Since around 2014, I have increasingly been asked why I am interested in Mongolia. As my interest is academic and curiosity-driven, I thought it best to offer a discussion of my independence in providing analyses of contemporary Mongolia, especially with another election looming in 2016. Note that I’ve already written about the roots of my interest in Mongolia (English/Mongolian), but want to add a discussion of my independence to that post.
Academic Freedom and Professional Autonomy
I am a tenured associate professor.
What does that mean?
“Tenured”, in a nutshell (though not legally) means that I hold my position until I retire. Short of doing something pretty terrible or not fulfilling my obligations, I cannot be fired by my university. For more discussion, you might enjoy the Wikipedia entry.
Why would a university ever offer a professor tenure? The system of tenure evolved with the establishment of universities as one of a number of safeguards of academic freedom. Essentially, universities (at least in their origin in Europe and their institutionalization in N America) have recognized that researchers who are free to follow their research interests are more likely to make “heretical” academic discoveries. While not every professor who thinks that everyone else is wrong about a particular aspect of our understanding of the world, is right, every once in a while a researcher comes along who offers an entirely novel perspective. S/he is protected by academic freedom to elaborate this perspective and pursue a research agenda.
How is Tenure Granted and What does it Mean?
How is this security and the professional autonomy that comes with it earned? In Canada, researchers (in the social sciences where I dwell as a sociologist) are typically hired when they are about to complete their PhD (i.e. defend their dissertation), or after they have completed their PhD. Note that the PhD requires different kind of reviews at different institutions, sometimes involving outside examiners (outside one’s department or even university) as well as professors who have not been advising the student. Today, the PhD is essentially required to become an assistant professor in Canada.
Typically, assistant professors are then hired on a three-year contract. After three years this contract is renewed following a review for another three years. After these initial six years, an assistant professor then applies for promotion to associate professor rank AND for tenure. The process to grant this promotion and tenure again involves the review of the applicant’s research (publications, often prioritized over other aspects), her/his teaching, and contributions to the operations of the university. These achievements are reviewed within the applicant’s unit (i.e. department, in my case, UBC’s Institute of Asian Research). That unit then issues a recommendation to a committee at the Faculty level (in our case, the Faculty of Arts, for example), which in turn issues a recommendation to a committee at the university level. That committee issues a recommendation to the university president who generally follows these recommendations. This process all in all lasts about a year and then results in promotion with tenure, or in a final year-long contract after which the individual who has been denied tenure & promotion will have to find a job elsewhere.
This lengthy process involves myriads checks and balances. For example, to prevent departments from simply reproducing themselves by pressuring assistant professors to follow the example of senior professors, committees beyond the department are involved. Also, criteria for the evaluation of applicants for promotion are somewhat general, but are meant to give candidates an idea what they need to be striving for in terms of research, teaching (including teaching evaluations and graduate supervision), and service.
And in the end… the lucky candidate like myself is rewarded with tenure, giving me job security and the professional autonomy to select my areas of interest. At UBC there are additional annual merit evaluations that can result in additional pay increases, and there is also promotion from Associate to Full Professor (following a roughly similar process to that for tenure and promotion to Associate), but even without merit pay increases, an associate professor could stay in his/her job until her/his retirement.
Especially on matters of academic and research substance, this entire system is designed to isolate an academic from any imaginable pressures in choosing the subject matter, theoretical orientation, or methodology for their research. A Dean, Provost or President may well discuss my research with me (obviously, I would be delighted to talk about my research), but they are generally not in a position to tell me what to do research on. As it comes to my Mongolia interests, there is thus no “superior” or “boss” who could direct me to study one subject matter over another, or to take a particular perspective in my research.
As an academic, I am well-paid, but not well enough to be a private investor of any significance. I thus have no direct financial stakes in any companies doing business in Mongolia or anywhere else.
My UBC pension fund invests in all kinds of companies and financial instruments, including some tied to the mining industry and/or to Mongolia, but those decisions are removed from my views and activities in Mongolia and I actually don’t know what exactly investments my pension fund may hold.
I have benefitted from the fact that my understanding of Mongolian political developments, and of mining policy, has been useful to various individuals and companies in the past. I have thus been able to offer some limited consulting services, primarily to financial investors who are keen to develop an understanding of the likelihood of political changes or on investments they may be considering. I also contribute to some systematic attempts to capture political and other risks, and some of these contributions are paid.
Together with two former students, Byambajav D and Mendee J, I founded the Mongolian Institute for Innovative Policies in 2018. Jointly and individually we continue to seek out and have accepted some paid consulting projects. These consultancies have focused on development projects where we provide input on opportunities in Mongolia and assessments of the current state of development. We have also conducted some projects to advise investors on opportunities, challenges, and political risks in Mongolia. I feel that these projects have had no impact on the independence of the analyses I present on this blog. Where they are linked to (potential) clients, I prioritize my own confidence in my analyses over earnings opportunities, so if potential clients are offended, they will simply not engage our services again. Since we are only brought on in a consulting role, I have not made any purchasing, investment or strategic decisions for any organization, but they may be relying on information that I provide.
I have been fortunate enough to find support for many trips to Mongolia and academic activities from a variety of sources, including private individuals, companies, foundations, and governments.
The largest amount of funding was related to a conference I organized in 2008 that was held at UBC and resulted in an edited book, “Change in Democratic Mongolia“. All the funding I received in that context went toward paying for participants in the conference to attend and for their accommodations, food, etc., as well as some research assistance. I have received some small amounts from the Canadian government, typically to support conference trips.
I would be delighted to accept donations, endowments, or any other kind of support for Mongolia activities at UBC. That support would be appropriately acknowledged and such acknowledgment would also signal the source of the funding.
Note that the same kind of professional autonomy that is in place for me as a researcher, holds for UBC as an institution. If we were to receive a significant donation to support Mongolia activities, for example, this would be accepted only on the condition that all substantive and especially all academic decisions would be made within the university. Typically, a donor sets the direction for activities based on a donation but does not select or endorse specific activities. For example, someone might fund another significant conference on contemporary Mongolia, perhaps even with a theme, but the selection of presentations would be academically-driven, not determined by a donor.
I would confidently claim that I have not been influenced and would be unlikely to be influenced in the future by any financial advantages I might derive from support of my Mongolia research.
I am not a spy.
I do like to read spy novels, watch spy movies, and I did grow up in (West) Berlin, by some accounts the one-time greatest hotbed of Cold War espionage.
However, I do not act on any governments’ behalf, neither my native German government, nor the Canadian government. Not even the Mongolian government, although my enthusiasm for all things Mongolian might make some people believe that I act on behalf of Mongolia.
Somewhat disappointingly (to this delighted reader of spy fiction), no government agency has ever attempted to hire me as any kind of spy.
I do not actively support any Mongolian political party. Nor am I a member or active supporter of any particular party anywhere else. I would say that my political leanings are broadly social democratic, but that orientation doesn’t match all that well onto the Mongolian political scene.
I know members and activists of several Mongolian parties and I enjoy political conversations with them. I also have had and will continue to have interactions with governments and the party members that fill important positions in governments.
Surely, some political activists have tried and will try to convince me of political positions or statements that might benefit their party more than another party. And, I’m sure, that I have been convinced by such political arguments in the past and that this will also happen in the future. However, I hope and I am reasonably confident that I am persuaded by the power of an argument or evidence for a perspective, not by a party affiliation or my personal association or friendship with a political activist.
Some Views of Mongolian Politics
In general, I strive for political neutrality in my comments on Mongolian political developments.
I do believe that Mongolia would benefit from more substantive political debates and from the introduction of more evidence-based policy proposals. But that holds for the entire spectrum of political views and is really more of a perspective on the political process, rather than a perspective on any particular political party.
I have little understanding for the kind of corruption that seems to involve personal enrichment, typically at the expense of fellow countrymen and women. I find that kind of behaviour in politicians deplorable no matter what political stripes politicians wear.
I am also not a great fan of political maneuvers that are carried our for political gain, independent of the benefit or loss to the nation. One of the aspects of learning more about Mongolia that makes this an interesting endeavour is the feeling, nay knowledge, that Mongolia’s potential is enormous. If only… is an attitude that could be applied to many aspects of contemporary Mongolia. This is especially true of politics.
Abuses of power and its use for political gain are more likely to occur in a ruling party or among members of a government, independent of that party’s orientation. I am thus more likely to identify faults that I see in any current government or government policy, than in the opposition.
I claim to be politically neutral and focused on analysis of political developments, not to influence them.
I have outlined these various elements of my professional autonomy to make one essential point: I do not take orders from anyone in terms of the substantive emphasis of my analyses of contemporary Mongolia. I invite anyone who suspects me of any kind of bias (post-colonial, Eurocentric, industry, political, national, etc.) to scrutinize the above and to examine my analyses. I hope that the discussion above does allow a critique to begin her/his scrutiny from a position of a basic trust in my independence if the above discussion has been useful.
In Spring 2019 there was another flare-up of people questioning my intentions regarding analyses of contemporary Mongolia, mostly in terms of some kind of insinuated bias, perhaps toward specific political individuals. I responded to those questions with a blog post on bias.