by MERLIN CROSSLEY
I recall sitting in bewilderment, listening to a primary school choir, and trying to deduce what was being performed. I whispered to a parent near me, who replied “I’m pretty sure they’re not all singing the same song”.
To me this stood out as an example of what happens when people aren’t all on the same page.
In academic institutions, since we value diversity of thought, originality, and improvements, we tend to shun conventional views. We like to spread out in our thinking.
I have heard it said this happens with idealistic politics too. I remember the joke – what do you have in a meeting of two Trotskyists? Three factions.
It’s the same with academics. Once one of my colleagues was asked why only four of the five people on the promotion committee agreed on recommending the applicant be promoted. He answered with a question – “Isn’t four academics agreeing on anything a university record?”
I’ve been told that when it comes to “progressives” they “fall in love” with different ideals, whereas “conservatives” “fall in line”, and unite to defend the things they value in the status quo.
Of course, there are diverse views across the political spectrum, and I don’t wish to generalise, but I do want to emphasise that, like it or not, singing from the same hymn sheet can be vitally important, whether you want to preserve what is good in universities or whether you want to push them in new directions and make them better.
We are at an amazing moment in history with the Universities Accord process underway and attempts seem to be working to align everyone, so we all pull in the same direction in our tug of war to build on what is good and to make things better.
The war is real. We have seen universities, scholars, and free thought under attack in various countries. We have also seen subtle but profound shifts in funding for different types of research and teaching, and attempts to fetter projects in areas such as climate change science and also multicultural studies. In Australia grants have been vetoed or announcements delayed and politicised, and the very importance of the sector has at times been undermined by positioning its ministry as involving a political demotion. I won’t go on.
In universities we sometimes fight inward battles with our own university bureaucracies, with grant funding bodies, or journal editors in our own disciplines, but really these people are all part of our great and innovative sector. The real enemy to intellectual progress exists in the shadows outside our realm and though we seldom say it – ignorance never sleeps. Progress is not guaranteed. Back sliding is possible and vested interests stand by waiting for disunity to cause us to falter.
So we need to be on the same page and to be reminded that actually we agree on and have far more in common than we disagree on.
But how do we do that?
I witnessed the initial establishment of Universities Australia, as it emerged as a stronger version of its predecessor the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. At first not every VC attended. Some felt their institution had little in common with others.
But gradually, as more and more information was shared, people began to understand how much we have in common, and our sector became stronger, much stronger.
It happened as people got to know and understand each other. And that happens not only by sharing big visions but also by sharing little things. By repeated daily updates reinforcing the fact that we are all working on teaching and research in different ways. Beyond this daily news establishes identities and communities, as reports of achievements and appointments are shared and celebrated. And policies improve as we learn from each other’s triumphs and adopt best practice, and we learn from each other’s failures.
Sometimes each university looks too inwardly upon itself, as individuals are absorbed in their discipline specific projects, and institutions try to drive their one true strategy. A sector wide commentary and overview provides balance, and as always, the fourth estate adds the critical edge that drives improvement and evolution.
Together this process of sharing is a process of learning about the world and about others, and with shared learning comes not only capability but also trust. Trust is what makes armies and communities strong.
We should be grateful to all those who have facilitated the sharing of daily news, and provided expert commentary and criticism that builds our community and makes us stronger, and more able to solve the problems of our age but also to overcome the forces of ignorance that seek to drag us backwards.
We must keep finding ways to learn from and about each other in order to remain strong.
Sent from my iPhone
Prof. Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality
It’s about our students