Monday, 25 May 2009

Knowledge and intelligence: first draft

I have just completed a first draft of a paper I plan to present at the AHA conference late June/early July called "Knowledge and Intelligence: why ASIO thought university knowledge would kill democracy"

This is the draft conclusion. (DRAFT I say...please be kind. But do send me feedback if you have any).

Jean Curthoys, approximately 25 years after the Philosophy Strike, made the following intriguing comment:
This liberal conception of the university no longer has currency…I have no time here to defend this liberal conception and so I shall simply say that my deep regrets about the strike concern the extent to which it opened the floodgates for its rejection.
The extent to which it opened the floodgates is difficult to determine, but what is certain is that the way student protest movements conceived of knowledge was incompatible with the way knowledge was structured in a traditional sense. The student movement sought a redistribution of the control of knowledge from the professoriate to a more participatory model. It is tempting, looking at our consumer-focused universities and student-centred pedagogies to say they succeeded, and possibly they did. But in confining ourselves to the late 1960s and early 1970s we can conclude that the tension between liberal traditions of the university and emerging models of knowledge were possibly at their most taut.

It is possible that ASIO analysts deliberately exaggerated the imminence of their assessment of the risk of revolution in order to ensure adequate resources to fund their vastly expanded surveillance responsibilities. It may be that they did not actually believe Australia was a couple of short steps away from guerrilla war. Or it could be that they thought worst-case scenarios were warranted, given events in Paris and elsewhere, where perhaps other governments had underestimated the power of the student population. Regardless, the ASIO reports were able to give such an elevated status to the level of risk presented by student protest movements because of the way they saw the relationship between knowledge and democracy.
ASIO constructed knowledge as foundational to a civil, democratic society, which was consistent with traditions of liberal universities. The task of the traditional university to promote progress, uphold intellectual integrity and, where needed, point out falsehood and wrongdoing implied that it would always function in support of the establishment, keeping society on its chosen path. To students this was unacceptable. Knowledge, they thought, should show ways that the establishment was repressive, undermine it, promote revolution and change. If ASIO genuinely thought that knowledge underpinned democracy, it is less surprising that they were so alarmed. If professors thought it, perhaps it is less ridiculous than it might appear, that they too sought to protect their position as a part of their perceived responsibility to maintain intellectual standards. But the professoriate, in abusing the power they had, sometimes behaved badly and, like ASIO, earned their downfall.

And yet, a former student revolutionary like Jean Curthoys can regret the loss of the “liberal conception of the university”, an idea so readily discarded as outdated and irrelevant by student movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This suggests some disquieting questions. Did the student movements restructure a collective understanding about the relationship of knowledge to democracy? If knowledge underpinned civil democracy, it was power – the ASIO files make this clear. Does that imply that it would lose its power if it were no longer perceived in this structure? Knowledge was seen to be foundational to civil society because it drew the nation’s attention to a singular sense of truth. It was this that resulted in the need for academic freedom and trust in an elite group of researching academics. If the singularity of truth were no longer required to keep society on track, would that suggest that there would no longer be a structural imperative to academic freedom? Did the hierarchical structure and the elitism of the professoriate add cultural capital to knowledge, devaluing the core substance of the university once professors were de-throned?

These probably inherently unanswerable questions are certainly unanswerable from an analysis of ASIO files. What the files do highlight is the tension in the idea of the university presented by student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The traditional role for the university saw knowledge as truth that would underpin the establishment. Nostalgia for the liberal university, justified though it may seem, should not forget that this necessitated an elite group of scholarly masters to control and protect a canon of knowledge – and that sometimes this was a power abused. Similarly, tempting though it is to continually mythologise student revolutionaries in heroic stances, their role in undermining a widely accepted value of knowledge and its pursuit for its own sake should probably also be acknowledged. Initially it appears that ASIO, professors and student revolutionaries saw knowledge as worth fighting for. It may be that in the process of fighting over it, university-based knowledge lost its value.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Why democracy needs education: an economist's view

It may just be that I am not an economist, but this construction of every type of motivation in terms of incentives is hilarious.

This is why democracy needs education, according to Glaeser et al

"In the battle between democracy and dictatorship, democracy has a wide potential base of support but offers weak incentives to its defenders. Dictatorship provides stronger incentives to a narrower base. As education raises the benefits of civic engagement, it raises participation in support of a broad-based regime (democracy) relative to that in support of a narrow-based regime (dictatorship). This increases the likelihood of successful democratic revolutions against dictatorships, and reduces that of successful anti-democratic coups."

Glad we settled that.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The university's duties to society: Newman

"But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life."

John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated in Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin in Occassional :Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University, ed. Martin J Svaglic (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1852 (1966 Edition)), 134. (I, vii, 10)

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Owning knowledge's shadow. Thoughts after UWA v Gray.

OK, so here’s my hypothesis, after reading UWA v Gray.

Universities want to own knowledge but they only get to own (intellectual) property, because that is the only framework available to them.

Why would they want to own something as abstract as knowledge? Because ownership is a precondition to trade and the trade of knowledge is now perceived to be the university’s business.

The problem is, the trade of knowledge is not what universities were set up to do, so this new mission (such as it is) collides with traditions, structures and in this case, legal framework.

How does UWA v Gray say that? I’m glad you asked, because something had to make it worth my while reading that 591 page monstrosity.

UWA v Gray is a Federal Court judgement deciding that the University of Western Australia had no claim to the intellectual property developed by Dr Gray and others. A lot of complexities contribute to this – which is why the judgement is so long – but what it came down to was that UWA could not (by regulation or any other means) claim ownership over property that was not theirs. They couldn’t do that because there was no necessary expectation that invention was what an academic, and Dr Gray specifically, was appointed to do. An IP policy does no good, because, as Paragraph 90 says “UWA cannot, by regulation, acquire property from its staff members.”

Now, I am not a lawyer and my interest in law and legal history is pretty limited. So for legal analyses, do a google search for UWA v Gray and you’ll see dozens of law firms that have put summaries on their websites.

While UWA v Gray is a 2008 finding, it is full of history. The case tried to unravel the process of UWA’s patent policy and Patent committee, the opinions and uses of them throughout the 1980s; their perceived inadequacies and motives for change; and the development of an IP policy in the mid-1990s as a (belated) response. Since this is heaps more info than most university archives are happy to provide me with, it is a convenient case study of the shift in the 1980s/1990s to IP policies.

And it is messy. I suspect not just at UWA. PVC/DVCs for research were just being invented, and thus, so were their job descriptions. There was a sense that patent/copyright policies weren’t doing the full job but exactly what the full job was remained unclear. The new PVCs and commercialisation cowboys/girls had plenty to do already, often also setting up specifically commercial entities to carry the university’s trade. More recently, online “shops” (at Macquarie and UNSW, for instance) gave at least the veneer of literally selling knowledge products, though it was not really clear what these were.

The legal text claims that IP policies were developed as mode 2 research emerged – as the complex relationships between industry, universities and governments formed that ludicrously over-quoted inflated half-idea of the “triple helix” (which is just intended to put a productive metaphor onto Mode 2). And yet, the most pressing problem universities seemed to be addressing (based on IP policies, AVCC guidelines and UWA v Gray) was how to claim the knowledge that staff produced.

Trading in knowledge is not easy. Knowledge is very difficult to pin down. It is not really alienable – that is, it can’t really be separated from the knower.

The products of knowledge – publications mostly, but other things too: course materials, lectures, tutorial discussions, multimedia, software and inventions – can be a little easier to pin down, but are mere shadows of the knowledge that enables them.

The immediately tradable parts of the products of knowledge are a tiny tiny proportion of the knowledge known in universities. But there remains always the potential for some bit of that knowledge – and which bit is not terribly predictable – to one day, when you least expect it, produce immense wealth.

This is why universities want to own knowledge. But what they got stuck with was owning intellectual property, which is far narrower. What is “worse” if you were concerned about the knowledge trade, when you read UWA v Gray, universities can’t claim knowledge produced in universities if it was not explicitly what the knower was employed to produce. But the thing about research is that what it will do is by definition not yet known! It is very difficult to be specific enough to claim ownership over what a person may or may not know in the future.

And even you could, what you can only claim is the shadow of knowledge, not knowledge itself.

So, universities bluff their way through. Some IP policies claim that the law says employers own all IP of its staff. UWA v Gray shows that this is not the case and in fact, such a claim is a little bit like a university implementing a policy to claim ownership over its staff’s family home. It can’t be done. And if, by hook or by crook, they manage it, they will find it wasn’t what they were after anyway.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Two new articles on Postgraduate Coursework

H. Forsyth R. Laxton, C. Moran, J. van der werf, R. Banks and R. Taylor (2009) Postgraduate coursework in Australia: issues emerging from university and industry collaboration in the following paginated issue of Higher Education: Volume 57, Issue 5, Page 641

Jenny-Ann L.M.L. Toribio, Hannah Forsyth, Ruth Laxton, and Richard J. Whittington (2009) An Innovative Approach to Post-graduate Education in Veterinary Public Health, Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, Vol 36, Issue 1, 114-121

Monday, 11 May 2009

Short bit about the philosophy strike

When they were PhD students, Liz Jacka and Jean Curthoys would have been astonished to hear the language now bandied around the Professorial Board room. “Student-centred”, now a catch phrase for any ambitious academic, had never entered the minds of most on the Professorial Board in 1973 when they voted 39 to 7 against the Jacka and Curthoys-proposed unit of study, “Philosophical Aspects of Feminist Thought”.

The Feminist course had been approved by the Philosophy department, and just scraped approval through the Faculty of Arts by a vote barely over 50%. That is officially where it should have ended.

But professors still controlled the money. David Armstrong, Professor of Philosopher and a vocal opponent to the course, called his friend, Deputy Vice Chancellor O’Neill, who was soon to receive the paperwork to fund the approved course. The Deputy Vice Chancellor said there was no money to cover Jacka and Curthoys’ salaries, so the course could not run.

Angry members of the Philosophy department – both staff and students – appeared, to the Deputy Vice Chancellor’s horror, “unannounced” to make their case. O’Neil referred the matter to the Professorial Board.

Professors were different then. Mostly, one professor ruled each department absolutely. Their job, as a matter of tradition, was to protect and uphold academic standards for the good of civil society. They were the masters, controllers and protectors of knowledge.

Students – and many junior staff, it should be said – started to call them “god-professors”. “Professor O’Neil has made it clear that he believes the best decisions can only be made by those with the highest rank” said Jacka and Curthoys in an open letter to the Professorial Board.

Jacka and Curthoys were among those who believed that it was time the control of knowledge shifted away from professors. They thought that this would allow new knowledge to be explored. Knowledge like feminism.

Jacka and Curthoys’ open letter declared that professors were no longer the legitimate owners of knowledge: “The kinds of things that bodies like yours usually consider don’t apply in this case. This of course is not to argue that whether or not we are competent is unimportant or undecidable, but rather that you aren’t the proper people to decide it.”

They declared a revolution in the control of knowledge: “We feel, then, that those who are in a position to judge our competence have already done so. This week we will be asking these people to demand of Professor O’Neil that we are immediately appointed.”

Hardly likely to be sympathetic to this position, the Professorial Board voted against the course.

This led to the Philosophy Strike, where many students and staff, with support from the BLF, went on strike in support of feminism and participatory democracy. A “Women’s Tent Embassy” was erected in the Quad. The strike was highly disruptive and gave the university a lot of bad press.

A University Senate inquiry eventually recommended that the course should go ahead. Which it did.

The Professorial Board room in the Quad, unlike the Academic Board that replaced it, has still kept the old name, evoking the elite group who once ruled it. But in it, as elsewhere, feminism is now considered to be a valid area of intellectual inquiry.