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Can University Faculty Hold Platforms To Account?

Heidi Tworek has a good piece with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where she questions whether there will be a sufficient number of faculty in Canada (and elsewhere) to make use of information that digital-first companies might be compelled to make available to researchers. The general argument goes that if companies must make information available to academics then these academics can study the information and, subsequently, hold companies to account and guide evidence-based policymaking.

Tworek’s argument focuses on two key things.

  1. First, there has been a decline in the tenured professoriate in Canada, with the effect that the adjunct faculty who are ‘filling in’ are busy teaching and really don’t have a chance to lead research.
  2. While a vanishingly small number of PhD holders obtain a tenure track role, a reasonable number may be going into the very digital-first companies that researchers needs data from to hold them accountable.

On this latter point, she writes:

If the companies have far more researchers than universities have, transparency regulations may not do as much to address the imbalance of knowledge as many expect.

I don’t think that hiring people with PhDs necessarily means that companies are addressing knowledge imbalances. Whatever is learned by these researchers tends to be sheltered within corporate walls and protected by NDAs. So those researchers going into companies may learn what’s going on but be unable (or unmotivated) to leverage what they know in order to inform policy discussions meant to hold companies to account.

To be clear, I really do agree with a lot in this article. However, I think it does have a few areas for further consideration.

First, more needs to be said about what, specifically, ’transparency’ encompasses and its relationships with data type, availability, etc. Transparency is a deeply contested concept and there are a lot of ways that the revelation of data basically creates a funhouse of mirrors effect, insofar as what researchers ‘see’ can be very distorted from the reality of what truly is.

Second, making data available isn’t just about whether universities have the professors to do the work but, really, whether the government and its regulators have the staff time as well. Professors are doing a lot of things whereas regulators can assign staff to just work the data, day in and day out. Focus matters.

Third, and related, I have to admit that I have pretty severe doubts about the ability of professors to seriously take up and make use of information from platforms, at scale and with policy impact, because it’s never going to be their full time jobs to do so. Professors are also going to be required to publish in books or journals, which means their outputs will be delayed and inaccessible to companies, government bureaucrats and regulators, and NGO staff. I’m sure academics will have lovely and insightful discussions…but they won’t happen fast enough, or in accessible places or in plain language, to generally affect policy debates.

So, what might need to be added to start fleshing out how universities are organised to make use of data released by companies and have policy impacts in research outputs?

First, universities in Canada would need to get truly serious about creating a ’researcher class’ to analyse corporate reporting. This would involve prioritising the hiring of research associates and senior research associates who have few or no teaching responsibilities.1

Second, universities would need to work to create centres such as the Citizen Lab, or related groups.2 These don’t need to be organisations which try and cover the waterfront of all digital issues. They could, instead, be more focused to reduce the number of staff or fellows that are needed to fulfil the organisation’s mandate. Any and all centres of this type would see a small handful of people with PhDs (who largely lack teaching responsibilities) guide multidisciplinary teams of staff. Those same staff members would not typically need a a PhD. They would need to be nimble enough to move quickly while using a peer-review lite process to validate findings, but not see journal or book outputs as their primacy currency for promotion or hiring.

Third, the centres would need a core group of long-term staffers. This core body of long-term researchers is needed to develop policy expertise that graduate students just don’t possess or develop in their short tenure in the university. Moreover, these same long-term researchers can then train graduate student fellows of the centres in question, with the effect of slowly building a cadre of researchers who are equipped to critically assess digital-first companies.

Fourth, the staff at research centres needs to be paid well and properly. They cannot be regarded as ‘graduate student plus’ employees but as specialists who will be of interest to government and corporations. This means that the university will need to pay competitive wages in order to secure the staff needed to fulfil centre mandates.

Basically if universities are to be successful in holding big data companies to account they’ll need to incubate quasi-NGOs and let them loose under the university’s auspice. It is, however, worth asking whether this should be the goal of the university in the first place: should society be outsourcing a large amount of the ‘transparency research’ that is designed to have policy impact or guide evidence-based policy making to academics, or should we instead bolster the capacities of government departments and regulatory agencies to undertake these activities

Put differently, and in context with Tworek’s argument: I think that assuming that PhDs holders working as faculty in universities are the solution to analysing data released by corporations can only hold if you happen to (a) hold or aspire to hold a PhD; (b) possesses or aspire to possess a research-focused tenure track job.

I don’t think that either (a) or (b) should guide the majority of the way forward in developing policy proposals as they pertain to holding corporations to account.

Do faculty have a role in holding companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Netflix to account? You bet. But if the university, and university researchers, are going to seriously get involved in using data released by companies to hold them to account and have policy impact, then I think we need dedicated and focused researchers. Faculty who are torn between teaching, writing and publishing in inaccessible locations using baroque theoretical lenses, pursuing funding opportunities and undertaking large amounts of department service and performing graduate student supervision are just not going to be sufficient to address the task at hand.


  1. In the interests of disclosure, I currently hold one of these roles. ↩︎
  2. Again in the interests of disclosure, this is the kind of place I currently work at. ↩︎

Detecting Academic National Security Threats

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Canadian government is following in the footsteps of it’s American counterpart and has introduced national security assessments for recipients of government natural science (NSERC) funding. Such assessments will occur when proposed research projects are deemed sensitive and where private funding is also used to facilitate the research in question. Social science (SSHRC) and health (CIHR) funding will be subject to these assessments in the near future.

I’ve written, elsewhere, about why such assessments are likely fatally flawed. In short, they will inhibit student training, will cast suspicion upon researchers of non-Canadian nationalities (and especially upon researchers who hold citizenship with ‘competitor nations’ such as China, Russia, and Iran), and may encourage researchers to hide their sources of funding to be able to perform their required academic duties while also avoiding national security scrutiny.

To be clear, such scrutiny often carries explicit racist overtones, has led to many charges but few convictions in the United States, and presupposes that academic units or government agencies can detect a human-based espionage agent. Further, it presupposes that HUMINT-based espionage is a more serious, or equivalent, threat to research productivity as compared to cyber-espionage. As of today, there is no evidence in the public record in Canada that indicates that the threat facing Canadian academics is equivalent to the invasiveness of the assessments, nor that human-based espionage is a greater risk than cyber-based means.

To the best of my knowledge, while HUMINT-based espionage does generate some concerns they pale in comparison to the risk of espionage linked to cyber-operations.

However, these points are not the principal focus of this post. I recently re-read some older work by Bruce Schneier that I think nicely casts why asking scholars to engage in national security assessments of their own, and their colleagues’, research is bound to fail. Schneier wrote the following in 2007, when discussing the US government’s “see something, say something” campaign:

[t]he problem is that ordinary citizens don’t know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.

Replace “terrorist” with “national security” threat and we get to approximately the same conclusions. Individuals—even those trained to detect and investigate human intelligence driven espionage—can find it incredibly difficult to detect human agent-enabled espionage. Expecting academics, who are motivated to develop international and collegial relationships, who may be unable to assess the national security implications of their research, and who are being told to abandon funding while the government fails to supplement that which is abandoned, guarantees that this measure will fail.

What will that failure mean, specifically? It will involve incorrect assessments and suspicion being aimed at scholars from ‘competitor’ and adversary nations. Scholars will question whether they should work with a Chinese, Russian, or Iranian scholar even when they are employed in a Western university let alone when they are in a non-Western institution. I doubt these same scholars will similarly question whether they should work with Finish, French, or British scholars. Nationality and ethnicity lenses will be used to assess who are the ‘right’ people with whom to collaborate.

Failure will not just affect professors. It will also extend to affect undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral fellows and university staff. Already, students are questioning what they must do in order to prove that they are not considered national security threats. Lab staff and other employees who have access to university research environments will similarly be placed under an aura of suspicion. We should not, we must not, create an academy where these are the kinds of questions with which our students and colleagues and staff must grapple.

Espionage is, it must be recognized, a serious issue that faces universities and Canadian businesses more broadly. The solution cannot be to ignore it and hope that the activity goes away. However, the response to such threats must demonstrate necessity and proportionality and demonstrably involve evidence-based and inclusive policy making. The current program that is being rolled out by the Government of Canada does not meet this set of conditions and, as such, needs to be repealed.

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Pandemic Burnout in Academia

Virginia Gewin, writing for Nature:

Even before the pandemic, many researchers in academia were struggling with poor mental health. Desiree Dickerson, an academic mental-health consultant in Valencia, Spain, says that burnout is a problem inherent in the academic system: because of how narrowly it defines excellence, and how it categorizes and rewards success. “We need to reward and value the right things,” she says.

Yet evidence of empathetic leadership at the institutional level is in short supply, says Richard Watermeyer, a higher-education researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, who has been conducting surveys to monitor impacts of the pandemic on academia. Performative advice from employers to look after oneself or to leave one day a week free of meetings to catch up on work is pretty superficial, he says. Such counsel does not reduce work allocation, he points out.

Academia has a rampant problem in how it is professionally configured. To get even a short term contract, now, requires a CV that would have been worthy of tenure twenty or thirty years ago. Which means that, when someone is hired as an assistant professor (with a 3-6 year probation period) they are already usually more qualified than their peers of the past and have to be prolific in the work that they contribute to and output, and do so with minimal or no complaints so as to avoid any problems in their transition from assistant to associate professor (i.e., full-time and sometimes protected employee).

Once someone has gone through the gauntlet, they come to expect that others should go through it as well: if the current generation can cut it, then surely the next generation of hires should be able to as well if they’re as ‘good’ as the current generation. Which means that those who were forced into an unsustainable work environment that routinely eats into personal time, vacation time (i.e., time when you use vacation days to catch up on other work that otherwise is hard to get done), child rearing time, and so forth, expect that those following them do the same.

Add into this the fact that most academic units are semi-self governing, and those in governorship positions (e.g., department chairs, deans) tend to lack any actual qualifications in managing a largely autonomous workforce and cannot rebalance work loads in a systemically positive way so as to create more sustainable working environments. As a result of a lack of formal management skills, these same folks tend to be unable to identify the issues that might come up in a workforce/network of colleagues, and they are also not resourced to know how to actually treat the given problem. And all of this presumes they are motivated to find and resolve problems in the first place. This very premise is often found faulty, given that those who are governing are routinely most concerned with the smooth running of their units and, of course, may keep in mind any junior colleagues who happen to cause ‘problems’ by expecting assistance or consideration given the systemic overwork that is the normal work-life imbalance.

What’s required is a full-scale revolt in the very structure of university departments if work-life balance is to be truly valued, and if academics are to be able to satisfy their teaching, service, and research requirements in the designated number of working hours. While the job is often perceived as very generous–and it is, in a whole lot of ways!–because you (ideally) have parts of it that you love, expecting people to regularly have 50-75 hour work weeks, little real downtime, little time with family and friends, and being placed on a constant treadmill of outputs is a recipe for creating jaded, cynical, and burned out professionals. Sadly, that’s how an awful lot of contemporary departments are configured.

Aside

2019.1.21

One of the things I enjoy most about academia is the emphasis on intellectual freedom even when expressing such freedom might be seen as problematic for the University’s commercial interests. Case in point: I was quoted in an article raising concerns that some universities’ contractual agreements to automatically transfer certain 5G telecommunications patents to foreign companies (based on research funded by the same companies) could be disadvantageous to domestic national security. One of the universities that is caught up in the issue is the one employing me. Despite my statements potentially being disadvantageous to my own university’s interests there are no rebukes but, instead, praise for being involved with national issues. If only all employers could be so similarly open-minded!

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George Yancy: I Am a Dangerous Academic

It is deeply concerning that faculty in American universities are being ‘put on notice’ even before the President-Elect takes office. The solution is to stand with them and speak, and argue, and fight against efforts to silence such academics regardless of whether we individually agree with the targeted academics’ respective philosophical or political leanings. The goal of the academy is to further thinking and thoughtful analyses rather than collectively advocate for any particular political leaning.

In Yancy’s defense of himself, the academy, and philosophy itself he succinctly explains the value and importance of a philosophically-influenced education:

To be “philosophically adjusted” is to belie what I see as one major aim of philosophy — to speak to the multiple ways in which we suffer, to be a voice through which suffering might speak and be heard, and to offer a gift to my students that will leave them maladjusted and profoundly unhappy with the world as it is. Bringing them to that state is what I call doing “high stakes philosophy.” It is a form of practicing philosophy that refuses to ignore the horrible realities of people who suffer and that rejects ideal theory, which functions to obfuscate such realities. It is a form of philosophizing that refuses to be seduced by what Friedrich Nietzsche called “conceptual mummies.” Nietzsche notes that for many philosophers, “nothing actual has escaped from their hands alive.”

In my courses, which the watchlist would like to flag as “un-American” and as “leftist propaganda,” I refuse to entertain my students with mummified ideas and abstract forms of philosophical self-stimulation. What leaves their hands is always philosophically alive, vibrant and filled with urgency. I want them to engage in the process of freeing ideas, freeing their philosophical imaginations. I want them to lose sleep over the pain and suffering of so many lives that many of us deem disposable. I want them to become conceptually unhinged, to leave my classes discontented and maladjusted.

Philosophy, like the Arts and Social Sciences more generally, ought to leave students upset. Confused. And disturbed. Not for the purpose of causing harm but to generate an unrootedness; as students re-plant their roots following a period of unrootedness they may return to the same political and philosophical positions as before but with stronger rationales that are girded in a deeper ethical and normative appreciation of reality. But maybe they subtly, or significantly, shift in their understandings of the world and their ethical commitments within it. In either situation the student has changed by broadening and deepening their ability to consider the different aspects involved in holding their respective positions. And that’s absolutely fine to my mind.

The goal of philosophically-influenced education isn’t to force a reversal in view, belief, or understanding but to compel students to better consider why they hold the positions they do and better appreciate those positions’ implications. The very act of reflecting upon oneself invokes the opportunity for change, but to prompt such change the academy (and its students) need to support and protect those who prompt such uneasiness in students. Silencing such academics-of-change thus constitutes a directed threat to an essential aspect of what the University is meant to provide to society.