UWA VC’s big backdown

Staff force management to abandon Lomborg appointment

Nothing doing

A Hansardette suggests that whatever is in this year’s budget there will be nothing doing from last year’s in the Senate this week. There is no education legislation on the agenda at all. Chris Pyne’s deregulation plan is not forgotten, it is still government policy, but it looks gone.

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University of Western woeful

The way the University of Western Australia cancelled the proposed Australia Consensus Centre, to be headed by Bjorn Lomborg and funded by the feds and business, was as badly handled as the original announcement, which caught campus by surprise. On Friday afternoon Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson explained at length why he thought the Centre was entirely appropriate for UWA but that it would not proceed because of staff opposition. “Whilst I respect the right of staff to express their views on this matter, as all universities should be places for open and honest sharing and discussion of ideas, in this case, it has placed the university in a difficult position.” UWA staff take note: make enough noise on an issue and management will buckle.

It seems management neither anticipated nor knew what to do about the extraordinary opposition the announcement of the centre generated. On April 22, for example, the School of Animal Biology posted a long dissent to Dr Lomborg’s proposed adjunct appointment on its university Facebook page, which disappeared within hours. (CMM April 23). Staff say creating a research centre of the university is a matter of interest for senate and academic board and while Professor Johnson would have had the numbers on the former any discussion at the latter would have been loud and long. And then on Thursday at the second of two open meetings at the Business School , where the centre was to sit, the possibility of a staff vote was canvassed. Perhaps the probability of rejection made up the VCs mind because the next day he called the deal off.

It was a disastrous end to a bad week for Professor Johnson, with the university’s new corporate identity campaign, “pursue impossible” being less poorly than hilariously received. And it follows the continuing controversy over the demotion of Centre for Water Research chief Jorg Imberger, who has strong supporters in the Perth media.  Professor Johnson’s management of UWA is the talk of campus, and it is not complimentary. As the state branch of the National Tertiary Education Union described the utter absence of consensus over the Lomborg appointment on Saturday;  “the university has suffered a blow to its reputation by taking on the project, and will suffer another blow now, by being seen by some to have succumbed to a push for censorship. Nevertheless in our view the vice chancellor has now acted in the best interests of the long term reputation of the university.” But it was, the union added, a blow inflicted by the VC, “a more public risk assessment process, peer review, and broad academic consultation through the Academic Board may have led to a very different outcome and we hope to see these processes more comprehensively applied in future.

Uni Super duper

Hooray for UniSuper, the superannuation manager of the year, announced by the Prime Minister the other day in a statement as flat as earnings on super held in cash. I wonder what the critics who want the fund out of every industry they disapprove of will make of the achievement. But I know what members closing on retirement will feel – relief that they are with a fund that produces as much as it can for as little as it can. Of course it helps that as an industry-fund it has a stable membership base that it does not have to compete to hold onto. I wonder if the board has a plan to deal with the Murray Report recommendations for more competition for industry funds and a post retirement financial products for their members?

ANU new 5

Less strolling than striding

Although only acting as VC Andrew “the stroller” Taggart is getting things done at Murdoch U. When he took over from Richard Higgott, who stood down, and then resigned after the WA Corruption and Crime Commission announced he was being investigated last year, the Murdoch community thought Professor Taggart’s instructions from the chancellor were to keep the lights on but not much more. If so Professor Taggart obviously had other ideas, notably for an operational plan – the university’s new teaching and learning strategy is imminent, the research plan is close and an international growth strategy is said to be well underway. It looks like the work of a bloke who is happy in the service and would not mind staying on for a term in his own right but not so say various Murdoch watchers. “He is a bloke out of his comfort zone genuinely trying to do a good job while he in the chair but that’s as far as it goes,” one says.

The yanks are coming

For months CMM has urged universities with football team ties to link-up and form a national league or four, one for each code. Think of the alumni fund-raising opportunities in years to come when university football replaces the AFL/NRL/A League and whatever the rugby comp is called. But VCs, you must act now because the yanks are coming. There is talk of teams from college football conferences playing in Melbourne next year and given Australians will watch just about any sport it is not inconceivable that the irresistible force meets immoveable object Americans call football could take off.

What took him so long?
Steve Chapman 
took an entire week as new VC at Edith Cowan U to announce a restructure. Professor Chapman has already invited heads of schools to participate in his planning and management group meetings and is signalling his interest in having them to report direct to him. This must reassure the three executive deans no end.

Government approved

The Australian International Education Conference (Melbourne, October 3-6) includes a session on working with agents, led, among others, by Immigration official Mike Ferguson which may explain why one of the topics is “the regulatory framework – reconciling the inherent conflict between the drive for numbers and the reality of changing student visa frameworks.” “Reality” rather assumes that it is not possible for the government to create a durable visa system. Another intriguing topic is the question (rhetorical?) of Australian government accrediting agents. Intruding officialdom aside, this would certainly get Four Corners off provider backs when it is next time for a scandal story. The ABC could blame the government instead of universities.

Policy prevarication

What has happened to the research priorities, given a big tick by the Commonwealth Science Council last month at a meeting chaired by the prime minister (CMM April 14)? Such a big tick that the eight priorities which went into the meeting came out as nine.* But apparently this does not mean they were adopted, they are now, “with government” for consideration.

What after being agreed at a meeting attended by Mr Abbott, plus Education Minister Pyne, Health Minister Ley, Industry Minister Macfarlane and Science Parly Sec McPherson? Who’s left to consider them? Officials apparently, which is why the list of nine is now not prominent on government websites. One very senior university person who asked what was going was told that officials would respond when everything was settled. CMM hears all is well that the priorities are still in place but that policy takes times, whatever the PM agrees to. * food, soil and water, transport, cyber security, energy, resources, manufacturing, environmental change and health

Comedy of Errors

The Keep it Clever campaign (oh come on, you remember KiC) tweets that UWA “aims to make freely available 800 of Shakespeare’s plays.” So how did 733 previously missing dramatic works by the bard turn up in Perth? Perhaps the university’s “pursue (im)possible is working already.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au