Last week I watched the film Don’t Look Up with my daughter, an anthropology student passionate about environmental issues and biodiversity loss. The satirical film by Adam McKay tells the story of a doctoral student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), and her advisor, Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), as they discover a large comet on its course to collide with Earth. As the film unfolds and Earth’s destruction looms, we learn the dilemma of collaboration among unequal institutions and social actors seeking to escape planetary destruction.
The film prompts many questions but the most compelling for me is how, as a doctoral student, I relate to the characters in the film and their place in society. My daughter could clearly recognise Dibiasky’s passionate engagement with both hope and doom narratives of climate change. Mirroring real-life young environmentalists, Dibiasky was turned into a meme by the public, despite her sound scientific analysis. On the other hand, I found caricatures of many real persons in the film’s disparate characters but was troubled with Professor Mindy’s academic persona as he struggles to convince society of a looming disaster. First, Prof. Mindy is one of the few likable characters, reminding me of many of my amazing professors who are rational, intelligent, and supportive. They are the experts of their fields, yet humble mentors; they remind me each day that what I am doing is important and why. However, as I am reaching the conclusion of my PhD, despite all my learning and motivation, I am afraid of becoming Prof. Mindy at some point in my academic pursuits and here are the reasons for this creeping fear.
Unlike Dibiasky, Prof. Mindy of Michigan State University seems attentive and thoughtful, which helps him build a rapport with political leaders and the media. Whereas he is unfamiliar with the trends and gossips of celebrity life, we find that he too enjoys the limelight of the entertainment industry. Coming from a middle-class socioeconomic background, his family also celebrates higher education. In short, he embodies a true academic scholar. My concerns begin when he meets the researchers from Harvard, invited by the tech mogul of Bash Cellular.
Like many of us in academia, Prof. Mindy recognizes the cultural power of prestigious institutions, which is often manifested through their academic rankings. Academic rankings have heightened competition among institutions, frequently restricting collaboration in research and teaching outside elite universities. The system neither reduces educational inequalities nor highlights the politics of knowledge. Regardless, university rankings are considered valid measurements of institutional value, and the doxa of their inevitability are accepted by faculty and students alike.
Despite Dibiasky’s reminders of the importance of peer-reviewed science, Prof. Mindy’s willingness to accept the ideas of Harvard researchers can only be explained through academic rankings and institutional prestige. His hesitance at that moment alone changed the fate of the Earth. I, too, fear this ontological trap in higher education—knowledge produced and reproduced about the reality of ranking systems—as I am about to graduate. This trap tends to reduce an area of complex qualitative policy into a simple quantitative data set—which demands adherence in return for academic success. Fascinatingly, this trap is most dangerous in the academic space; with social dynamics at conferences, star-scholar lectures and panels that I attend having a long-lasting effect on my career decisions.
Nevertheless, unlike Prof. Mindy’s race to save the world, my chase, following the doxa of academia, would require me to keep checking h-index journals and publishing research papers. Besides, I also fear that being a mother and female scholar of colour, I may not have the freedom of time and energy to fulfill the expectations of performativity. Unlike Prof. Mindy—whose wife takes care of his house and two young sons while he, being care-less, focuses on his research—I regularly find myself struggling to balance my care-giving and research undertakings efficiently.
Another reason for my concerns is the rise of tech moguls with commercially driven research enterprises who believe the logic of the market should dictate university operations—changing the academic and practical meanings of innovation. In the film, Prof. Mindy’s meeting with the CEO of Bash Cellular—who predicts the circumstances of his death—is the moment Prof. Mindy realizes the data mining tactics and personal data peddling the tech industry has been involved in.
I did not have to meet the CEO of Facebook or Tesla for this realization; stories of ethical concerns about artificial intelligence, from bias in hiring against women to black people, are not new. The aspirations for low-orbit satellite internet and privatized space exploration by SpaceX, despite academics’ outcry about scientific rigour, safety, and interference in scientific research, indicates the conflict of interest governments can face as they act as customers of private tech firms while also financing the research and development that make the profits possible. These partnership patterns and industry funding arrangements in academia have increased in the past two decades. In academy, the definition of academic freedom entails freedom of inquiry, research, and dissemination. Industry sponsors influence research agendas and prioritize inquiries that focus on products, processes, or activities that can be commercialized and marketed. They manipulate research evidence and control dissemination as well.
In a time when tech giants are stronger than ever and relations between academia and industry are encouraged, what choices do I have to build relationships of trust and academic integrity? One of my senior professors recently shared her withdrawal from Facebook and other social/online platforms. Would it be possible for me to boycott the tech industry to build my professional networks during a pandemic? Following my doxa to knowledge production and a tenure position, would I have a choice to decline industry funding and fundraise for my research myself?
I remember once asking an aspiring undergraduate international student about ways to increase renewable energy production in response to climate change. His response, like my daughter’s, was clear: He was an engineer and, despite all his love for Earth, he needed work in the petroleum industry to pay off his educational debt.
As an emerging scholar researcher, I see myself landing in a paradox of autonomy, wrestling between ethics and a politically determined, corporatized academic environment. A renewed reflexivity will be needed to confront this paradox and challenge the doxa. And, while Prof. Mindy enjoys the last supper, I will wait for my institution to protect and support me in fending off any corporate influence on my scholarship that undermines academic freedom.
Norin Taj has recently completed her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She examines the roles of institutions and institutional identities of actors in global education policy and development.
Alina Farrukh is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, majoring in Anthropology and International Development.