Sunday, April 24, 2016

5th Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design

5th Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Systemic Design for Social Complexity
Ontario College of Art and Design
                                  Ontario Canada
                              October 13-15, 2016

The theme for the 2016 symposium is Systemic Design for Social Complexity, which calls for design methodologies informed by research and real applications to address problems in the unbounded complexity of social systems.  Systemic design addresses social complexity at multiple levels of interaction: Sociotechnical work practices and technology, Complex service design and integration, Organizational design and management, and Social system and policy design.
The 2016 theme calls for "completing" research and fruitful case studies that share results and impacts with the RSD community.  Across all topic areas, we are dealing with design problems for both emergence (uncertain future evolution) where "change unfolds" and governance (design, evaluation and control in complex systems) where change is intentionally designed. Systemic design aims to integrate across methods and theories of change.
We are interested in studies and projects that bridge differing epistemic and methodological commitments (as found in healthcare), rigorously adapting from system theories and design methods (as in system model mapping), and across sociotechnical and ecological approaches to systems.
The RSD5 call for participation requests an extended abstract that expresses your proposal to share original research, case studies, panel sessions/dialogues, posters and workshops. Ten research challenge areas are encouraged within the social complexity theme:
*                     Democracy, Policy Design and Modes of Governance
*                     Public Services Design and Civic Innovation
*                     Sustainability and Socio-ecological Policy
*                     Built Environment and Design of Settlements
*                     Capacity Building and Resilient International Development
*                     Systemic Business and Organizational Design
*                     Social System Design and Transition Design
*                     Service Design, Healthcare System Design                       
*                     Design for Complex Sociotechnical Systems
*                     Theories and Methods of Systemic Design
As proceedings from prior RSD symposia show, not all topics may be represented in the final conference. We will design the final presentation tracks "emergently" based on the papers selected from the review process.
Abstracts should be no more than 1000 words, listing all authors and affiliations, and summarizing the research or a case project proposed for presentation. Inclusion of key images is encouraged. Please provide references for all citations (APA format). 
Reviews are conducted by two independent reviewers experienced in peer review and the RSD symposia, following the criteria of: Fit to themes, Significance, Originality, Balance or depth of design and systemics, and Maturity (readiness for presentation).  Accepted abstracts will be asked to give a 20 minute presentation at the symposium. Papers not accepted for the main paper tracks may be asked to consider a Poster, or if appropriate, a Dialogue session. Please see the RSD5 website for guidelines on the symposium presentations and formats for presentation and discussion.
The schedule for abstracts and reviews is as follows:
April 24                 Abstracts due (submit via EasyChair)              
May 30                 Reviews and responses to authors
June 11                 Posters, Dialogues and Workshops due
June 27                 Final selection responses
All selected papers will be presented at the symposium, where we invite participants to engage with authors with questions and feedback that might contribute to general learning and application. Presenting authors will be asked to provide a public version of their presentation for the RSD5 proceedings immediately following the conference and a proceedings paper (3000-5000 words) by Dec 3, 2016.
As in prior RSD symposia, several key papers will be invited by the program committee to submit a full paper for publication in a special issue in FORMakademisk, the Norwegian design research journal. Other publishing opportunities may be available as well for papers in certain topic areas or significance.
Please contact Peter Jones or another member of the program committee if you have questions.  We hope to see in Toronto this October!
RSD5 Program Committee
Peter Jones - Lead Chair, OCAD University
Silvia Barbero - 2016 Chair, Politecnico di Torino
Alex Ryan - 2015 Chair, Alberta CoLab
Birger Sevaldson - 2012-2014 Chair, Oslo School of Architecture and Design
Jerry Koh,  MaRS Solutions Lab, Toronto
Peter Jones, Ph.D.   |    Design Dialogues    
937.902.5723 cell              937.919.6389               

Remember the call for participation is extended to May 3

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A truly Ackoffian mess - the rhino poaching dilemma

For some time now I have been tracking the rhino and, to a lesser extent, the elephant poaching issue in southern Africa.  My interest arose when I encountered these animals first hand in Kruger National Park and worked with colleagues at SAN Parks over a period of years. There have been several recent books which are insightful - Julian Rademeyer's 'Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Horn Trade' (Cape Town, Zebra Press) and John Hanks' 'Operation Lock and the War on Rhino Poaching' (Penguin, South Africa). With Duan Biggs I have almost finished writing a review essay based on the latter.

For an easier way to begin to appreciate why these issues typify a 'super' Ackoffian mess then listen to 'The Horn of a Dilemma' an excellent (in my view) Discovery program on the BBC World Service.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Anthropocene: towards a systemic sensibility for transformation?

Last year I was involved in organising two events in which the concept of the Anthropocene, and all that it implies, was central.  The first held at Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover, with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation, is reported on a Blog called 'Governing the Anthropocene Systemic Inquiry'. Posted on the Blog is a short report of the outcomes of the event as well as talks, presentations and links to recent material of relevance to an on-going inquiry within the cybernetics and systems communities.  The other was the 2015 ISSS Conference held in Berlin a week later (see presented papers; a special issue of Systems Research & Behavioral Science is in preparation).  Since that time the literature and commentary associated with the Anthropocene framing of our contemporary circumstances has burgeoned.  A particularly insightful recent piece in this genre has been Robert Macfarlane's essay in the review section of The Guardian (2nd April): ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever

Readers of this blog  and those who particiapted in the  two events in Germany last year will appreciate Macfarlane's claims when he says:

'Systemic in its structure, the Anthropocene charges us with systemic change'.

In respect of the revealing and concealing features of a choice to frame our situation as 'the Anthropocene, and thus the implications for governance, or governing, he reprises arguments and persectives present in our 2015 conversations:

"Across these texts and others, three main objections recur: that the idea of the Anthropocene is arrogant, universalist and capitalist-technocratic. Arrogant, because the designation of the Anthropocene – the “New Age of Humans” – is our crowning act of self-mythologisation (we are the super-species, we the Prometheans, we have ended nature), and as such only embeds the narcissist delusions that have produced the current crisis.

Universalist, because the Anthropocene assumes a generalised anthropos, whereby all humans are equally implicated and all equally affected. As Purdy, Miéville and Moore point out, “we” are not all in the Anthropocene together – the poor and the dispossessed are far more in it than others. “Wealthy countries,” writes Purdy, “create a global landscape of inequality in which the wealthy find their advantages multiplied … In this neoliberal Anthropocene, free contract within a global market launders inequality through voluntariness.”

And capitalist-technocratic, because the dominant narrative of the Anthropocene has technology as its driver: recent Earth history reduced to a succession of inventions (fire, the combustion engine, the synthesis of plastic, nuclear weaponry). The monolithic concept bulk of this scientific Anthropocene can crush the subtleties out of both past and future, disregarding the roles of ideology, empire and political economy. Such a technocratic narrative will also tend to encourage technocratic solutions: geoengineering as a quick-fix for climate change, say, or the Anthropocene imagined as a pragmatic problem to be managed, such that “Anthropocene science” is translated smoothly into “Anthropocene policy” within existing structures of governance. Moore argues that the Anthropocene is not the geology of a species at all, but rather the geology of a system, capitalism – and as such should be rechristened the Capitalocene.

Despite these concerns Macfarlane is clear that:

'..the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through'. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Exciting opportunity for the right person

As some of you may know rhino and elephant poaching are amongst the most complex issues that have to be addressed at this historical moment. Poaching is occurring in contexts of poverty and unsustainable livelihoods for local people and in areas where agricultural and rural development need creative and innovative thinking and practices.  This is clearly an arena where those equipped with systems thinking in practice capabilities are needed.  This new post has just become available:

The  Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science (CBCS), at the University of Queensland in partnership with the Luc Hoffmann Institute are offering an exciting postdoctoral fellowship at the interface of science and policy that aims to foster conservation innovations at the frontier of agricultural development. The successful appointee will engage with stakeholders and policy-makers  to understand how information on the drivers and threats to biodiversity at different scales is perceived and used by decision-makers and practitioners to support innovative conservation solutions.

The position is part of a broader Luc Hoffmann Institute initiative that involves the Stockholm Environment Centre, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Cambridge Conservation Initiative. 

There will be exciting opportunities to work across the conservation science and policy interface in collaboration with leading conservation scientists and practitioners.

The successful applicant will work closely with myself, Hugh Possingham, James Watson, and Helen Ross at the University of Queensland and Malika Virah-Sawmy - the Sustainable Consumption and Production Research Lead at the Luc Hoffmann Institute. 

For the position description and to apply please go to:

For further information on this position please contact me at or Malika at - Please note that you can only apply via the online application system and not via email.

Your help in distributing this through your networks is much appreciated.  
Duan Biggs, PhD
The Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
Australian Research Council Early Career Fellow (DECRA)
Project Lead: Luc Hoffmann Institute – ConTActED -  Bridging Conservation’s Divide by Connecting Threats, Actors and Extrinsic Drivers

Come work with us as a Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow – Application info here

Member of IUCN World Comission on Protected Areas & Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Groups

Thursday, March 24, 2016

England re-entry

The London Eye from my bedroom first night back.  Spring on the Walton Hall campus of The Open University (UK).

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why Universities are failing: 4. Epistemological inadequacy

In a most lucid New Yorker article "After the Fact. In the history of truth, a new chapter begins"   without ever referring to Universities, provides further evidence as to why they can be said to be failing. Her article begins within recent experience of the so-called, 'US political debate' in which she notes: 

"The past has not been erased, its erasure has not been forgotten, the lie has not become truth. But the past of proof is strange and, on its uncertain future, much in public life turns. In the end, it comes down to this: the history of truth is cockamamie, and lately it’s been getting cockamamier."

Implicitly, if not explicitly, within this claim sits the question of what the role of the institution we call a university is within an unfolding 'public life'?  Have universities become makers of cockamamie?

If you are reading this post then I invite those of you who are connected with, or concerned about universities and what they are becoming, to reflect on Lepore's examination of the following thought experiment?

"Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby proving that he did. Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought experiment: “Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain.” As thought experiments go, this one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,” Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it will just tell you the answer.”) Now imagine that, after living with these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation, inquiry, and reason. Then picture this: overnight, an environmental disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google, therefore I am not."

As you sit in your next meeting, or look at the pronouncments that come from University senior management, or strategic planners, consider what 'trajectory commitments' their language reveals.  Are they knowingly or not followers of Larry Page, or do they understand what is actually entailed in 'observation, inquiry and reason'? More importantly how is your university, or any university, positioning itself to serve a society that runs the risk of not knowing how to know!

 Some in universities might consider that the historical practices of proof construction still play some role in University and academic life:

"In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof."

The profound shift from 'proof through ordeal' to 'proof through deliberation' is entertainingly revealed in the novels of Diana Norman (writing as Ariana Franklin). This shift was one of the more significant institutional innovations of the last 1000 years, though one would not always believe so in the combatative arenas of University funding and decision making where there is an increasing propensity for senior managers to believe they can discern winners and losers in a globalised academic battle for hegemony! 

As  Lepore notes:

"Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism."

To this we might add the creation of universities as arbiters of religious belief and then fact? After all:

"Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement."

So to what extent does your university purvey a utilitarian, epistemologically naive, pedagogy, whether by commission, or omission? For example, by priviledging narrowly conceived research at the expense of transformative learning and/or research, because, as Lepore says:

"we no longer take responsibility for our own beliefs, and we lack the capacity to see how bits of facts fit into a larger whole. Essentially, we forfeit our reason and, in a republic, our citizenship."  

Citing Lynch and Jefferson, Lepore offers insight and possibility for reclaiming purpose in the being and doing of a university:

"He [Lynch] thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” 

I would put it differently: how can we create and re-create the circumstances for the design and enactment of systemic governance so that common practical and ethical commitments (knowing how to know and do) emerge coherant with our circumstances of living in a climate-changing world?  And how might universities embrace this imperative as their reason d' etre?   Unfortunately these concerns appear largely absent from the recent UK Green Paper (Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015) critically reviewed by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books.

N.B. My thanks to David Waltner-Toews for alerting me to the article by Jill Lepore. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Systemic researching

For part of last week I was with a group of 30 delightful PhD researchers participating in the 10th anniversary version of INRA-SAD's internal PhD program (10th Journees des Doctorants du SAD "Parcours de these") held in St Martin de Londres, north of Montpelier.

It was a rewarding time, as it always is when young researchers are offered a reflexive space to consider what it is they do when they do, or claim they do, research.

Patrick Steyaert and his SAD co-animators have developed an excellent program, worthy of celebration after 10 years. I was also lucky to be able to join in the celebrations held for the retirement of Bernadette Leclerc, a key figure in the program, who I have known since the time she so ably supported the production of our book 'Cow up a Tree',  published by INRA.

LEARN. eds (2000) Cow up a Tree. Knowing and Learning for Change in Agriculture. Case Studies from Industrialised Countries.  INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) Editions, Paris.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Climate Change - Living in Melbourne

The headline today: "Melbourne records its hottest March night since records began". Temperatures hovered around 29-30C for most of the night; we had a bedroom fan running all night.  It would be interesting to see what the power load was over night and what the longer term implications are for energy provision and the management of heat stress which is exacerbated when there are consistently high minimum temperatures i.e., the absence of relief from heat stress.

Asked to comment:

"Professor Will Steffan, from the Climate Council, said the heatwaves seen in south-eastern Australia “have the fingerprints of climate change all over them”.

“Without serious action on climate change, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra could all experience a doubling or tripling of days over 35C by 2070,” Steffan said.

“But Australia’s emissions continue to go up in the absence of a credible plan to meet Australia’s commitments in Paris."

We live in North Melbourne, part of Melbourne City Council which is engaged in a major tree planing program to try and ameliorate the heat island effect.  Our street is particularly affected by high temperatures and after some lobbying we have a commitment from the Council to plant trees in April - see tree guards already in place in the picture.

It is to be hoped the trees will eventually make a difference; unfortunately most of the buildings in this street were built without serious attention to standards for thermal insulation, including double glazing.  Past poor practice is bad enough but the new building - a series of units, going up at the end of our street - has some of the flimsiest construction I have ever seen.  It is just not acceptable when building standards are not in place to meet climate change impact.

Meanwhile recent analysis has shown that:

"Climate zones head south. Analysis by the Australian Grains Export Innovation Centre shows that Australia’s climate zones have moved significantly in the past 15 years. Mediterranean climate and winter dominant rainfall is contracting in a south-westerly direction, while summer dominant and neutral rainfall zones have expanded south." 

Aust _Seasonal Rainfall Zones _2000_2015_ 

Elsewhere it has been reported that:

 "Eastern Australian ecosystems are among the world’s mostly highly sensitive to climate change according to a new study published in Nature. Researchers estimated how plant growth across the world has varied with fluctuations in temperature, water availability and cloud cover and which of the three climate variables is most important for each ecosystem. Understanding vegetation responses to current climate variability will help improve predictions of future consequences of such variability on our planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity, and our security and welfare." 

When will our governance systems change to become fit for purpose for the world we are already experiencing?

Dodgy modelling - time for reform?

I have railed against the misuse and abuse of modelling, particularly economic modelling in many fora, including on this blog (e.g. August 8, 2008).  Now Ross Gittins, whose views readers of this Blog will know I respect, has written claiming "Time to take a stand against misleading modelling"

In Gittin's posting there is a clip from the Australia Institute calling for a new code of conduct to be introduced for modelling, particularly modelling used to influence policy choices. Peter Martin, Economics Editor of The Age also alerted readers to how recent modelling was being used deliberately to confuse for political ends. 

Gittins says "I can't remember when so many economists of repute have gone out of their way to attack a modeller's findings, and done it so bluntly." If this is the case then it is good news that economists themselves are aware of the systemic failings of modelling practice within their own ranks.  But do they go far enough?  I am afraid the answer is a resounding no! As Gittins articulates:

"...modellers concede that "general equilibrium models are necessarily a simplification of the economy and, as such, they can only incorporate a stylised representation of the tax system".

I'd say models are a cartoon caricature of the economy, quite incapable of answering the intricate questions we ask of them."

On another front Tom Clark outlines how we all collude to 'model' our understandings through the use and conservation of language.  In his call for a new language to talk about the economy  he says:

"Trade became respectable, and lending money for profit, which had been sinful usury, became a fruitful outlet for thrift. Credit became interwoven with honour and pride, while debt was shot through with weighty moral obligations.

These are the orthodox financial prejudices that have, with brief exceptions, held sway ever since – in Gladstone’s red box as much as Thatcher’s handbag. When the 2008 economic storm hit (a metaphor which itself does ideological work, implying an act of nature rather than a crisis of human folly) the then shadow chancellor Osborne reached for a tried and tested script. “The cupboard is bare,” he sternly announced, likening bankrupt Britain to an over-indebted home.

Economists have objected to lazy comparisons between domestic and national finances for the best part of a century: governments can tax, grow or even print their way out of debt, three important escape routes not open to individuals. In the 30 years after the second world war there were deficits in all but six. But far from this leaving Britain’s cupboard bare, the national debt dwindled from 250% to 50% of GDP. 

So the household metaphor is deeply misleading but it remains irresistible to politicians and powerful with the public. It offers a way to make sense of the otherwise baffling billions in national debt through analogy with everyday experience. Furthermore, explains Jonathan Charteris-Black, an expert on rhetoric at the University of the West of England, it embeds “one of the most widely used of all political images: the nation as family, with the government as responsible parent”."

Whilst modelling remains the main form of praxis of economists and the purveying of conceptually dead metaphors a major aspect of political and journalistic praxis it seems to me there is little scope to break out of the traps we set for ourselves by what we do when we do what we do!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Cyber-systemists need to appreciate institutions


World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research
Third WINIR Conference
2-5 September 2016
Seaport Boston Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
It is now widely accepted that institutions, broadly defined as systems of established social rules, play a major role in explaining human behaviour. Although scholars generally agree that institutions coordinate human behaviour and to a certain extent mould it into recognizable patterns, there is much less consensus regarding the precise mechanisms involved. We also have yet to fully understand the ways in which alternative rule systems and behavioural patterns emerge,  persist and evolve to create our complex social systems.
Theoretical and empirical research into these important topics needs to draw on insights from multiple academic disciplines, including anthropology, economics, ethnology, history, human geography, law, linguistics, management, philosophy, politics, psychology and sociology.   
The Third WINIR Conference will provide a forum  for leading scholars to advance the ongoing conversation about these and other key issues in the growing area of institutional research.
Keynotes lectures, representing five academic disciplines, will be given by:
Daron Acemoglu (MIT, economics)
John L. Campbell (Dartmouth, sociology)
Margaret Gilbert (UC Irvine, philosophy)
 Henry Hansmann (Yale, law)
Wendy Wood (USC, psychology)
Abstract submissions about institutions (or organisations), and/or institutional thought from any discipline or theoretical approach are welcome (300 words max.).
Unconfined to any single academic discipline or any particular methodology, WINIR accepts contributions from any approach that can help us understand the nature and role of institutions. WINIR aims to promote creative conversations across disciplinary boundaries in order to build an adaptable and interdisciplinary theoretical consensus concerning core issues, which can be a basis for cumulative learning and scientific progress in the exciting and rapidly-expanding area of institutional research.
Submit an abstract here.
Submissions will be evaluated by the WINIR Scientific Quality Committee: Peter Boettke (George Mason University, economics), Simon Deakin (University of Cambridge, law), Geoff Hodgson (University of Hertfordshire, economics), Timur Kuran (Duke University, economics), Uskali Mäki (University of Helsinki, philosophy), Katharina Pistor (Columbia University, law), Sven Steinmo (European University Institute, politics), Wolfgang Streeck (Max Planck Institute Cologne, sociology).
Please note the following important dates:
4 March 2016
Abstract submission deadline
18 March 2016
Notification of acceptance
19 Mach 2016
Registration opens
31 May 2016
Early registration deadline
31 July 2016
Registration deadline for accepted authors
1 August 2016
Non-registered authors removed from programme
15 August 2016
Registration deadline for non-presenters
28 August 2016
Full paper submission deadline
For more information about WINIR please visit or follow WINIR on Twitter @winir2013.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why universities are failing: 3. Inequality

Stephen Parker, outgoing Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra has just published an insightful two part article in The Conversation. Stephen is impressive in his systemic insights; he took a principled rather than self-seeking stance to proposed Higher Education reforms when Tony Abbot was PM and Christopher Pyne the Minister.  In his own account of his lone stance he has said:

"Christopher Pyne and I were on diametrically opposite sides over the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill and its associated Senate Committee inquiries, so the reader needs to interpret my comments in this light. 

Minister Pyne repeatedly said I was the only one of 41 “vice-chancellors” who did not support his reforms.  In the House of Representatives he was critical of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, implying that its findings were biased because I was in charge of the university in which it was housed.  Even Tony Abbott acknowledged subsequently that NATSEM was one of the best-regarded modelling organisations in the country. So I guess I do have a starting point in this analysis!

I believe Christopher Pyne’s failed attempts at higher education reform is almost a textbook example of how not to get complex and controversial reforms through the Australian parliament. The Coalition did not control the Senate and did not spend time getting to know the people who held the balance of power.

The proposal to cut 20% funding to universities, partly to save money and partly to extend Commonwealth Supported Places to private higher education providers and sub-bachelor places, came out of the blue and flagrantly breached pre-election promises that there would be no cuts to education and no change to university funding arrangements."

In this instance the sites of failure were government policy, the way policy was enacted and pursued  as well as a failure of principled solidarity amongst Australia's VC cadre, or as Stephen Parker described it, loss of moral compass.

Now Parker has mounted the argument that Australian universities exacerbate inequality. His ideas were first presented as a paper at the TJ Ryan Foundation, Brisbane on the 16th February. The mechanism he identifies is this:

"The better your parents are educated, the more likely you are to graduate from university. Simon Marginson, in line with other studies, estimates that a young person in Australia is 4.3 times more likely to participate in tertiary education if one of their parents was tertiary-educated than a young person whose parents had less than upper secondary education.

If the economy increasingly rewards graduates, and only 30% to 40% of young people go to university, then over time they will tend to move ahead of the other 60% to 70%.

Thus, income inequality increases, with the affluent accumulating more property and superannuation, which they pass onto their children, so that wealth inequality increases."

His argument rests on the contention that Universities are failing to help "distribute more evenly the spoils of higher education and disrupt the patterns of inherited advantage, which increasingly divide society."

In his subsequent article he elucidates 10 ways that Universities could redress rising inequality. Together they constitute a systemic response.
  1. Can the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank): "To expect a single index to capture a person’s achievement to date and their potential for a particular course of study is simplistic and reductionist."
  2. Re-cap the undergraduate domestic system [i.e., HECS places] and divert the savings to effective access measures to redress disadvantage and raise aspirations and confidence.
  3. Experiment with alternative routes to material success by loosening 'the tight grip that a bachelor degree has as the route to success and instead encourage alternative kinds of institutions and a fresh focus on new pathways such as higher apprenticeships.'
  4. Reward “learning gain” or “distance travelled” i.e., there is no attempt to reward the value added to the student; no exit assessment that allows comparison with entrance assessment. So to offer universities an incentive to do so, funding should be partly based on “learning gain”.
  5. Have a massive program to encourage mature age (25+) students to go to university; "There is plenty of evidence that it works and changes lives, giving people a second chance at overcoming disadvantage."
  6. Take a holistic approach to the education system; "we need to develop a more integrated sense of the education system, from kindergarten to doctorate"
  7. Urge employers to change their recruiting practices;
  8. Require particular professional degrees to be graduate entry only "we need to consider requiring all elite, high-demand professional degrees to become postgraduate."
  9. Urge professional bodies to justify current educational requirements;
  10. Have a serious chat with philanthropists 
Are there more criteria and actions? I feel sure there are, and fostering inequality is, as my recent Blogs begin to illustrate, only one of the ways universities are failing. I find it particularly pleasing that Parker points to the evidence of the social gains that can be made from policies and arrangements that support life-long learning.  Also that he draws on the German experience of an interconnected, viable and effective yet differentiated HE and VE sector.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why universities are failing: 2. Abandoning critique?

In a recent posting I outlined the parameters of my inquiry into how and why universities may be seen to be failing.  I began by addressing social purpose, or more precisely, loss of clarity about social purpose. In this Blog I reproduce an article by Henry Giroux because of its relevance to the issues I wish to explore in this series of posts. Professor Giroux is at McMaster University where he holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest.

Exile as a Space of Disruption in the Academy
by Henry Giroux

How can one not be in exile working in academia, especially if one refuses the cliques, mediocrity, hysterical forms of resentment, backbiting, and endless production of irrelevant, if not sometimes unethical, research that increasingly has come to characterize the corporate university? The spaces of retreat from public life now occupy too many institutions of higher education and have transformed them into dead zones of the imagination mixed with a kind of brutalizing defense of their own decaying postures and search for status and profits. Leadership in too many academic departments is empty, disempowering, and insular, lacking any outward vision or sense of social responsibility. Mimicking the instrumental logic of a business culture, too many administrators lack the vision, totality of knowledge, or will to address what role the university should play in a democracy. Too many individuals are tied to endless committees, overwhelmed by the mediocrity they or others endorse, and fearful of anyone who steps outside of the boundaries of bureaucratic conformity and civility. Excellence has become part of an empty recruiting slogan that has little do with the actual work or scholarship of faculty who are often punished or resented for such work.

One thing is clear: The retreat from the ethical and political imagination in higher education in too many countries has become legion. Little is being done to address the army of subaltern labor that has become the new poor in higher education and elsewhere. Moreover, faculty are increasingly told that the most important register of scholarship is grant writing over and against activities of teaching, community engagement, or other forms of public scholarship. In addition, students are constantly being told that they should feel good instead of working hard and focusing while being burdened, at the same time, with an insufferable amount of financial debt. Too many academics no longer ask students what they think but how they feel. Everyone wants to be a happy consumer. When students are told that all that matters is feeling good, and that feeling uncomfortable is alien to learning itself, the critical nature of teaching and learning is compromised.

This is an academic version of the Dr. Phil show where infantilized pedagogies prove to be as demeaning to students as they are to professors. Professors are now increasingly expected to take on the role of therapists speaking in terms of comfort zones but are rarely offered support for the purpose of empowering students to confront difficult problems, examine hard truths, or their own prejudices. This is not to suggest that students should feel lousy while learning or that educators shouldn’t care about their students. To the contrary, caring in the most productive sense means providing students with the knowledge, skills, and theoretical rigor that offers them the kinds of intellectual challenges to engage and take risks in order to make critical connections and develop a sense of agency where they learn to think for themselves and become critical and responsible citizens. Students should feel good through their capacity to grow intellectually, emotionally, and ethically with others rather than being encouraged to retreat from difficult educational engagements. Caring also means that faculty share an important responsibility to protect students from conditions that sanction hate speech, racism, humiliation, sexism, and an individual and institutional attack on their dignity.

For a range of theorists extending from Theodor Adorno to the post colonialist theorist Edward Said, exile was a central metaphor for defining the role of academics. As oppositional public intellectuals, academics played an indispensible role in Adorno’s notion of critical theory and Said’s work in defending the university as a crucial public sphere. They also played a crucial role in engaging culture as a site informed by mechanisms of power, and taking seriously the idea of human interdependence while living on the border — one foot in and one foot out, an exile and an insider, for whom home was always a form of homelessness. In Representations of the Intellectual, Said argued that exile referenced a space of engagement and critique, serving as both a theoretical and political reminder that educators often occupy a similar role and space where they work to “publicly raise embarrassing questions, confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), and refuse to be easily co-opted by governments or corporations” while offering models of social engagement that redefined the role of academics as civically engaged public intellectuals. This politically charged notion of the oppositional intellectual as homeless—in exile and living on the border, occupying a shifting and fractured pedagogical space in which critique, difference, and a utopian potentiality can endure—has provided the conceptual framework for generations of educators fighting against the deadly instrumentalism and reactionary ideologies that have shaped contemporary educational models in public schools and universities.

Under the regime of neoliberalism, too many institutions of higher education have transformed the culture of education into the culture of business and are now characterized by a withdrawal into the private and the irrelevant. In this view, education is driven largely by market forces that undermine any viable vision of education as a public good connected to wider social problems. Solidarity, rigor, public scholarship, and integrity are in short supply in many departments and are largely ignored by the new and expanding managerial class of administrators. In this context, exile is less a choice than a condition that is forced through policies of containment and procedure where contingent faculty are given short term contracts, struggle with course over loads, and bear the burden of time as a deprivation rather than a space of reflection and ownership over the conditions of their labor. Under such circumstances, exile is a state that can just as easily be manipulated to produce a key element of the neoliberal university which, as Noam Chomsky points out, is “designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.”[1]

Exile in this context speaks to new forms of faculty servitude that restrict and shut down spaces for dialogue, scholarship, dissent, and quality teaching. This is a form of forced exile, one wedded to expanding faculty powerlessness and undermining any sense of autonomy. It is against this notion of oppressive exile wedded to the market driven prescription of undermining faculty power while intensifying their labor that the concept of exile has to be rethought. Instead, exile must be seen and theorized as part of a larger political and empowering discourse connected to an affective and ideological space of struggle and resistance. Less an oppressive space of containment and deskilling, exile can become the grounds for a revitalized kind of public space and activism where a new language, a new understanding of politics, and new forms of solidarity can be nurtured among the displaced — that is, among those who refuse the neoliberal machinery of social and political violence that defines education solely as a source of profit, mode of commerce, and “feel good” pedagogy. The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s comments on his notion of welcoming exile under certain circumstances should not therefore surprise us, especially in light of his own experience of marginality as a Jewish public intellectual and as a courageous exemplar of civic courage. What must be understood and emphasized here is that Bauman’s position, along with that of Adorno and Said’s, does not constitute a celebration of marginality. Rather, for all of these scholars, exile is an affirmation to keep going in the midst of what sometimes appears to be a deadening form of academic madness and insularity driven by forces which constantly seek to undermine the university as a democratic public sphere. Bauman writes:

I need to admit, however, that my view of the sociologists’ vocation does not necessarily overlap with the consensus of the profession. Dennis Smith has described me as an “outsider through and through.” It would be dishonest of me to deny that denomination. Indeed, throughout my academic life I did not truly “belong” to any school, monastic order, intellectual camaraderie, political caucus, or interest clique. I did not apply for admission to any of them, let alone did much to deserve an invitation; nor would I be listed by any of them—at least unqualifiedly—as “one of us.” I guess my claustrophobia—feeling as I do ill at ease in closed rooms, tempted to find out what is on the other side of the door—is incurable; I am doomed to remain an outsider to the end, lacking as I [do] the indispensable qualities of an academic insider: school loyalty, conformity to the procedure, and readiness to abide by the school-endorsed criteria of cohesion and consistency. And, frankly, I don’t mind

While I don’t want to romanticize positions of marginality and exile, they may represent some of the few spaces left in the university where one can develop a comprehensive vision of politics and social change, challenge the often deadening silos of disciplinarity, while making connections with wider social movements outside of the university. The fight for the university as a public good is essential to the development of a vibrant formative culture and democracy itself. Exile may be one of the few spaces left in neoliberal societies as democracy is pushed ever farther to the margins where individuals must learn to work together to cultivate a sense of meaningful connection, solidarity, and engaged citizenship that moves beyond an allegiance to narrow interest groups and fragmented, single issue politics. Exile might be the space where a kind of double consciousness can be cultivated that points beyond the structures of domination and repression to what the poet Claudia Rankine calls a new understanding of community, politics, and citizenship in which the social contract is revived as a kind of truce in which we allow ourselves to be flawed together. She writes:

You want to belong, you want to be here. In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together.The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen. As an equal. As just another person. As another first person. There’s a letting go that comes with it. I don’t know about forgiving, but it’s an “I’m still here.” And it’s not just because I have nowhere else to go. It’s because I believe in the possibility. I believe in the possibility of another way of being. Let’s make other kinds of mistakes; let’s be flawed differently.[3]

To be “flawed differently” works against a selfish desire for power and a sense of belonging to the often suffocating circles of certainty that define fundamentalisms of all ideological stripes. Being “flawed differently” also suggests the need to provide room for the emergence of new democratic public spheres, noisy conversations, and a kind of alternative third space informed by compassion and respect for the other. Under such circumstances, critical exchange and education matters not as a self-indulgent performance in which individuals simply interview themselves but as public acts of reaching out, a willingness to experience the other within the space of exile that heralds and precipitates a democracy to come. This would be a democracy where intellectual thought informs critique, embodies a sense of integrity, and reclaims education in the service of justice and equality.

What might it mean, then, to imagine the university as containing spaces in which the metaphor of exile provides a theoretical resource to engage in political and pedagogical work that is disruptive, transformative, and emancipatory? Such work would both challenge the mainstream notion of higher education as a kind of neoliberal factory, as well as the ideological fundamentalism that has emerged among many conservatives and some alleged progressive voices. What might it mean to address the work that we do in the university, especially with regards to teaching as a form of classroom grace– a place to think critically, ask troubling questions, and take risks, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures?[4]

 Exile is not a prescription or rationale for cynicism, nor is it a retreat from one’s role as an informed and engaged faculty member. On the contrary, it is a space of possibility where the reality of the university as defined by the culture of business and a reductive instrumental rationality can be challenged by a view of the university as a public good, one that expands and deepens relations of power among faculty, administrators, and students while redefining the mission of the university. In an age of overwhelming violence, war, and oppression, universities must create formative cultures that allow students to assume the role of critically engaged citizens, informed about the ideologies, values, social relations, and institutions that bear down on their lives so that they can be challenged, changed, and held accountable. Exile in this sense is a space of critical dialogue, a posture of engaged dissent, a place filled with visions that refuse to normalize the present while imagining a more just future. It is a deeply political and moral space, one that makes education central to any viable notion of agency and politics, and works hard to create the public spaces and formative cultures that make democracy possible.
Henry Giroux received his Doctorate from Carnegie-Mellon in 1977. He then became professor of education at Boston University from 1977 to 1983. In 1983 he became professor of education and renowned scholar in residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he also served as Director at the Center for Education and Cultural Studies. He moved to Penn State University where he took up the Waterbury Chair Professorship at Penn State University from 1992 to May 2004. He also served as the Director of the Waterbury Forum in Education and Cultural Studies. He moved to McMaster University in May 2004, where he currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest. He is a frequent contributor to Tikkun Magazine and the Tikkun Daily Blog.
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[1] Noam Chomsky, “The Death of American Universities,” Reader Supported News, (March 30, 2015). Online at:
[2] Efrain Kristal and Arne De Boever, “Disconnecting Acts: An Interview with Zygmunt Bauman Part II,” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 12, 2014). Online:
[3] Meara Sharma interviews Claudia Rankine, “Blackness as the Second Person,”Guernica (November 17, 2014). Online:
[4] Kristen Case, “The Other Public Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education(January 13, 2014). Online: