A little healthy criticism

The principle of challenging accepted views is vital for the administration of banks, universities, even medicines

May 30, 2013

The banking crisis exposed such colossal failings, such arrogance and complacency from so many, that in retrospect it seems astonishing that they went unchecked for so long.

This longevity was self-fulfilling: risky and disreputable behaviour became part of the culture of the industry, just as some journalists apparently came to believe that phone hacking was a ­normal part of the job.

In both cases, most of the dirty work may have been done by those in hands-on roles, but responsibility also lies with those who should have been keeping them in check.

Writing in this week’s Times Higher Education, Michael Shattock, an expert on university administration, reviews what happened at HBOS, which had to be bailed out by the taxpayer after its ­spectacular collapse, and draws parallels with failures of governance within the ­academy in recent years.

Structures that deny a voice to those with real expertise (or the ability and inclination to challenge the accepted view) are asking for trouble

Just as HBOS’ failings were allowed to occur by an overly permissive and inexpert board, so, he argues, London Metropolitan University’s financial crisis in 2009 could have been averted had there been ­competent oversight. Relevant expertise from within higher education in particular would have served London Met well, and Shattock suggests that there is a flaw in the governance structure of post-1992 universities in that academic boards have far less influence than is healthy.

As in banking, boards that merely rubber-stamp and structures that deny a voice to those with real expertise (or the ability and inclination to challenge the accepted view) are asking for trouble.

Some related themes are explored in our cover feature, which looks at a disagreement between academics working in the field of mass drug administration (MDA).

Few topics are as uncomfortable for those in the cosseted West as poverty in the developing world, where people die every minute from treatable diseases. MDA programmes represent one of the most significant attempts over the past decade to tackle this, with financial backing from the US, the UK and private foundations.

The motivation is not in doubt, nor the lives that MDA programmes have saved. But our feature looks at the unusual reaction elicited when two academics raised concerns about how some projects were being administered.

The pair pointed to flaws that they said could be limiting the efficacy of potentially life-saving medication. Their observations, which were deemed fit for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, provoked a furious response from some in the field.

As our feature details, this has included a call for them to be denied further platforms to air their views, and a government threat that they could be barred from carrying out further research in Uganda.

The merit of their work is for others to judge in the appropriate scholarly fashion, and discussing this case alongside those of HBOS and London Met is not to (inexpertly) endorse the conclusions of either side. But the emotive nature of the response to the research, including warnings that this peer-reviewed work could jeopardise future funding to save lives, does sound an alarm and raise questions about the conduct of academic discourse.

Freedom of enquiry and expression underpin all academic endeavour, and they can only be more important when lives are at stake.


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