Transparency: Our universal requirement

There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the removal of Teresa Sullivan as the President of the University of Virginia. You can read about it here or Mark’s excellent summary and commentary here, for a couple of summaries, or just search for more details because there is certainly no shortage of information. There are many theories as to why it may have happened but, what is completely clear from almost every source, Teresa Sullivan had managed to make impressive levels of positive change happen and with the agreement and support of a large percentage of her faculty and administrators.

Of course, all of us want to know the real reasons ‘why’ behind this decision because if an apparently successful President can get fired there must be a good reason. Right?

An unbiassed lens. Value this – they’re rare.

Despite wanting to speak to the Board of Visitors in open session, Sullivan has only been offered a closed session and, from what both she and the board have released, we have no real information to go on.

This is a catastrophic failure of transparency – one of the qualities that we (should) cherish as educators because it is the core of our objectivity, our ability to replicate results and of a fair system. At the start of every semester, I tell the students how they can earn their marks, what I expect, what their deadlines are, what the penalties are, where they can find our policies, what these policies mean to them and, believe me, I consider myself as bound to these statements as I do to my marriage vows. (And I am exceedingly married.) If I don’t tell my students what they need to do, then they have a black box model – they try inputs, see outputs and try to map one to the other. I don’t want them to waste time on this because I want them to learn the important stuff. By being open and transparent in my approach to teaching, we focus on the right things and work out how to do what I want, rather than guessing (and probably getting it wrong).

We can talk about the influence of boards, or unpopular decisions, as much as we want but the issue here is that the next President of UVa had better work out pretty quickly what the secret transformation is concealed inside that Black Box or they will join Teresa Sullivan on the outside. How can you attract someone with the values that you should expect to have in this position, if you can’t even tell the world how they didn’t meet a secret set of rules, apparently put in place by a small group of people.

Telling people what they need to do, giving them guidance on how to do it, being open and transparent about what these requirements are, for all comers and at all times, are the cornerstones of a fair, balanced and modern education system.

It’s a shame that the Board of Visitors at University of Virginia appear to have forgotten this.

Thoughts from the house of enquiry.

Today we renamed the building that is at the heart of the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences. The new name for our new eight-storey, highly efficient and environmentally sustainable building, only 18 months old, is Ingkarni Wardli. This name comes from the original custodians of the land upon which the University is built, the Kaurna people, one of the indigenous people of Australia. The name means “place of learning or enquiry” but another reading of the name is “house of enquiry“, which is my favourite.

Ingkarni Wardli
The University of Adelaide

At today’s ceremony, there were the usual speeches that ones would expect at an event of this nature but the big difference for me was the sincerity and genuine recognition that accompanied the renaming. The Kaurna people are extremely pleased to have a building named in this way, and that it is this building, because they value education and enquiry and place a strong emphasis in local cultural and educational leadership. Our Executive Dean, Professor Peter Dowd, has been strongly committed to this for some time and, to do it properly, it has taken some time. (Our Vice Chancellor, Professor James McWha, has made our reconciliation week events, recognising the custodianship and contribution of the indigenous communities, a significant part of our University culture for over a decade, and has also been strongly supportive of this initiative.)

Why did it take time? Because it would have been easy to do it quickly and get it wrong. The unthinking or uninformed use of words from another language are the source of much derision on the Internet and there are even web sites devoted to it. (Don’t even ask about that unfortunate town in Europe whose name is an obscenity in English.) It would have been easy to drag together a few smatterings of language from various peoples across the region, or from the larger groups in the East of Australia, and jam this name on to the building.

Of course, it would have been a meaningless and empty gesture – potentially even insulting in its ignorance – while giving a number of people that nice warm feeling that they had used a ‘native’ name.

I work at a University. Knowledge is our business. To be more precise, the correct use of knowledge is our business. For us, this would have been far worse than launching a Nova car in a Spanish speaking country – this would have revealed us to be shallow and insular, uncaring and insensitive. Ignorant.

So it took a while. We approached the Kaurna community and quickly discovered that our original suggestion was a word that made no sense by itself – it had to be combined with another word to become a sensible phrase. Approval was sought and granted. Plans were made. Signage was changed. Today, however, the building’s name actually changed. From now on, it is Ingkarni Wardli.

I felt privileged to be a part, even in a very minor way, in today’s ceremony. The Dean’s speech emphasised the importance of the name, why we had chosen it and how it brought our cultures together. He made a point that there are many synonyms for recognition but that the two most common antonyms are ignorance and forgetfulness. By recognising the Kaurna people and asking them for a name, to work with us on providing a name, we show our awareness, our remembrance and our knowledge of their presence in the past and in the present. The representatives of the Kaurna, among them a senior Kaurna elder who gave a wonderful speech, and other peoples present clearly felt recognised, acknowledged and remembered and this cemented the importance of the ceremony. This was not a segregated event – it was all of us together, bound by our love of learning and knowledge. Seekers all, together.

I have, with some regret, seen people sniping at the name, pulling faces, making comment about how long it took, even suggesting that no-one would use the name. To them, I say, grow up. Our students learn from us (the good and the bad things we do) and we have no time for such facile and, ultimately, useless gestures. If you genuinely want to change the name, state your case, make a stand and work to change it. If not, then start using it without the eye-rolling or deliberate mis-pronunciation. Names change all the time, for far less significant reasons than this. To snipe at a name just because of the race of the people it came from? I’m sure that there’s a word for that – and it’s not one that I would ever want to see associated with someone involved in the formation of new people and the development of emerging thinkers.

There are great divides between many cultures and it is rare to be able to find a bridge that connects two disparate cultures in a way that aligns their most treasured characteristics. The naming of our new building is a bridge between the learning culture that we all value at our University and the learning culture so valued, and recognised, by the Kaurna people.

This is a good name. I look forward to using it.