Towards a more visible and vocal university

Professor Canute Thompson

One of the issues I have been discussing over the last seven (or so) years, is what I regard as the unfortunate relative absence of academics from the public square and contests of ideas in Jamaica.  I have argued that the heyday of public intellectual battles among academics, which characterized the 1960s and 70s have all but disappeared and the average academic seems to have retreated from the public space. 

The seeming retreat has been explained by reference to change of political administration in Jamaica in 1980. Jamaica is the home of the first and largest Campus of The UWI. The apparent retreat of UWI Mona academics from open public discourse, which included criticisms of public policy, was attributed to the aggressive anti-academic (as well as anti-union) stance of the Seaga regime of 1980 to 1989.  The absence of academics from important national and regional discourses has led many to criticize the university (particularly The University of the West Indies – The UWI) for being ineffective and not giving value for all the money it receives from the taxpayer.

Main gate of The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus

Most recent public debate

This criticism of The UWI for failing to produce policy-impacting research was made in December 2023 by Dr. Peter Phillips, a former Minister of Government (who worked in at least four portfolio areas) and former lecturer at The [said] University of the West Indies.  Phillips’ comments were made at an auspicious event.  It was the ceremony to mark the naming of a building on the Mona Campus in honour of former principal, and former Governor General of Jamaica, Sir Kenneth Hall, who is credited with introducing Research Days at Mona. (Research Days are used to showcase the research activities of faculty and staff).

Dr Peter Phillips, former Minister of Government and former lecturer at The UWI

In response to the comments of Phillips, Professor Stephen Vasciannie, in a piece published in the Jamaica Observer on Sunday, December 31, 2023, rebutted Phillips’ arguments. Among other things, Vasciannie listed an exhaustive body of works produced by dozens of UWI scholars over several decades. Phillips responded and sought to clarify his comments, arguing that he was speaking with specific reference to the areas of crime, health, and public transportation, all areas for which he had portfolio responsibility.  Vasciannie undertook a further rebuttal, in a publication on January 14, 2024, and listed pieces of research which spoke directly to each portfolio Phillips cited.  Another UWI lecturer, Dr. Orville Taylor, joined the debate and in a Sunday Gleaner publication dated January 14, 2024 listed various works, including some of his own, which he argued have informed policy.

Professor Stephen Vasciannie, Professor of International Law at The University of the West Indies
Dr Orville Taylor, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Mona

The real problem

The fact that, as it appears, Dr. Phillips, a former UWI lecturer and former Minister of Government was not aware of the large body of research produced by The UWI and criticized the university for failing in this area (a criticism made by others), highlights that the real problem is not that research is not being done, but the university has not been making its products known to the public.

In my inaugural professorial address, delivered on May 11, 2023, in speaking of the need for individual academics, and the university as an organization, to promote their work, I made the following remarks, (which are taken verbatim from the text of my presentation).

Undertaking the task of engagement in public discourse on controversial issues and challenging power structures and the dominant narratives, will often call for courage. Courage is the will to ask tough questions, to take the risk of being known for what you believe. Courage does not exist as a state of mind only, it manifests itself in action, for leadership is not a belief system, it is behaviour. We cannot be courageous and constantly quiet. Courage speaks and courage acts.

Undertaking the task of engagement in public discourse on controversial issues and challenging power structures and the dominant narratives, will often call for courage. Courage is the will to ask tough questions, to take the risk of being known for what you believe. Courage does not exist as a state of mind only, it manifests itself in action, for leadership is not a belief system, it is behavior. We cannot be courageous and constantly quiet. Courage speaks and courage acts.

The university is often, and with some justification, criticized for being silent on national and regional issues. And what is worrisome is that our silence is not due to not having something to say, and data to support what we say; but our public silence is partly due to lack of courage.

In my 2020 book, Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean, I argue that the academy, despite being the primary knowledge producer and curator of that knowledge, is too often largely absent from the contests and clashes of ideas on how society is being governed, how democracy functions, and how development may be pursued.

But the academy has had limited impact in shaping socio-economic policies. Part of the explanation for this is the academy’s communication philosophy, infrastructure, and practice. In the academy, there is an over-reliance on the use of academic journals and books to communicate the knowledge it creates. There needs to be a more wholistic approach. Most people, including policy makers, do not read academic journals and books, especially those of the humanities and education, strangely.

Remler (2016), a professor at the School of Public Affairs of the City, University of New York, found that only 18% of publications in the humanities are cited. This compares to 68%  in the social sciences, 73% in the natural sciences, and 88% in medicine, though these citations are mostly by other academics.  So, the question becomes, how can academics, particularly those of us in Humanities and Education, improve the degree to which our ideas get into the policy development discussions?

Malin and Lubienski (2015), suggest that one of the most effective ways academics can influence policy is by using the media – electronic, print, social, and traditional.  One of the distinctive pleasures I have had as a member of the School of Education, (The UWI, Mona campus), was when a younger scholar, whom I have had the privilege of mentoring and who I encouraged to write articles for the newspaper, called me to say that a leading Talk Show Host had invited her to come on air to discuss an article we had gotten published in one of the leading newspapers. Her article explored both policy and practitioner issues and evoked several written reactions on the newspaper’s comments section. 

The case of using multiple media and multiple platforms to share our ideas, is impatient of debate, and I would like to commend colleagues who are involved in activist work, promoting, or creating awareness about, and pursuing policy solutions in relation to: climate change, reparations, gender inclusivity, boys’ academic performance, funding education, accountability of public officials, public corruption, and the protection of the environment. We need to widen the range of strategies being used, become more vocal, and be tireless in our efforts”.

The way forward

The recent debate should serve as a teaching moment for The UWI. The chief lesson, in my view, is that the university is perceived to be missing in action, is silent, is unknown (in some places) and not showing how valuable it is.  That the university is active and productive is not the point. It is people’s perceptions and conclusions that matter.

The recent debate should serve as a teaching moment for The UWI. The chief lesson, in my view, is that the university is perceived to be missing in action, is silent, is unknown (in some places) and not showing how valuable it is.  That the university is active and productive is not the point. It is people’s perceptions and conclusions that matter.

Given the widespread public perceptions of the university, it must devise ways of ensuring that its faculty become more openly active in public discourse.  I suggest three strategies that the university may employ towards this end:

  1. Reiterate its policies on academic freedom, given fears which some faculty have about speaking publicly.   
  2. Mandate that all faculty publish / share research findings using a variety of outlets (not only traditional academic journals and books) and provide technical support to faculty who may need help in setting up social media accounts and accessing traditional print and electronic outlets.
  3. Include provisions in the policies for appointments and promotions which award points for newspaper articles, radio, and television appearances (in which matters related to one’s research and other public matters are discussed).

References

Malin, J. R., and Lubienski, C. (2015). “Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence”. Education Policy Analysis Archives 23, no. 6: (2015).1–32. https://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/viewFile/1706/1456.

Remler, D. (2016). “Are 90% of Academic Papers Really Never Cited? Reviewing the Literature on Academic Citations.” LSE Impact Blog, (November 1, 2016). http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/04/23/academic-papers-citation-rates-remler/ 


Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, a social activist, and author of eight books and eighteen journal articles.

His academic achievements include:

  • Two Principal’s Awards in 2023 for research activity generating the most funds, and research activity with the most development impacts, serving as Project Director for a project executed by the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning.
  • A 2022 Bronze place winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for his book, Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean.
  • A 2021 finalist in The Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence for all-round excellent performance in Outstanding Teaching, Outstanding Research Accomplishments, Outstanding Service to the University Community, Outstanding Public Service.
  • A 2021 Principal’s Award for Most Outstanding Researcher.
  • Two Principal’s Awards in 2020 for Most Outstanding Researcher and Best Publication for his book, Reimagining Educational Leadership in the Caribbean.

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3 thoughts on “Towards a more visible and vocal university”

  1. G. Anthony Hylton

    Proffessor, you forgot an important area of activity by academics, i.e., working directly with policy makers on task forces in developing policies and advocacy around those policies.

    1. Thanks for that important element of the issue. Yes, indeed, there is a wide field of opportunity for academics to work with policy makers to shape policy. Perhaps one strategy that could be put in place is that of relationship between the political enterprise (all political parties) on the one hand, and the academic community on the other, (to include faculty and students) and under this arrangement part of the assessment for completion of a degree and for faculty promotions is evidence of doing work with a political party or advocacy group in shaping policy

  2. Prof. Thompson,
    Your insightful views as an insider has contributed much to the current debate/ issue at hand.
    The three strategies put forward are realistic, based on what you note as the widespread public perceptions of the university, and for the university to ensure that its faculty become more openly active in public discourse.

    As an academic myself, I wondered about #3:
    “Mandate that all faculty publish / share research findings using a variety of outlets (not only traditional academic journals and books) and provide technical support to faculty who may need help in setting up social media accounts and accessing traditional print and electronic outlets.”

    Research is important in informing policy, which is the issue being discussed. However, the challenge some academics may have is their choice of wanting to teach. As you are aware, in many universities, some faculty members choose the path to teach, others go up for tenure- hence publish or perish. Secondly, there may be those academics who wish not to be engaged via social media. What would you propose in lieu of that mandate? What other support systems would you recommend to resolve that if it were to become an issue at UWI?
    Nonetheless, your invaluable contribution to this debate and to academia, is highly commendable, as well as your courage to always bring tough questions to the fore.
    I look forward to reading more of your work. Best wishes for 2024!

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