisationer, expansion av administration mm. Ofta blir utbildningar kravlösa och ribban läggs lågt. Mycket forskning är av tveksamt värde och relevans. Föreläsningen tar upp problem i dagens universitet och högskola och pekar på lösningar.

The Colloquium/lecture in English: ‘Management and (skewed) control in Swedish universities and high schools’. Summary. The university’s main tasks should be to conduct good education and research. But these goals only and to a lesser extent govern the business. Other functions and interests take precedence: student satisfaction (at course evaluation opportunities), high throughput, teachers’ career optimization, making everything look good, doing formally right, imitating other organizations, expansion of administration etc. Educations often become unpretentious and the bar is set low. Much research is of dubious value and relevance. The lecture addresses problems in today’s universities and colleges and points to solutions.

The talk will include issues that was previously published in a Swedish Newspaper (https://www.gp.se/debatt/politisk-korrekthet-viktigare-än-kvalitetskrav-på-universiteten-1.38029174), here is the English translation:

Political correctness is more important than quality requirements at universities.
Debate. The universities will function as independent institutions that will be responsible for independent research and education on a scientific basis. As it looks today, however, the university’s management is increasingly acting under the influence of trends in the public debate and adapted education according to what is considered to be the right opinion in comparison with the wishes of the government, rather than creating a high quality business, write Mats Alvesson and Erik J Olsson Lund University. At the turn of the year, several heavy universities change rectors; for example Lund and Uppsala. In Linköping, a new principal has already taken office. Universities are primarily intended to be independent institutions that will be responsible for independent research and education on a scientific basis. However, this is in a state of tension, partly due to the view of universities as authorities, and partly to an increasingly widespread pressure to adapt to different opinions and different perspectives. Universities and colleges are authorities, which to a certain extent is reasonable, but the activity is undermined if government thinking is allowed to dominate, which leads to everything first and foremost being formally correct and characterized by loyalty to the wishes of political power. The focus will be on formalities rather than a good business.

The fact that universities are treated like other authorities is an expression of thoughtlessness. It will be easiest then. It will also be easiest for university managements who emphasize the government perspective more than the universities’ deeper assignments.

University managements often fail to safeguard the universities’ basic idea, which takes on different expressions. Here are some:

(1) Inappropriate recruitment and promotions. In many places, the principle of meritocratic recruitment has been abandoned and the employment of people who are in the heat has been accepted. Rather than professorships being announced and appointed in competition, resources have been used for internal promotion, with lower requirements and competence as a result.

(2) Gender quotas. Everyone is, of course, for equal opportunities regardless of gender. This is a difficult issue that may require investigation of obstacles and their remedies. In many places, however, gender equality has been interpreted as equal outcomes that are easier to measure and tick off. Counting the gender of course literature writers does not benefit the quality of education. There is a marked over-recruitment of women as professors, in relation to actual merit. Karolinska Institutet is an example.

(3) Improper influence. Engaging in politically sensitive research has its risks, as illustrated not least by a current case in Linköping. The researchers, who questioned the Crime Prevention Council’s political independence, were subjected to administrative abuse and a miserable work environment at the university. A student at the University of Agriculture who in a debate post criticized the animal husbandry of the business community was called to the university management to explain himself.

(4) Culture of insult. In Uppsala, a teacher’s statement of the n-word in a course in archive search caused great uproar. A student at KTH who produced statistics on immigration and crime was called to the director of studies and HR manager. The statistics were in themselves considered offensive. Lund has had several incidents where a few students felt offended by the teaching, which led to the courses being changed.

(5) Low demands on students. In many educations, the requirements are so low that full-time in reality means half-time or less. Most university and college managements seem to take a let-go attitude to this. Many who graduate are unqualified. 6. Opportunism. Sense of trends and need to be seen is strong. Sometimes honorary doctorates are used to get PR. Luleå University of Technology, for example, has recently appointed Charlotte Kalla an honorary doctor.

Of course, university managements cannot be blamed for all this, but they bear co-responsibility for the universities’ increasingly weak academic orientation and weak results – by following the current, doing what is easiest and minimizing risk. In terms of level of education, for example, the principals contributed to a reduction by pushing for the replacement of external review of degree projects with internal quality bureaucracy. Principals should primarily be university advocates and not government officials. It is more important to present the university’s mission, than to show sensitivity to politics, current opinions or uncritically follow dysfunctional regulations. It is important to safeguard what should be the point of universities and colleges: to primarily create high-quality research and education. It is not to demand too much that university managements here take their responsibility.

By Mats Alvesson, Professor of Business Administration at Lund University. Erik J Olsson, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Lund University, Chairman of the Academic Rights Watch Foundation

Political correctness is more important than quality requirements at universities

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