Power, knowledge and the universities (by Tarak Barkawi)

March 1, 2012

Tarak Barkawi, associate professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research recently published an article named “Power, knowledge and the universities” which appeared on Al Jazeera. He presents a number of conclusive examples to highlight contemporary problems with the intertwines of governmental, public and esp. corporate influences and interests in university education.

Some representative quotes of the full article will be highlighted in the following:

Institutions concerned with producing knowledge, whether universities, publishing houses, news media, think tanks, and so on, require power to do their work. They need money, of course, but also a legal and political framework that allow them to operate.

Universities have developed relatively robust and transparent frameworks to manage their relations with power and money. Private donors can fund academic posts or even entire new faculties, but normally speaking they cannot directly influence academic appointments. That is, what is being studied is determined by power, but who is studying it is determined by university procedures for appointing academic staff – which ideally means the independent judgement of relevant scholars.

The University of Cambridge has chosen to behave differently. It has recently accepted a £3.7m ($5.8m) donation from something called the “Chong Hua Foundation” to endow a professorial chair in “Chinese Development”.

In a highly irregular move, Cambridge has also named the first occupant of the chair, Professor Peter Nolan, without even the appearance of an open, competitive search. Nolan has very close links with the Chinese government and appears to have played a central role in organising the donation. He has co-authored articles and a book with Wen Jiabao’s son-in-law and even tutored the Chinese premier’s daughter according to some reports.

One wonders whether Cambridge has considered what all this will look like when the PRC once again violently suppresses a democracy movement, or clamps down on its restive minorities.

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