You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends… @ConversationEDU: Academic opinion vs opinion of academics

This is a particularly difficult blog post to write as it criticises something which, on the whole, I think is a good thing: The Conversation.

During the height of questions about ‘balanced media’ and ‘expert authority’ surrounding climate change and (in Australia, at least) the imposition of a carbon tax/trading scheme, The Conversation was established, supported by various universities and research institutions, to provide an outlet for expert engagement with the community.

The Conversation is an independent source of analysis, commentary and news from the university and research sector — written by acknowledged experts and delivered directly to the public. Our team of professional editors work with more than 4,000 registered academics and researchers to make this wealth of knowledge and expertise accessible to all.

We aim to be a site you can trust. All published work will carry attribution of the authors’ expertise and, where appropriate, will disclose any potential conflicts of interest, and sources of funding. Where errors or misrepresentations occur, we will correct these promptly. [Source]

In practice, this has been difficult to achieve.

Let’s start with ‘written by acknowledged experts’.

In May 2012, The Conversation ran an article called ‘On Iran, Obama shows he loves Israel a little too much‘.  Middle East conflicts are notoriously difficult to cover in opinion/analysis articles.  Regardless of what you write, somebody in the audience will scream about bias.  Just to declare my conflicts, I’m pro-Arab.

The article was written by Michael Brull.  Brull is prominent in Independent Australian Jewish Voices, which is a loose organisation extremely critical of Israel.

None of that is disclosed in his article, which instead asserts the contrary: that he has no relevant affiliations.

Further, his claim to ‘expertise’?  ‘Studying for [sic] Juris Doctor at University of New South Wales’.

I pointed this out quietly to The Conversation at the time.  It was ignored.

Unfortunately, Brull is the most obviously problematic of the contributors.  What happens when academics have axes to grind?

Jane Caro is an academic, but I’ve found it difficult to find anything she’s written that’s been peer reviewed.  More famous as a celebrity than an academic, Jane Caro has a number of pet causes, particularly atheism (she’s one of the Australian pop-atheist crowd) and opposing government support for private schools.  Neither of these causes have anything to do with her academic position: she’s a lecturer in advertising, marketing, and communication at the University of Western Sydney.

In September 2012, she was listed as an ‘expert’ on education reform and the Gonski Report.  While she’s employed by an academic institution, her private opinion was confused with academic opinion.

What’s the difference?

Consider ANU’s Academic Expertise and Public Debate policy.  It states:

When staff members speak within the broad framework of the expertise which led to their employment, or which they have subsequently developed through research and scholarly activities as ANU staff members, they are entitled to use their ANU affiliation as evidence of their expertise on the issues.

The important part there is ‘speak within the broad framework of [their] expertise’.

Jane Caro would be subject to the University of Western Sydney’s Media Policy, which states:

[The University] encourages academic staff to engage with the media to showcase their research, and to offer expert scholarly commentary on topics within their areas of expertise.

But the Gonski Report and education reform are not part of Caro’s research expertise and this was not flagged in the article.

This problem was repeated in a subsequent article, ‘The MLC “scandal”: who cares, and why?

Caro writes:

Surely it is only of real interest to a very small number of people; those parents who are forking out as much as $23,000 per year in fees for example. And, yes, noone knows better than I do that taxpayers money has also been involved in the running of this school

For those who didn’t follow the story, it involved the peculiar arrangement of a very well connected group of people in Victoria’s business scene.  Due to a dispute between the recently sacked principal of Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne and the governing board of MLC, a lot of people were startled to see the disputes of a highly influential and under-scrutinised group of people.  We often complain that the media doesn’t hold those in power to account and, when it finally does what it’s supposed to do, Caro complained because it involved those wealthy private schools that she hates.

Perhaps a tenuous link could be made to her position as a ‘communications’ lecturer, but Caro’s not an acknowledged expert in Victorian business.  She’s not even an expert in secondary education.  Yet here’s The Conversation presenting her as an expert the lay audience can trust.

And there are plenty more examples like it.  It would be dreary reading to list all the ones I’ve picked up, but it’s fairly regular that an academic will write on a political issue in which they have little expertise.  The strike rate increases considerably when they publish articles by former politicians turned academics…

More problematic, perhaps, is when The Conversation systemically denies a right of reply to people its articles besmirch.  Companies and organisations have often been targeted by invective from academics, with no indication that those groups were offered a right of reply.  University administrators are routinely targeted for invective by disgruntled academics.  But the article which, with breathtaking audacity, demonstrates this problem most clearly was Professor John Dewar’s article in August 2012, ‘Vice-Chancellor: La Trobe protestors abused freedom of speech‘.

Like many universities, La Trobe is faced with the need to ensure financial viability in the face of budget uncertainty.  It decided to target an underperforming faculty to make it more profitable.  This resulted in — it must be admitted, frankly ignorant — outrage from the students.

As an academic, Professor Dewar was given a platform in The Conversation to make rather odd accusations about the students, including the damning claim that they ‘roam[ed] freely around the campus’.

The undergraduate students — not being ‘acknowledged experts’ — were not provided an opportunity to respond.  The Conversation was, by its nature, incapable of providing balanced coverage to the issue.

The problem is exacerbated when The Conversation tries to shift from a news outlet by academics to a news outlet about academics.  A conversation about the funding structures of universities, for example, won’t necessarily be well informed by asking a bunch of academics what they think about funding cuts.  Similarly, asking the person who flips the burgers at McDonald’s what they think about principles of corporate responsibility in the fast food industry regarding the obesity crisis.  It might sound like an unfair comparison, but most academics don’t research academia.

Although it wasn’t published on The Conversation (much to their credit), the best example of this divide between ‘working at a university’ and ‘knowing how universities work’ is Donald Meyers, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline.

The book was rejected by publishers.  Here’s Dr Nathan Hollier, Director of Monash University Publishing, on why they wouldn’t touch it:

Unfortunately, while I think Myers [sic] makes some very important points, I also think the argument needs some re-thinking and a different mode of expression before it could be seriously considered for publication.

In  my view (again) the main problem with this manuscript is that the points made are generally not backed up by evidence. There are too many questionable assertions, generalisations and distinctions and too few direct examples with documentation and detailed explanation.

In the course of documenting these examples and explaining them at greater length there would also – hopefully – be a different tone emerging. While it is good to condemn things that need condemning (such as falling academic standards and the increasing managerialisation and bureaucratisation of the university), it is also good to be aware of why people – including those with views different from your own – think and act in the way they do. Generally, I would suggest, people in the tertiary sector are operating within a complex system which, like the society of which it is part, faces various pressures from within and without. A more extended consideration of these pressures would enable a reading of what has happened and is happening within the sector, including the negative parts of this, that does not wrest [sic] on the assumption that large groups of people are either stupid or ‘bad’.  [Source]

Over 168 pages, Meyers outlines his heroic battle against the forces of terribleness at work within universities:

I have incurred the wrath of management on numerous occasions – without even trying. One of the most amusing, however, was my only face-to-face interaction with the Vice Chancellor. It started with an order to appear at the Headmaster’s office, without notice or explanation, shortly after the conclusion of a meeting of the Vice Chancellor’s Environmental Advisory Committee, which I had the misfortune to chair for two years. It transpired that an administrator
who sat on the committee had visited him in tears allegedly as a result of being abused at the meeting. [p. 135]

The reality is that most of the people who move into [positions of Deputy Vice Chancellors, Pro Vice Chancellors, Executive and Associate Deans, Senior Policy Advisers] are people with academic degrees who would not be competitive in the private sector and who no longer have the desire or competence to succeed at teaching and/or research. In many cases I suspect they have little more than a pathological need to wield power over those who make them feel intellectually inferior. [p. 151]

If the higher education is to be convulsed yet again by reform, let it commence with lavage of the tertiary sector gastrointestinal tract to  expel the resident parasites – the managerialists, the pseudointellectuals, the hangers on, the snake oil salespeople and the ever expanding coterie of Education poseurs. The administration should then be subject to radical liposuction, lap banding and abdominoplasty. Botox will be administered to those who scowl. [p. 165]

There needs to be recognition that we are not all intellectually equal. It is important to know how we rate against others in a variety of pursuits and, just as importantly, we need to know in general terms where our skills may lie. The idea that everyone should go to university is just as detrimental as the constant focus on inflating self-esteem irrespective of performance. […] I can see the hackles and hear the howls of the Educationalists at the mere mention of such ideas. It will be unfair to the socially and economically disadvantaged. [p. 166]

My favourite one is the ‘I abused a person to the point of tears; I was told off and I find this hilarious.’

But it illustrates the point.  Academics study their field.  They don’t study universities.  When The Conversation presents articles by academics discussing the nature of universities, they are no longer giving their academic opinion, they are merely opining.

Finally, there are the articles which are just plain bad.  More often than not, they’re articles where the editorial team felt the need to get an article up which addressed some hot topic of the moment and couldn’t find an academic to write the article quickly enough.  Unfortunately, both of the good examples of this are written by the same person which makes it seem a bit unfair and petty (The Conversation‘s archive system is rubbish and I only happened to remember the name because it popped up twice).

Universities left economists ill-prepared for the GFC: Wolf‘ tells the story of a public lecture given by Martin Wolf, the chief economics writer for the Financial Times.  I don’t know many people in Australia who’d know who he is, nor would they be intimately familiar with his various stances on economic ideology.

The article completely fails to explain who he is or what he’s talking about:

Universities and macro-economists still haven’t found a way to solve the crisis of economics that was triggered by the global financial meltdown says economist Martin Wolf.

Speaking to an audience of economics students at the University of Melbourne, Mr Wolf said the real world debate on economics and the global financial crisis was one between Keynesians, Monetarists and Austrians, none of whom were seriously represented in contemporary economic discourse.

Keynesians?  Monetarists?  Austrians?  Unless you’re an economics buff, these words aren’t going to mean a great deal to you.  One of the comments to the article wondered why academics from Austria were having such a hard time being represented in economic discourse…


Mr Wolf said economists didn’t know what to do about the mismatch between the rigorous academic framework of economics and the heuristics of applied policy work.

“I don’t think it’s a simple answer, but I think that branch of economics is in pretty serious crisis, as in the thirties.”

Again, this is linked to the problem of The Conversation trying to be about universities rather than by academics.  One part of Wolf’s argument was that universities weren’t developing well skilled applied economists and that the public debate (flooded with Keynesian, Monetarist, and Austrian economic philosophies) wasn’t being informed by academic economists.

The same author wrote ‘Murdoch, Scott defend governance in media‘ which follows a common trend for editor-written pieces.  This article responds to a hot topic: the Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, had made some interesting remarks at Senate Estimates.  It coincided with Rupert Murdoch making similarly interesting remarks at News Corps’ AGM.

There’s only one man alive who can write rapidly and ferociously about anything Rupert Murdoch says.  His name is Stephen Mayne and he is batshit cray-cray.  Unfortunately for The Conversation, he doesn’t have an academic position anywhere.

In order to get articles up quickly, editors will write up an article and then, quite strangely, add the musings of an academic they’ve telephoned for some quotes.  In this example, they chose Bruce Arnold, a lecturer in intellectual property law at the University of Canberra.  Arnold doesn’t really discuss the claims or statements made by Scott or Murdoch, opting instead to opine broadly on the commercial media industry as a whole.

In short, it’s difficult to see how these articles (and others which fit the same format) indicate that The Conversation is a site we can trust for academic opinion.  Between people writing wildly outside their field of expertise, articles spun to be about the research sector, and articles which are cobbled together under extremely demanding time pressures, it’s hard for the lay person to spot where the academic opinion ends and the opinions of people who happen to be academics begin.

I said at the start that I thought The Conversation was, on balance, a great thing.  The articles on science are wonderful and there’s an enthusiastic fun about a number of the articles where you can see how much the academics love writing about their subjects.  It’s when it strays into contentious, political areas that the problems emerge and its those articles which significantly reduce the quality of The Conversation overall.