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Oh dear, I fear we are in danger of developing a complex over synergy…

June 20, 2009

Okay, I have to confess that, for a buzzword, “synergy” holds a certain attraction for me.  It sounds so positive, progressive, potent — don’t you just feel an urge to cry out, “Bring it on!  Synergize me!”?

Sadly, my synergistic bliss has been short-lived, for recent commentaries in the local paper have forced me to look beyond the playfulness of the word itself and contemplate how it is being used in connection with “knowledge clusters” and “centres of excellence.”  My contemplations have been sobering and have left me feeling much less enamoured, for I now know that synergistic happy faces can mask serious complexes.  Let me explain.

In these recent discussions in the Telegraph Journal, the idea appears to be that if universities like UNBSJ cluster together people from a range of academic disciplines (e.g., biology, business, the social sciences, applied technology and engineering…) in a “knowledge incubator” with other “stakeholders” from, say, the community college and corporate sector, and have them focus their attention in a collaborative fashion on economic growth areas (e.g., energy), we will be able to create new forms of knowledge in these areas that wouldn’t have been created without the snugly “synergies” that clustering makes possible.  One might ask, “Well, does this actually work?  Does this sort of clustering generate more and better knowledge than other forms of knowledge production?”  I’m not sure we have a definitive answer to that question.  But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume for the moment that “knowledge clustering” does meet the expectations of the clusterers and, once clustered, our biologists, business people, social scientists, applied technologists, engineers and other “stakeholders” put their heads together and “synergize,” coming up with new ideas that solve production problems, generate new commercial applications, and boost economic growth.  What’s not to like?

Well, for universities, there is an ethical and moral issue that has to be addressed, and it stems in large part from the principle that universities (at least those of the public variety) are to serve the public good.  So what does it mean to serve the public good?  During the PSE debates and struggles of 2007, a good number of people in Greater Saint John and beyond articulated clearly and passionately their commitment to this principle and their belief in the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the academy.   Here are a few examples:

Why have people studied the liberal arts from the time of ancient Greece?  The universal answer is to enrich their lives.  No, this is not the kind of monetary riches that are gained from selling LNG or nuclear power to the States.  These riches are called culture.  They are the music, the acting, the teaching that makes life worth living.  They increase our appreciation of other people and by so doing insure against racism and bullying that downgrade others and also ourselves.  These riches insure our country’s democracy and fight against exploitation and autocracy.  These riches are also the pure sciences and the history of science and thought.   (Carl Wolpin, Telegraph Journal, Oct. 5, 2007, A6)

The challenges that will face our community will need young minds that think outside the box.  We will need minds that have been schooled in the human tradition.  A good Arts education can strengthen our virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and respect for others.  A liberal arts education will also help us to engage in the controversies of our time.”  (Michelle Hooton, Telegraph Journal, Sept. 13, 2007, A6).

Dr. McGahan…taught me what a university education was meant to do.  It was to teach me to think and to build the capacities to be a good citizen, not to prepare one for a profession per se….  The more the university aligns itself with a business model of operation, with its emphasis on tangible products, the more the university will move away from the very definition of a university.  (Dr. Glendon R. Tait, Telegraph Journal, Sept. 1, 2007, A8)

A collegial form of governance is found in all ‘true’ universities…. [T]his model is essential to ensuring intellectual inventiveness.  (Willis D. Hamilton, Telegraph Journal, Sept. 29, 2007)

Too tight a coupling of public institutions with private interests can limit the questions being researched, as well as the lens through which problems are perceived and therefore investigated.  It also creates inequity in the relations between universities and the community, since it is usually industries with research money to spend for whom the welcome mat is laid.  (Janice Harvey, Telegraph Journal, Nov. 7, 2007, A5).

So, as the public recognized in 2007, the university has an obligation that extends beyond preparing workers for the labour market; it has a responsibility to prepare people for citizenship.  As Henri Giroux has said:

While the university should equip people to enter the workplace, it should also educate them to contest workplace inequalities, imagine democratically organized forms of work, and identify and challenge those injustices that contradict and undercut the most fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and respect for all people who constitute the global public sphere  (Universities in Chains, 2007, p. 104).

As Janice Harvey suggested, the ability of the university to meet this responsibility is likely to be jeopardized when it is “coupled,” or “clustered,” too tightly with private interests.  That’s where we risk developing a complex out of our synergizing efforts.  And I mean “complex” in the sense that outgoing US President Dwight Eisenhower used the term back in 1961 with reference to what he identified as the “military-industrial complex.”   Eisenhower’s concern was that this new partnership between the military wing of the US government and the emerging armaments industry would exert undue influence and endanger America’s liberties and democratic processes.  Interestingly, he identified “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” as the ultimate protection against the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” (Hear an excerpt from his speech)

No, I’m not trying to suggest that some “energy-educational complex” is in the works that will rival the likes of the US military-industrial complex.  But what I didn’t know, until I read Henri Giroux’s recent book (cited above), is that, in the initial drafts of his farewell address, Eisenhower cautioned against the “military-industrial-academic complex,” fearing that the university’s commitment to academic freedom and research guided by intellectual curiosity and social needs would be eroded in favour of the pursuit of commercial and military interests.  He said:

[T]he free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research.  Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.  (Cited in Giroux, 2007, p. 15)

Eisenhower considered the military-industrial complex to be a necessary development for the time, but he urged the American people to be vigilant.  Universities have an obligation to equip citizens with the knowledge and capacities for critical thought that they need to be vigilant and to be bold stewards of democracy.  And universities need to ensure that their ability to meet that obligation is not compromised in the pursuit of synergies.

One Comment
  1. Linda Hansen permalink
    June 21, 2009 6:56 am

    … and besides, it reminds me of the Smith and Smith routine about buying a microwave to save time for your hobby — when your hobby is cooking.

    The notion is, apparently, that we have to be *clustered* together the better to expand, explore and expand our knowledge but, also apparently, we are entirely electronic and have no need to be in a classroom full of students, a library full of books, or a properly equipped and staffed university campus.

    The notion is, apparently, that we have to be *clustered* together the better to develop *synergistically creative* ideas, drawing on a wide variety of disciplines and opinions but, also apparently, only some of the people involved will be blessed with the academic freedom needed to encourage such. Others, community college instructors, government / business / pharmeceutical company funded researchers have ideas which may be significantly more curtailed or constrained — and to support that contention, just read the article below on *Federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear’s … interference in academic matters*.

    So, actually, synergy is just another idea to be turned to support whatever someone *in charge* wants to do at any given time — but remember, this is New Brunswick where if you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes.

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