(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package on this page.
A question has haunted me since I was a student: What does it mean to be a professor?
Initially, I imagined that a professor must be a person who is passionate about research, motivated by hope, rushing to the university library, obsessed with books. Once I became a Ph.D. student, I saw things in a less rosy light and thought that a professor’s life might be miserable and full of disappointments. Since becoming a professor, I have come up with a more serious possibility. Ours is a noble profession but it involves a lot of complacency and superficiality; it does not reach the heights of enthusiasm or the depths of despair; it is based on acts of complicity.
I reached this conclusion while contemplating researchers who were stuck in the maze of the Algerian university, those who had left, and those who take power in the academic world.
The changes which brought us to where we are today are well known. The university was and is still a scene of political tensions. But it has become an arena of conflict in which the moody, opportunistic and circumstantial logic of politics surpasses the sober vision of science and the search for knowledge, better ways of living and a greater focus on human concerns. (See a related article, “In Algeria, the Academic Year Gets Off to a Chaotic Start.”)
Since the university abandoned the path of the knowledge in favor of politics, it has turned into a factory for producing new forms of authoritarianism and hierarchy. Those with the power of decision control a network of relationships and stand above those who seek knowledge. They prefer to have good relations with government officials rather than with academics, who are the new proletariat within universities, and representatives of its working class.
Learning Not to Ask New Questions
In order to enjoy living in a space that might seem safe, but is in fact suffocating with polluted air that generates tragic stories, professors gave up on their dreams of a free, human and cognitive life.
The latest of those stories concerns a colleague whose Ph.D. thesis was refused by a university which claims that she addressed a politically banned topic. In fact, the thesis does not go beyond examining the media coverage around the election of a former president. It contains nothing designed to offend decision-makers who expect researchers to support their views and not to ask new questions.
In such an atmosphere it is not surprising that the lack of academic freedom has led to a decline in the research output of the university.
“In such an atmosphere it is not surprising that the lack of academic freedom has led to a decline in the research output of the university.”
However, the Ministry of Higher Education has up its sleeve arguments to explain the decline that it will bring out when challenged, as it did in 1994 when the Algerian researcher Elias Miri published a book titled Should the University Be Closed?
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I have been haunted by this question ever since. But the only researcher who had the courage to answer it was Jamal Belkacem, who tendered his resignation from the University of Jijel in 2020. The university, he said, no longer meets his needs as a human being and a professor, but was a box of fools.
Additional Constraints on Professors
The crisis for Algerian academics is not only one of cognitive and scientific constraint; it is also a social and economic one.
Professors in Algeria get a pitiful salary, ranked last in a classification done by the University of Chicago of the level of wages for higher education officials in 13 Arab and foreign countries. The worst is that this ranking did not prompt Algerian officials or the media to campaign for better wages, in addition to their demands for clean restaurants, places to rest between lectures, and the provision of more toilets. (See a related article, “Not Just Money: Arab-Region Researchers Face a Complex Web of Barriers.”)
In such frustrating circumstances, professors do the bare minimum required of them if they are to have any hope of promotion. They fail to make the extra effort needed to prepare the students who crowd into lecture halls; they are satisfied with the most superficial scientific research.
Fatimah Bakhouch is a professor of communication and public relations in Algeria.