By Prof Grant Schofield

What does an academic actually do and do they have any useful function in society today? This is a question I’ve been asking about myself 30 years into my academic career.

It’s not a mid-life crisis, at least so far as I can tell. I haven’t bought a Harley Davidson. Yet.

New Zealand universities are facing serious budget shortfalls, dwindling domestic enrolments, and catastrophic international student declines. My employer, engaged in a cost-cutting restructure which I survived, only to find out they botched it so badly they had to re-employ everyone they sacked. We will start the process again mid-year. The University of Otago announced staff cuts will be in the several hundreds, Massey, Auckland, Victoria and Lincioln have already been and are in these processes. Only Canterbury has somehow shown growth. Overall the sector is in trouble in New Zealand. It’s the same in Australia. 

For most of my career I was in love with the “university” and the role it had in society. I’m gutted now to have lost that love. 

I think I lost my love because we no longer deliver on the most important part of what we promised to do. We are no longer the “critic and conscience of society”. 

It used to be that we were free to pursue the role that I think academics have in society. That is to conduct quality science, engage in robust public and scientific debate in our fields with a broad mandate of making the world a better place, and moving knowledge forward for the betterment of humankind.

Overall, I’d say I’ve done okay. I’ve published hundreds of scientific papers, written some books, bought lots of research funding, graduated students, including many masters and doctoral students, and made myself a public profile which influenced practice.

I’ve had something to say and I’ve said it.

Being an academic seems like a stellar lifestyle, and it is. Who wouldn’t want to have the privilege of all this? Freedom, but with full knowledge that challenge to anything I said was part of the deal. Other academics also knew that I would challenge them. Universities were places where you came for debate, controversy, and differences of opinions . It’s a fight the public are welcome to join as well.

Academics can and often are high in disagreeableness. I am.

Not disagreeable in a personal ad hominem way, but a robust, often fiery discussion about what the facts really are sort of way. This jousting comes with all sorts of thorns, but at the end of the day scientists changing their mind as new ideas come up has been and must be the future if we want to advance the human and planetary condition. You could and would be offended in these discussions, nothing surer. Feelings were hurt, egos battered, pride swallowed.

Our role has never been, nor should it be to have political views left or right. My view has been that we are radical centrists. A radical centrists will judge all views on evidence. We train the next generation to do the same.

I want to let you know if you haven’t set foot in a New Zealand university recently, or as most of us these days attend a Zoom or Teams meeting on a University account, then you might not be aware that we are no longer a place for debate. We are no longer centrists. We have drifted to the political left, way left. And that leftist view which has many merits, and many downfalls cannot be debated with impunity. We are strong on virtue signaling. We are strong on stating opinions rather than facts. We are weak on confrontation, but strong on behind the scene bullying.

Academia’s COVID response is a great example of how we transitioned. The wholesale canceling of fundamental human rights around vaccine mandates without robust arguments, let alone sufficient evidence caused more harm than benefit.

Who knows what writing this will actually mean for me, but it has been written, and it must be. I’m way nearer the end than the start of my career. I could stop tomorrow and I will be immensely proud of what I achieved. But I would be ashamed, embarrassed, and most of all not me if I failed to disagree with the elephants in the lecture halls and labs of our universities right now.

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