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Academic Liturgy. Humanities and the Society of Scholars
Published by the Centre for Microhistorical Research, 2007. 337 pages. - (Akademísk helgisiðafræði - Hugvísindi og háskólasamfélag (Reykjavík: Miðstöð einsögurannsókna, 2007)).
Over the last years I have taken a lively interest in analyzing the operations of academic society through public and scholarly debate in a variety of ways. I have attempted to understand what it is about and the various means it employs to achieve its ends. In addition, I have taken active part in discussions within the university community over the last quarter of a century, first as a student, later as a fully-fledged historian. I have come to the view that as institutions of learning universities throughout the world are often fatally flawed and that academia is failing to provide the fertile ground for new thoughts and ideas that it ought to be. This view is set out in detail in a new 527-page book called The History War: Essays and Narratives on Ideology, published May 7, 2007.1 As one example, I draw attention to what I see as the peculiar circumstance that the most active forum for scholarly “debate” within the University of Iceland seems to occur in selection committee reports on staff appointments.
The incongruity (or paradox) of this observation goes back to the fact that all scholarly debate within the University is colored in one way or another by the existence of examining committee reports. Once a committee has reached its conclusion, weighing up the work of some scholar and finding it wanting, there is little chance that those stuck in the mess will have the disposition or desire to take up normal working relations or discussions with someone who has previously passed judgement on their life’s work. As a result, there are certain faculties of the University that appear to be holed in the water and drifting aimlessly, incapable of offering an academic agenda of any real substance. There are powerful arguments for this view that I set out in my book The History War
My most recent attempt to provoke debate within the university community took as its starting point the unusual course of submitting a large piece of research work for consideration for a doctoral degree with the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Iceland. This is a route the University has offered since its inception, just as many European universities have done over the centuries, whereby a candidate, without a special course of study, presents a piece of work with the aim of being granted the title of doctor. The particular piece of research I submitted was something I had been working on at intervals for a decade and a half, with the results appearing in two books,Dreams of Things Past: Life Writing in Iceland (2004) and Metastories: Memory, Recollection, and History (2005). My decision to submit this research for doctoral defense was unconventional since I already hold a doctorate from an American university from 1993 and have thus already completed a doctoral dissertation, on the subject of popular culture in Iceland.2 My reason for submitting the two new books for evaluation by the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland was that I saw no other way of raising the profile of the subjects they dealt with within the university community: there seemed to be an almost total lack of any meaningful forum for such debate within the structure of the university. I anticipated that by acting in this way it would be possible to stimulate serious consideration of the works in question, as well as provide a basis for worthwhile discussion of all the newest trends in the humanities. Both books in fact go into the changes that have taken place in the academic community in recent years. They present a systematic approach to subjects that have been at the forefront of people’s minds in the academic world for many years and offer some novel ideas on developments in the world of learning. I (along with friends and colleagues) felt sure that the material might prove an important contribution to debate within academic circles – in precisely the way a doctoral dissertation is supposed to be.
I submitted the work formally to the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland with a covering letter dated August 15, 2006. I was subsequently requested to provide some kind of confirmation that the two books were the product of the same piece of research, which I did with a short statement sent to the chair of the faculty, Oddný Sverrisdóttir, on October 25, 2006. After this I heard nothing from the university but news eventually reached me that a board of examiners had been appointed, consisting of Loftur Guttormsson, historian and professor at the Iceland University of Education (chairman), Gunnþórunn Guðmundsdóttir, literary specialist and appointed part-time lecturer at the University of Iceland, and Sigríður Matthíasdóttir, historian and independent freelance scholar. Some time later I heard on the grapevine that Sigríður had withdrawn from the committee and been replaced by Einar Hreinsson, historian on the staff of the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The matter proceeded in an unusual way through the spring months. On May 15, 2007 I received a phone call from my colleague, Jón Ólafur Ísberg, who told me that he had happened to speak to Einar Hreinsson, historian and member of the board of examiners, and that Einar had told him that the committee had judged my books and come to the conclusion that they did not qualify as doctoral material. I was taken aback at this news; I found it uncomfortable to be informed of how things stood in this way and felt that the leak was tantamount to a breach of trust that undermined the credibility of the committee process. On the instigation of trusted friends I appointed a lawyer to draw formal attention to this breach of trust, as well as to enter a protest at the appointment as chairman of the committee of Loftur Guttormsson, a man with whom I had had fierce academic disagreements over the course of many years. As I, and those whose advice I sought, saw things, he should unquestionably be deemed disqualified from having any say in my work in view of our previous relations in the field of scholarship. To cut a long story short, my attorney, Dögg Pálsdóttir, therefore couriered a letter to the board of the Humanities Faculty on the morning of May 25, 2007, in which an appeal was entered for the board of examiners’ report to be disallowed and a new board of examiners appointed so that my work might be scrutinized by people deemed qualified to do so. Her opinion was unequivocal: Loftur Guttormsson was unfit to act as a member of the board of examiners and Einar Hreinsson’s leak was a serious breach of trust: it was therefore proper and self-evident that the examiners’ report be rejected.
My petition was taken for material discussion at a meeting of the governing body of the Humanities Faculty on June 4, 2007 and passed on for comment to the history and archeology department of the University of Iceland, as noted in the minutes of the meeting. Here it states: “Unanimous agreement to refer the board of examiners’ report to the history and archeology department and elicit their comments on the conditions and production of the board of examiners’ report.” The department met on June 11, 2007 but failed to complete its business at this time. It met again on June 13 and concluded its part in the matter.
As things now stood, there were around 30 people from the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland who had access to the examiners’ report. I, however, was not among them, having still not received any formal communication. I did not, however, have long to wait before the report was “leaked” to me from various sources and, so far as I could see, it appeared to be doing the rounds of the university. At least, I got it from various people who were well outside the circle of those actually entitled to see it if everything had been conducted in the proper manner. I had in fact heard rumors somewhat earlier that “certain people had seen the examiners’ report”, as it was expressed, but I had no confirmation of these rumors before June 11-13, 2007, when I finally received a copy of the report.
As soon as the examiners’ report was in my hands, I set about typing it up. I received the report as a PDF and had to convert it to ordinary text form. This task gave me the opportunity to consider my options and think carefully about the attitudes that revealed in the report, all the details of the text. When I had keyed it in, on June 13, 2007, I realized that the purpose behind allowing the report to go from person to person was highly anomalous; in fact, the whole way the case had been handled was anomalous. I felt the best thing to do to counteract this tactic was to publish the report myself – to “declassify” it, as it were. This, I felt, would remove any secrecy and leave a public document that anyone could read and judge, especially as so many already had access to it. This would pull the rug from under those who had been behind its distribution. I therefore decided to publish the examiners’ report in full on the web journal Kistan (kistan.is) late on the evening of June 13, 2007, despite the fact it had not been formally cleared by the board of the Humanities Faculty.3
In this way a highly unusual course of events was set in train that was to take some interesting twists and turns through what remained of the summer of 2007. I decided almost immediately to go over the whole of the examiners’ report in fine detail and draw attention to its many weak points, show how the committee had performed its tasks and how faulty the entire appraisal process had been. The examiners had failed to discuss my research in any meaningful way; the new ideas presented in it appeared to have gone over their heads and the entire work had fallen on stony ground. I decided also to put together an account of the history of my relations with Loftur Guttormsson, the chairman of the examiners, a history going back a full ten years in which we had crossed swords repeatedly in the public arena. My whole discussion led to me sinking myself in the rules on fitness and competence enshrined in the Public Administration Act (1993) and realizing that higher education institutions in Iceland applied an unusual interpretation of these rules to suit their own requirements, to handle matters in a way designed to benefit the interests of the institution without regard for the rights of those who stood outside it. This interpretation of the law meant that institutes of learning were entirely under the thumb of those that controlled them, that their corridors were for the most part isolated from any new winds that might blow through them. My research into these matters led to me deciding to present my view of the events in a book to be published in September 2007. In it the case is gone over from start to finish and all the documents relating to it published, together with my analysis of various of its aspects.
Every scholar has at his command a certain amount of what might be called “cultural capital.” This can be applied in a variety of ways inside and outside the academic community. The debates that form a normal part of the work of all scholars can both eat into or add to the cultural capital he has at his disposal. In a sense one might say that every dispute between scholars – every debate that takes place within the academic community – is built upon the struggle for the cultural capital of those who take part in it. The academic community formulates certain rules of play to regulate how these disputes are conducted. It tries to ensure a level playing field before they start and employs various means to ensure fairness. One, for example, is to arrange things so that there is always the opportunity for reply, that the person being criticized gets the chance to answer back. People who take part in heated disputes within the academic community do so with the aim of chipping away at or directly undermining the cultural capital of their opponents.
On June 28, 2007 I received a letter from the board of the Humanities Faculty in which I was informed for the first time of the examiners’ findings and of the board’s decision to refuse my request for the board of examiners to be dissolved and its verdict on my work on life writing in Iceland overturned and a new committee appointed. My grounds for this request were, as said above, breach of trust on the part of one of the members of the committee and lack of fitness and competence of the committee chairman. In other words, the examiners’ statement of opinion was allowed to stand and my request to be permitted to defend my research before the University of Iceland rejected. This result came as a great disappointment, not only because I felt the university had acted dishonorably in the matter of the appointment of the examiners and how the examiners had reached their conclusions, but also because it showed black on white a weakness within the academic community. My purpose in presenting my works in this way had been to stimulate debate on the status of life writing in Iceland; but despite my having published getting on for a thousand pages of material on this subject, it had proved almost impossible to provoke any kind of discussion of it for complex reasons related to cultural politics and how universities operate.
I therefore instructed my attorney, Dögg Pálsdóttir, to write to the chairman of the Humanities Department and enter a request that all the papers relating to the case be handed over. I felt I needed to be in possession of all the documents in order to assess how the case stood and how it might proceed. After considerable reflection and analysis, I came to the conclusion that it was important for interested people within the academic community to be allowed to view the case papers and thus be able to form their own conclusions on the matter. I am convinced that this case is more than just about myself; it concerns all university educated people, who almost invariably find themselves in the position of having their work judged in ways similar to the way done here. It is therefore in the interests of everyone connected with higher education in this country that the issues that have arisen here are treated fairly and properly and that their legal framework is as transparent as is possible. For the above reasons I decided to publish this book.
The main points of the case are here set out in brief to allow readers more easily to assess their value and significance. Note that some of these points are described in more detail above:
This provides a broad rundown of the main episodes in connection with the case from the outset up to the present. There are four particular points that stand out when the matter is viewed in context:
Firstly, there is the question of whether Loftur Guttormsson was a fit and proper person to act as a member of the examining committee, whether his position is viewed in the light of general ethical principles, the ethical rules of Sagnfræðifélag Íslands (The Icelandic Historical Association), or the law on public administration currently in force.
Secondly, there is the seriousness of Einar Hreinsson’s breach of trust in divulging to Jón Ólafur Ísberg the committee’s conclusions before its report had been discussed by the governing board of the Humanities Faculty. Einar Hreinsson’s declaration, in which he denies having leaked information to Jón Ólafur Ísberg, provides a setting for their supposed conversation; however, it is shown that this declaration contains perversions of the truth by an unnamed source who later reveals that Einar Hreinsson said precisely the same to him and others, thus putting the matter in an entirely new light.
Thirdly, there is something conspicuously underhand about the way the representatives of the University of Iceland department of history and archeology have dealt with the case, both in their selection of committee members and when they were delegated to discuss the examiners’ report in June 2007. This assessment does not appear to have been carried out in accordance with proper professional standards.
Fourthly, the failure of the governing body of the Humanities Department to provide formal notification to relevant parties of the composition of the board of examiners is in breach of good administrative practice; such a failure prevents interested parties from being apprised of their rights and duties, including how they might go about challenging the composition of the board of examiners. It should also be borne in mind that the examiners’ report was itself leaked to me at a time when the case was still actively open, and by parties who had no right to have access to it: this, too, must go down as dubious administrative practice.
When considering these points it is important to bear the following in mind:
From the above, it appears evident to me that the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland, supported by the history and archeology department and the legal opinion of the university’s lawyer, has infringed my rights to have the works I submitted to the faculty for doctoral consideration discussed by disinterested parties. The case, from beginning to end, has been characterized by confusion and inefficiency in which at a certain point the governing body of the Humanities Faculty lost control of procedures. Among the manifestations of this train of events was a breach of trust on the part of one of the examiners and the leaking of documents, to which should be added falsehoods leveled against a party in the case that cast still further discredit on the reliability of the examiners’ report, which already stood on weak ground as a result of the anomalous position of the chairman of the board of examiners with respect to myself.
In the remarks of the Althing Ombudsman in a case centering on access to documents and accountability (Case no. 2548/1998) in connection with a request by an applicant to Rannís (The Scientific Council of Iceland) for information on the identity of the person who had assessed his research project on behalf of the fund, it says:
So far as I can see, Loftur Guttormsson comes within the terms of this provision. He is subject to the rules laid down in Section II of the Public Administration Act, headed “Special qualification or competence”, where in article 3, paragraph 6, it says regarding the conditions under which a staff or committee member may be deemed ineligible or disqualified from involvement in a case: “if there otherwise exist such circumstances as might properly cast doubt on his impartiality.” There is however an exception under this section of the Act, as follows: “Ineligibility or disqualification does not apply if the interests at stake in the case are so minor, or the nature of the case is such or the involvement of the staff or committee member in the handling of the case is so insignificant that there is reckoned to be no risk that extraneous attitudes may affect a decision.” Clearly this exception does not apply to Loftur Guttormsson’s position in the present case.
Essentially, the task before the representatives of the Humanities Faculty and the history and archeology department was simple, i.e. to appoint an board of examiners that was free from any suspicion of bias and personal interest. The historians that took this decision had the ethical rules of the Historical Society of Iceland as a guideline to go by; in addition, both the department and the faculty board might have taken account of public administration legislation and the general principles of propriety in Iceland when coming to their decision. It was common knowledge that there had been disputes between myself and Loftur Guttormsson going back ten years and that these had materialized in many places, including on the back page of the newspaper Morgunblaðið, where serious charges were leveled against Loftur, as well as other instances where we had clashed publicly. After such long-standing disputes there was no likelihood that Loftur might manage, any more than anyone else in his position, to raise himself above ideological clashes of this kind and judge my writings with impartiality. This is something any right-minded man or woman might have perceived. The shortcomings in procedures are also clear to see when the examiners’ report itself is weighed and measured: prejudice against my work and ideas shines out from just about every sentence.
For the reasons stated above I have decided to take my case to the Althing Ombudsman in the hope that he sees himself able to take it on. I believe that this case is of considerable significance to everyone associated with the academic community and may be able to provide a clarification of the rules or play that those living within this community need to go by.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind the following points relating to the case and the unsatisfactory way it has been handled within the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland.
When the matter is viewed in a nutshell, it becomes clear that the actions of the board of examiners discussed here do not stand scrutiny, whatever way one looks at them. I know for a fact that this is not the only case that has suffered similar treatment in recent years. In conclusion, I therefore propose the establishment of a post of ombudsman for science and research to adjudicate on matters of dispute that will inevitably arise within the learned community in future. Comparable examples exist in many countries and the interests at stake are considerable.
1 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, The History War: Essays and Narratives on Ideology (Reykjavík: The Center for Microhistorical Research and the Reykjavik Academy, 2007).
2 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, The Continuity of Everyday Life: Popular Culture in Iceland, 1850–1940. Doctoral dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University, USA, 1993.
3 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “Dómur yfir hverjum? ‘Samræða’ í dómnefndaráliti,” Kistan.is, 13 June 2007 (Web).
4 See the website of the Althing Ombudsman: http://www.umbodsmaduralthingis.is/skyrslur/skoda.asp?Lykill=575&Skoda=Mal(Vef). The case was heard on May 26, 2000.
|© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon|