We Stand Together

Pigeon point lighthouse, with star-like rays emanating from the light.

I do, seriously, try to keep politics out of my posts but, without being too pompous about it, there is more to being an academic than a big robe and a silly hat. One of the great freedoms of the academic is that we can, to a large degree, do and say what we want in terms of speaking truth to power. In many regards, like many freedoms, this expression becomes an obligation when we see something happening that is contrary to our ideals and our beliefs.

Right now, the University of Western Australia, an institution of a similar nature to my own, has just finished holding a large meeting of its academic staff to discuss a new “Consensus Centre”, run by Bjorn Lomborg, and funded by $4 million of government funding. This, at a time, when the Australian Federal Government has been slashing every other body that, just possibly, has a contrary view to what they would like. Here is evidence that there is academic unrest over this decision at UWA.

Lomborg is a (deliberately) controversial figure who walks an odd line through the areas of climate and economics, believing in events but questioning their impact. He is a Contrarian who has been effectively dispatched from his own country and has been seeking a home for some time, along the way taking the opportunity to speak to at least a few right-leaning politicians who were looking for such an ally. This would all be part of the background noise of science, were it not that he has been, repeatedly, found to be in error and he has not seriously addressed the concerns. From a personal perspective, I think he finds it too easy to make the human lives of the third world equivalent to economic advantage in the first world – to put it simplistically, in his world, people in Africa can die if it makes good economic sense in Europe.

Today, it is my duty as an academic, as a scientist, as a believer in people and as a human being to speak out on this issue.

As I understand it, today’s meeting at the University of Western Australia was effectively a mockery of formal consultative process in that they held the meeting after the decision had been committed to irrevocably. Someone at the meeting reported that:

“UWA VC says Lomborg agreement with Government has been signed.”

Lomborg’s economic credentials are under question. Lomborg’s motives are under question. The Federal Government’s motives are under question. This decision cannot, and should not, be irrevocable.

We need to remember what we are.

We are Universities. We are servants of truth, bastions of art, culture and science. We are the lighthouses that keep the flame of knowledge burning when everything around us is dark.

We stand against the tide of ignorance and we push it back as best we can.

We are not for sale. We take a salary to live but we are not paid to think of one thing or another, we are paid to be the agents, advocates and guardians of the academy.

We do not repeat lies when we know that they are lies. We do not support the repetition of flawed and broken data because it sells books. We do not shore up politicians because it looks good on the bottom line.

I support the staff and students at UWA who are rightly outraged by this and are calling for the deceptively named Consensus Centre agreement to be nullified. I sincerely hope that this matter is resolved – the University of Western Australia is far, far better than this.

HERDSA 2012: President’s address at the closing

The President of HERDSA, Winthrop Professor Shelda Debowski, spoke to all of us after the final general session at the end of the conference. (As an aside, a Winthrop Professor, at the University of Western Australia, is equivalent to a full Professor (Level E) across the rest of Australia. You can read about it here on page 16 if you’re interested. For those outside Australia, the rest of the paper explains how our system of titles fits into the global usage schemes.) Anyway, back to W/Prof Debowski’s talk!

Last year, one of the big upheavals facing the community was a change at Government level from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council to the Office of Learning and Teaching, with associated changes in staffing and, from what I’m told, that rippled through the entire conference. This year, W/Prof Debowski started by referring to the change that the academic world faces every day – the casualisation of academics, disinterest in development, the highly competitive world in which we know work where waiting for the cream to rise would be easier if someone wasn’t shaking the container vigorously the whole time (my analogy). The word is changing, she said, but she asked us “is it changing for the better?”

“What is the custodial role of Higher Education?”

We have an increasing focus on performance and assigned criteria, if you don’t match these criteria then you’re in trouble and, as I’ve mentioned before, research focus usually towers over teaching prowess. There is not much evidence of a nuanced approach. The President asked us what we were doing to support people as they move towards being better academics? We are more and more frenetic regarding joining the dots in our career, but that gives us less time for reflection, learning, creativity, collegiality and connectivity. And we need all of these to be effective.

We’re, in her words, so busy trying to stay alive that we’ve lost sight of being academics with a strong sense of purpose, mission and a vision for the future. We need support – more fertile spaces and creative communities. We need recognition and acknowledgement.

One of the largest emerging foci, which has obviously resonated with me a great deal, is the question of academic identity. Who am I? What am I? Why am I doing this? What is my purpose? What is the function of Higher Education and what is my purpose within that environment? It’s hard to see the long term perspective here so it’s understandable that so many people think along the short term rails. But we need a narrative that encapsulates the mission and the purpose to which we are aspiring.

This requires a strategic approach – and most academics don’t understand the real rules of the game, by choice sometimes, and this prevents them from being strategic. You don’t stay in the right Higher Ed focus unless you are aware of what’s going on, what the news sources are, who you need to be listening to and, sometimes, what the basic questions are. Being ignorant of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education won’t be an impenetrable shield against the outcomes of people reacting to this report or government changes in the face of the report. You don’t have to be overly politicised but it’s naïve to think that you don’t have to understand your context. You need to have a sense of your place and the functions of your society. This is a fundamental understanding of cause and effect, being able to weigh up the possible consequences of your actions.

The President then referred to the Intelligent Careers work of Arthur et al (1995) and Jones and DeFilippi (1996) in taking the correct decisions for a better career. You need to know: why, how, who, what, where and when. You need to know when to go for grants as the best use of your time, which is not before you have all of the right publications and support, rather than blindly following a directive that “Everyone without 2 ARC DPs must submit a new grant every year to get the practice.”

(On a personal note, I submitted an ARC Discovery Project Application far too early and the feedback was so unpleasantly hostile, even unprofessionally so, that I nearly quit 18 months after my PhD to go and do something else. This point resonated with me quite deeply.)

W/Prof Debowski emphasised the importance of mentorship and encouraged us all to put more effort into mentoring or seeking mentorship. Mentorship was “a mirror to see yourself as others see you, a microscope to allow you to look at small details, a telescope/horoscope to let you look ahead to see the lay of the land in the future”. If you were a more senior person, that on finding someone languishing, you should be moving to mentor them. (Aside: I am very much in the ‘ready to be mentored’ category rather than the ‘ready to mentor’ so I just nodded at more senior looking people.)

It is difficult to understate the importance of collaboration and connections. Lots of people aren’t ready or confident and this is an international problem, not just an Australian one. Networking looks threatening and hard, people may need sponsorship to get in and build more sophisticated skills. Engagement is a way to link research and teaching with community, as well as your colleagues. There are also accompanying institutional responsibilities here, with the scope for a lot of social engineering at the institutional level. This requires the institutions to ensure that their focuses will allow people to thrive: if they’re fixated on research, learning and teaching specialists will look bad. We need a consistent, fair, strategic and forward-looking framework for recognising excellence. W/Prof Debowski, who is from University of Western Australia, noted that “collegiality” had been added to performance reviews at her institution – so your research and educational excellence was weighed against your ability to work with others. However, we do it, there’s not much argument that we need to change culture and leadership and that all of us, our leaders included, are feeling the pinch.

The President argued that Academic Practice is at the core of a network that is built out of Scholarship, Research, Leadership and Measures of Learning and Teaching, but we also need leaders of University development to understand how we build things and can support development, as well as an Holistic Environment for Learning and Teaching.

The President finished with a discussion of HERDSA’s roles: Fellowships, branches, the conferences, the journal, the news, a weekly mailing list, occasional guides and publications, new scholar support and OLT funded projects. Of course, this all ties back to community, the theme of the conference, but from my previous posts, the issue of identity is looming large for everyone in learning and teaching at the tertiary level.

Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our environment?

It was a good way to make us think about the challenges that we faced as we left the space where everyone was committed to thinking about L&T and making change where possible, going back to the world where support was not as guaranteed, colleagues would not necessarily be as open or as ready for change, and even starting a discussion that didn’t use the shibboleths of the research-focused community could result in low levels of attention and, ultimately, no action.

The President’s talk made us think about the challenges but, also, by focusing on strategy and mentorship, making us realise that we could plan for better, build for the future and that we were very much not alone.