HERDSA 2012 – Conference Blogging

Hello from Hobart, Tasmania! I’ve switched over from my usual automated 4am delivery to ‘semi-live’ blogging of the talks and events that are taking place at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (inc.) – or HERDSA. Last night was the conference reception and welcome, including a couple of talks about University of Tasmania and the (rather bleak) future of the Tasmanian Devil.

This morning we’re all gathered for the official opening, before the keynote on “Cultivating Connections through the Academe”. The theme of this year’s conference is “Connections” so everything is being framed along these lines.

Oh, that was interesting, His Excellency, the Honourable Peter Underwood AC, Governor of Tasmania, just arrived so we all had to stand up, somewhat awkwardly, while we waited for the Governor’s party to arrive. (If you want to see something amusing, ask a large group of academics to all do something at the same time that they may not have expected to do and then make them wait. It is, in the words of the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, not in our nature.) Once the Governor had arrived, and Advance Australia Fair had played, we had a welcome to the country by a member of the local indigenous community. I have noticed that there is a great deal of meaning and respect attached to the traditional greetings and acknowledgements of traditional ownership here – I have a basic requirement that if you are going to make a statement regarding the indigenous community and their relationship with the land, that it must at least be genuine and preferably heart-felt. So far, all of these statements have been sincere and I also noticed that the Governor bowed his head to the person who was going to give the welcome to the country. That was, I thought, a nice example of how mutual respect doesn’t have to be arduous or obsequious.

The Governor’s speech did touch on some key points regarding the value of education, in its role of passing on knowledge and forming communities to engage people in learning, identifying educational scholarship and teaching community as a possible strategic priority. Perceptions are important – but if perception doesn’t coincide with reality then we have an problem. The Governor highlighted the problem that we have where people see a perception as being implicitly separated from the reality – drawing on his experience with a school board. In order to identify ourselves as good performers, it is not enough to perform well, but we must be seen and perceived to perform well – where perception and reality coincide, perception drives how we are treated and, therefore, takes the priority.

The Governor mused on his time on the Supreme Court and thought about who much power he actually had, if the prisoner rejected his sentence, if the bailiffs refused to carry away the prisoner, if the police refused to arrest the bailiffs for contempt. He summarised his thoughts on this (and I paraphrase here) as:

The only power given to me was that given by public perception and public support.

He then identified us, the tertiary educator, as being in the same situation. It is our reach into the community and the community’s connection to us that gives us our ability to work, our authority to educate and our role within the greater community. As I mentioned earlier, this entire conference is about connections, hence community and, from the Governor’s perspective, our ability to carry out our job.

The University of Tasmania has a very special position within the life of Tasmania, as this is a small state and UTAS is the only University, to the extent that many tasks that would be assigned to government in Tasmania are performed by groups within UTAS, with community support. Because of this, they have to engage heavily with the  people around them and form strong and well-perceived connections.

Even people who haven’t been to UTAS are, apparently, aware of the role of UTAS and what use it can be to them. That’s a very powerful connection – both mental and community. The Governor then again stressed the importance of identifying all of the components of a strategy for a successful University, among them a prioritisation of Learning and Teaching, alongside Research and the usual key aspects.

An interesting talk from a unique part of Australia. We have a reception at Government House tonight where I will not have any opportunity at all to continue the discussion. 🙂

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