Ideology drives attacks on ANU (1999)

There is no justification for university officers collaborating in the Government’s agenda on academic independence, writes Geoff Davies.  The Canberra Times, 19 October 1999

There is a more insidious aspect of the leaked Cabinet submission by Education Minister, Dr. Kemp, than the well-remarked desire of the Howard Government to throw universities to the market wolves.   The Government and its henchmen are also poised to clinch a long-standing campaign to destroy the remaining independence of individual academics.

Without such independence, universities cease to be universities, and become mere training and consulting enterprises, puppets of commerce and of political and social fads, guardians of mediocrity.  Unfortunately the imminent threat to academic independence at the Australian National University comes from within, via another attack on job security.

The “labor market flexibility” agenda, which predates the Howard Government, would end job security in universities.   This misguided ideology attributes zero value to employee knowledge and experience, to collective knowledge, and to the commitment, morale and health of employees.  Few employees in Australia are not feeling its baleful effects, but in a university this ideology strikes at the central purpose of the institution.

The decade-long campaign to end the autonomy of universities and the independence of academics has been so protracted that it has brought into play the boiling frog syndrome.   As the water heats slowly around it, the frog adapts and adapts until it is too late, the frog overheats and can’t jump out.   If we donÕt soon name the problem within ANU, it will be too late to do anything about it.

ANU’s problem is that it is being destroyed by its own senior management and its own governing Council.  Whether the people involved are zealots, appeasers, or merely misguided is irrelevant.   What they are doing will assure the demise of one of the worldÕs great universities.

The short, splendid history of ANU, only fifty-two years long, is a tribute to the vision, energy and stature of its founders.  Within that short time it became an excellent university by any overall measure, and the Research Schools of its Institute of Advanced Studies quickly reached the world cutting edge in fundamental research.   It has also generated lucrative spinoffs.   Repeatedly and consistently, the Institute has been ranked within the handful of best institutions in the world.

Despite this clear and outstanding record, ANU staff have over a long period been portrayed by politicians and senior management as second-rate, lazy, wasteful, inflexible, unimaginative and useless.  These are the implications behind the endless stream of managerial euphemisms about efficiency, accountability, quality assurance, innovation, flexibility, streamlining and so on.   The implications never had a significant basis in fact.   The euphemisms essentially are lies.

However under the cover of this barrage of misinformation management has been progressively centralised.   While the university must accommodate to Government funding squeezes, there is no justification for university officers collaborating in the GovernmentÕs attack on academic independence, as they have consistently done and continue to do.

This is most evident in management’s erratic approach to enterprise bargaining this year.  Their first, derisory “offer” was for a further serious reduction of employment conditions and a sub-inflationary pay rise.   Later they offered to roll over existing employment conditions.   Then they announced an immediate and unconditional 3% pay rise.   Modest longer-term raises were offered and some desultory discussion of other issues occurred.

Now management have suddenly reverted to demanding major reductions in job security and other protections.   Such erratic switches betray bad faith.   The implication of these demands is to complete the replacement of academic merit-based processes and considerations with managerial command processes based on pursuing commercial money and political ideology.   The collateral damage would be the essential elimination of academic independence.

What would be left would be Australian National Training and Consulting, Inc.   The facade of a university would persist for some time.   Many excellent staff would continue their work but, inexorably, the ANU would fail to attract the best, and those it hired would be forced to accommodate the dictates of an ignorant management clique.   The process has been under way for several years already.

The attitude of ANU management may be contrasted with that of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Gavin Brown, who has written that he agreed to a substantial salary increase there because “the main resource of a university is the intellectual calibre of its staff”.

Meanwhile, a major pre-occupation of ANU’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor John Richards, has been to sort out continuing disarray in The Faculties.  Rather than quietly becoming familiar with everyone and everything, exploring options and perhaps even building some trust, the DVC and the Vice-Chancellor sought and received from Council a mandate for Richards to conduct a one-man review.

The administrative review must be one of the least useful forms of human communication.   A review provokes defensive posturing.  It generates mountains of paper.   Views are Òtaken on boardÓ.   Discussion, feedback and clarification are minimised.  Misconceptions, misunderstandings and ignorance propagate happily.

Predictably, Richards’ report, recently presented to Council, has elicited howls of protest from up and down the academic ranks that its proposed actions are inappropriate and draconian.  Nevertheless, Council has seen fit to endorse most of its proposals without the benefit of comment from the academic boards.

Most of Council’s members attend the campus but once a month and are heavily reliant on the information and perceptions fed to them by senior management.   Since the ANU Council was halved in size some years ago to 22 members, there are only two academic representatives unencumbered by management roles.  On the other hand, Council is heavily weighted with management officers (6) and with political appointees (8).  These include influential ideologues whose approach to “human resource management” is to call in Peter Reith’s dogs.

The ANU did not become great by offering uncompetitive salaries and then treating its staff as if they were lazy and stupid.   It became great by hiring the best people in the world, giving them a loose rein and saying “go for your life”.   Accounting was a means, not an end.   Excellent academic staff were regarded as the university’s primary asset, rather than its greatest problem.

The ANU has been colonised by an alien world view that is hostile to the essence of a university.   By denigrating excellent staff and trampling on their independence and morale, this malign presence guarantees the demise of ANU as a world-class university and a bastion of liberal democracy.

It is time for ANU staff to look beyond the present engagements, and to confront the larger task of ridding the university of this subversive influence.   This will require not only repopulating management with people who will protect and promote the university’s essential values, but also a public and political campaign to reconstitute the ANU Council.

One thought on “Ideology drives attacks on ANU (1999)

  1. Pingback: Saving the School of Music, and the ANU | Better Nature: commentary by Geoff Davies

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