Sunday, 7 October 2012

MALAYSIA: Easier for women to succeed internationally, says V-C

Women heads of universities are rare, especially in Islamic societies. Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia – the National University of Malaysia – is one of just two women leaders in a country with some 20 public and more than a dozen private universities.

She has presided over the expansion and internationalisation of the multi-faculty research university – one of five in the country.

The aim is for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, or UKM, in Bangi, Selangor, some 30 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur, to emerge as a world-class institution and compete internationally in university rankings while servicing Malaysia’s needs for quality graduates and research.

The institution, with 1,800 academics and almost 27,000 students, feels modern, dynamic and 'get-ahead', with several new research centres collaborating with other institutions in Asia and further afield.

But with Islamic studies one of the oldest faculties at the university, it was not an easy task for a woman vice-chancellor to turn it around. Though a Muslim, she chooses not to wear a headscarf.

When Sharifah Hapsah first arrived at the sprawling forest-edge campus as vice-chancellor in 2006, she had never worked with a faculty of Islamic studies. “But I knew they took some strong stands and previous vice-chancellors had some problems with them over certain issues. I thought, 'how do I make sure that I don’t have problems, of being a woman and Islam?'”

She knew from the beginning that she had ensure Islamic studies was onside if she was to push through changes. She points to the Mosque across from her office building: “If I look out of my window they are the faculty I can see every day.”

The university also has a reputation for being nationalistic, and her mandate from government was to internationalise swiftly.

Promoting the Islamic faculty

Concerned about opposition from the Islamic faculty to any hint of change, she says she made it a priority to bring them on board.

“I told them, ‘I will look upon this faculty to show the way – I am not going to show you what is Islamic, you have to show me.' I think it’s that kind of deference and respect that would enable them to say, ‘I think this woman is alright.'”

She says she did not have any problems. This was in sharp contrast to the strong opposition that greeted Rafiah Salim, vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, who became the country’s first woman university leader when she was appointed three months ahead of Sharifah Hapsah in 2006, with a similar mandate to turn that hide-bound institution around. Salim had a rocky time.

But Sharifah Hapsah says she recognised the Islamic faculty deserved a “dignified place in the university”.

She appointed members of the faculty into important positions at UKM, such as head of research institutes and even deputy head of the university’s international division, “to make sure they understand that they are recognised within the academic community.

“I think they appreciate that because they say it is the first time they have been selected for important positions in the university. After that I felt more comfortable.

“I wanted to make sure I recognised talents anywhere. And they do well, and their students are doing well. Before, there was this perception that they are all ustads [religious teachers] when they graduate. But no, these students are very progressive.

“When I introduced my entrepreneurship module in the university, two groups came from that faculty to launch student-led businesses.”

Easier to rise internationally

Despite such successes in navigating a sensitive area, Sharifah Hapsah admits it is not easy to rise to the position of vice-chancellor. In Malaysia this is a political appointment. Much as she is a trailblazer, she still had to wait until political conditions were ripe.

“At the time [before she was appointed] political influence was rather strong. It’s not just about you, but are you acceptable at that point in time? Looking at the conditions in the country, whether it is good to have a woman.”

After qualifying in medicine from the University of Malaya, Sharifah Hapsah first joined UKM as a lecturer in 1975, and rose to head of the physiology department, then professor and head of the department of medical education in the medical faculty, where she worked extensively on medical curriculum development.

But there was little hope of further promotion within the university and she left to become deputy director of the department of higher education in the Ministry of Education. During this time she was commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop quality assurance guidelines for medical education in the Western Pacific region.

“I gained my credentials internationally first. I was very involved with international organisations, UN bodies, with WHO, ILO [International Labour Organization], being invited as consultant and so on.”

She admits it was easier to rise internationally than in her own country. Both she and Salim made a name for themselves outside their country first, with United Nations bodies. “Internationally you don’t have a problem.”

The traditional route is to rise within a university, but she had not even been a dean. “University is a microcosm of larger society and then there were no women vice-chancellors, no deputy vice-chancellors. Even to appoint a deputy dean, they did not deliberately go out to look for women.

“Maybe the men felt they don’t like assertive women...that’s the kind of society we have – men don’t like women who are producing results or talking. Internationally we can do it, but I don’t do it here in my faculty. So they don’t submit your name or make sure you get the appointment.”

But with the new millennium, Malaysian women’s organisations had become more vocal about the number of women attending universities yet not running them. “It had become an issue, that there was no woman vice-chancellor,” Sharifah Hapsah said.

At the Education Ministry she had risen to become chief executive of the National Accreditation Board, where she had worked for many years setting up the qualifications agency and quality assurance system.

She was always ambitious. “Before I could become CEO, I was dreaming of becoming CEO.”

It helps, she says, to have worked for government. As vice-chancellor of a public university, if you want anything, you have to lobby officials and “know the channels to get what you want”.

At that point, at 4pm in the afternoon, Sharifah Hapsah excuses herself to take a prayer break. She may eschew the customary headscarf, but it is clear she is a practising Muslim. In the silence – even the telephone stops ringing – the call to prayer from the Mosque wafts into her offices.

Identifying women leaders

When she returns she seems refreshed, although those around her say she is far more hard working than any of the university’s previous male vice-chancellors.

So what does it take to be accepted as a woman vice-chancellor?

“You must have academic credibility. That’s number one. You must fulfil all the academic requirements because you are going to talk to fellow academicians. You cannot be anything less in your own field. You must rise to the highest, and that’s professor.”

She identifies communication and collaboration as the other essential qualities. “We should be more cooperative, more collaborative. That’s what I try to do. And maybe that’s 'a woman thing'. There is a little bit of competition, but collaboration should be bigger than that.”

Years of working with non-governmental organisations, particularly in the fields of family and health, have also given Sharifah Hapsah the ability to work with different social groups.

“Different groups have different needs. To listen to them and to be able to advocate on their behalf is very important. If you don’t work with NGOs, you don’t have that sensitivity to social issues. NGO work is a good training ground,” she says.

This is evident in the university, which has become a centre for community and social engagement in the Association of South East Asian Nation region, reaching out to all kinds of groups as it undertakes research that can have an impact on development and also on global issues of concern such as climate change, sustainable development, renewable energy, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

It is also reflected in Sharifah Hapsah’s invitation to Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, social entrepreneur and founder of the village Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, to be a visiting professor at the university.

Things have come a long way

And what of the future? Although some entrenched attitudes are hard to shift, the government has a target of 30% women in decision-making posts in the public and private sectors.

Sharifah Hapsah believes she must prepare those who will come after her. “I do make a deliberate effort to identify women for posts – women deans, women deputy deans, women directors.” Among her three deputy vice-chancellors, one is a woman.

And she does not regret the intervening years even though, she reveals, she was once tipped for deputy vice-chancellor of UKM long, long before the vice-chancellorship came up. For one thing, she is proud of having laid the groundwork in the ministry.

“If I had been vice-chancellor early on I would not have developed the quality assurance system for the country. For me that was an essential and crucial element of higher education.

“If you have a world-class university in your country, so what. But if you have a world-class system, it’s going to benefit all the people in your country, from school right up to university level.”

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