The University of Melbourne is the top ranking institution in Australia and is up there among the best in the world. Of course, it’s a team effort – but the results might indicate that its leader for the past 13 years, Glyn Davis, has made a pretty decent fist of navigating its journey to the top through the turbulence of reforms and change.

And now, at the age of 58, he is leaving. In October, when Professor Duncan Maskell takes the reins, he’ll be heading off – but not into retirement.

“When I began academic life I hoped one day to be a professor of political science who contributed to public debate – and that remains my aspiration. There are books to write and a chance to return to teaching,” says Davis, who served as VC of Queensland’s Griffith University from 2002-05 prior to the Melbourne appointment

Among other things, he will be a visiting Professorial Fellow at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government and will serve on a government review of the Australian Public Service.

Davis is quick to acknowledge he is part of a “long chain” and that his time as Melbourne’s 29th VC will look short when set against the 165-year history of Australia’s second oldest university.

“It’s great to be part of a tradition – a shared enterprise that will long continue,” he says.

“That sense of an enterprise that crosses generations is true for everyone who works in a university. You contribute to something that gives back to the community over the very long run.”

Later in this article Davis will discuss his recent book, warn against the “risk of complacency” in the sector, and give his take on the notion that leftist cultural relativists are subverting Australian universities.


‘Engagement part of what it means to be an academic’

Davis kicked off his academic career in 1985 as a lecturer in public policy at Griffith University, but he has also managed a parallel occupation working in government at a senior level. He has only ever been a public servant … “I have never been a ministerial advisor or in a political role. For someone teaching public policy, working in government seemed a good way to add to my academic experience.”

He’s also been busy with other activities. Among other things, in 2008 he co-chaired the 2020 Summit, delivered the 2010 ABC Boyer Lectures and in 2003 commissioned the quarterly literary magazine, Griffith Review.  He serves on the boards of the Grattan Institute and the Melbourne Theatre Company. Davis is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and the Institute of Public Administration and in 2002 was made a Companion in the Order of Australia.

And as part of Melbourne’s engagement initiatives, Davis hosts a popular podcast series called The Policy Shop, examining Australian and global public policy challenges – guests have included luminaries such as AC Grayling and former UN Humanitarian Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Baroness Valerie Amos.

“My career aim was to contribute to public debate and the podcast is a chance to do that. I see engagement as being part of what it means to be an academic, which I like to think I still am,” he says.


‘Black sheep of the family’

Davis was born and raised in Sydney, attended Marist Brothers School in Kogarah, and then the University of New South Wales, from which he graduated with first class honours. His thesis supervisor was the scholar, journalist and public intellectual Donald Horne, author of The Lucky Country.

He counts Horne as a great influence.

“Donald was really keen on conversation and discussion. He was never shy about having an opinion, but he didn’t mind changing his opinion when he heard a better argument,” he recalls.

“I respected the intellectual honesty of saying most of us are not right most of the time, so you must be willing to listen and to change.”

On graduating, he won a journalism cadetship with The Sydney Morning Herald but at the same time he was offered a scholarship to undertake a PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Journalism runs in the family – his father and two brothers all work in media, and he grew up surrounded by talk of newspapers, scoops and leads. So he was seriously tempted by the Herald offer, but after much thought opted for the ANU scholarship.

“Not a journalist – that makes me the black sheep of the family,” he says.


‘That sounds like a wretched job’

Davis’s interest in public policy developed during his doctoral studies at ANU, and at one stage he took a couple of months off to work on a review of the public service commissioned by the then Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser.

The thought of academic administration never occurred. Davis recalls a conversation as a graduate student representative with then ANU VC Peter Karmel about the roles and responsibilities of the office.

“I remember shaking my head and thinking – that sounds like a wretched job.”

On completing his PhD, Davis undertook post-doctoral work as a Harkness Fellow at Berkeley, Brookings and Harvard in the United States – an experience that left a deep impression.

“I came back excited about the opportunities those universities provided their students.

“They offered undergraduates a broad education before they had to make their professional decision in graduate school. Whereas the Australian pattern was, and largely remains, that you must decide in Year 11 what you want to do – and that can be the rest of your life settled.

“I was never comfortable with that. I always wondered why we didn’t have more scope for choice and movement across fields.”


 Major rebranding exercise

Before taking up the Melbourne role, Davis had been VC at Queensland’s Griffith University for three years.

He’d had a long relationship with Griffith, starting as a lecturer in 1985, and eventually becoming a professor in the School of Politics and Public Policy.

At the time he was approached to see if he was interested in applying for the VC role, he was serving on secondment as Director-General of the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet, a post he held from 1998–2002.

“There are important differences between being the head of a government department and a VC, but many shared responsibilities. Thinking about institutional strategy, worrying about media and comms, dealing with communities of interest – these were all familiar.”

Davis launched into a major rebranding exercise to lift Griffith’s profile, including the development of a new medical school on the Gold Coast campus.

“I found it just a magic time. I worked with a really talented group of people in an institution filled with ambition and enthusiasm. It was just the most wonderful job, and an extraordinary privilege.”


Devising the Melbourne Model

Not long after his appointment as Melbourne VC, Davis launched the Growing Esteem strategy, a “triple helix” plan to transform the university into the country’s leading institution, boosting research and increasing engagement with its alumni and other communities – linked in turn to a new degree profile dubbed the Melbourne Model.

Under this, some 96 bachelors programs would be rolled up into just six liberal arts degrees and all professional programs would be taught at graduate level.

Towards the end of his first year at Melbourne, 2005, Davis circulated the strategy modelling how the new teaching plan could be achieved. Professor Peter McPhee, appointed Melbourne’s first Provost, then led the process from concept to design.

“Peter did a superb job with a really thorough consultative process,” he says.

“That was important because it meant that at the end of 2006, two years in, we had the full model worked out and we had a group of passionate people who had helped to frame the education philosophy and program.”

It was put to the university community.

“My most memorable academic meeting ever was the Academic Board session to consider the proposed curriculum. It was packed – every seat taken, people sitting on the floor, standing around the walls and hanging in the doorway. It was so crowded and none of us knew how it would go.

“We discussed why we were doing it and then the Melbourne Model was put to the vote. The support was unanimous.

“It was not just a thrilling day, but a vindication of the work Peter and colleagues had invested to make change possible.”


Advancement – ‘don’t do it, it will fail’

During his time in America, Davis had been impressed by the way universities engaged with alumni and other supporters. It seemed impossible to replicate – “there was a cultural assumption in Australia that you couldn’t do this here”.

Early on at Melbourne, Davis decided to test this assumption and commissioned a study to determine the prospects for a fund-raising campaign. The news wasn’t good.

“The results were stark and clear – any such campaign will fail. The alumni tell us they are not engaged, received no communications from the university, and don’t feel part of the institution. If the first time they hear from you is an appeal for money, they are just going to throw it in the bin.”

Heeding the advice, the university began a “friend raising” campaign designed to engage more deeply with alumni and to strengthen links with the university’s various communities.

Only when Council and senior management “felt the time was right” did they launch the Campaign for the University of Melbourne, with a target to raise $500 million in five years.

“It seemed an eye watering goal at the time, but we reached the goal in just three years. Council then doubled the target. The Campaign has now raised around $811 million, so the excellent progress continues.”

But it isn’t just about money, he says.

“The new relationships are opening opportunities for our students because so many of our alumni are now employers; a campaign puts you into conversation with the community; and it gives you a really focused view of the experience of our graduates, which helps thinking about curricula.”


The Australian Idea of a University

Last year Davis explicated his views on higher education in a book titled The Australian Idea of a University (and reviewed in CMM by Warren Bebbington).

Davis argues that Australia doesn’t have the diversity in higher education that could be expected “in a country of our size and wealth … and this is to the detriment of students because we narrow the choices open to them”.

Australian universities from the start were modelled on those in Britain, in particular Scottish universities. This “metropolitan model” became the standard, reinforced through policy and funding mechanisms “so that it’s now really the only choice offered”.

“We have on average the largest public universities in the world and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. More diversity, more range, would be great,” he says.

He acknowledges there are variations, but worries about “the narcissism of small differences”.

“If you stand outside and look at the Australian higher education sector, the differences are trivial compared to the similarities.

“No one would suggest that about the American system, which has a completely different logic of higher education.

“The differences between a community college in Los Angeles and Harvard are vast, but even within California there are profound differences between the three tiers of public university. You could not write a book about the idea of an American university because there isn’t just one.”

Over the next 15 to 20 years, suggests Davis, some half a million new students will add to the 1.3 million or so current students.

“We can just go on putting them into our existing institutions, which is what we have done for the past 25 years,” he says.

“Or we can use the money it will require to expand places to think more laterally about breaking the pattern.

“It doesn’t mean you force exiting universities to change – that’s futile. But we could think about new institutions and more diversity.”

Nevertheless, he says, Australia has a consistent and successful university system – “We don’t need to start from a position that we are doing this all wrong. It is just worth asking how we could be better.”


‘We have a moral responsibility to not be self-satisfied’

Davis recalls his former supervisor Donald Horne argued about the need always to guard against complacency.

People working today in the Australian higher education should also heed this advice, he says.

“We have to actually push ourselves constantly and in uncomfortable ways to make sure that the system is constantly improving.

“We have a moral responsibility to not be self-satisfied”.

Academics should “display our values” when engaged in discussions about the future of higher education or any other topic.

“Our debates should be rational, they should be richly informed by evidence, and they should be about ideas and not about playing the person. You judge the quality of the argument presented, not the speaker or their background”.


Postmodern identity politics

Davis is bemused by articles claiming Australian universities are populated by cultural relativists industriously indoctrinating their students in leftist propaganda and postmodern identity politics.

Referring to recent often-heated op-eds around the proposed Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, he says: “If it is true that universities feed students Marxist ideology, then it doesn’t seem to work.

“Graduates vote in much the same way as the broader community. They are more than capable of forming their own political judgements.”

The overwhelming majority of tertiary students, he notes, come to university for a professional qualification. Relatively few study politics or culture, but even in those fields “there is diversity of opinion offered to students”.

“The team that runs first year political science at Melbourne take professional pride in writing a curriculum that introduces an array of ways of thinking about politics. They ensure guest lecturers from all sides of a debate.”

He notes the current speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith, and the current President of the Senate, Scott Ryan, have both taught in the course.

“Universities deserve credit for taking seriously their commitment to intellectual curiosity and truth reached through debate and evidence.

“And in that environment, students use their time on campus to think for themselves about the life they value.”

“Who would not be excited to be part of such a project?”


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