In 1972 the mathematician Lorenz explained that “a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a tornado in Texas.”  This was a striking illustration of global impact – “act locally, think globally.”

I keep reflecting on all this. The flap of a butterfly’s wings may sometimes have a global impact, but most often it won’t. As spring springs in eastern Australia, I’m waiting to see the Blue Triangles, Orchard butterflies, and the majestic Monarchs (the Wanderers) flying about. I’m pretty confident there will be more butterflies than tornadoes again this year.

The butterflies will have an effect on me, but it will be a local effect. I enjoy seeing them. Perhaps there will also be Caper Whites. Some years we get a good Caper White migration and you’ll see them in your neighbourhood in large numbers. They are like Cabbage Whites but a little larger and with heavy black webbed wings tinged with yellow, instead of just having two black dots. And they are native rather than European.

As I look out for butterflies I won’t be acting locally and thinking globally, I’ll be acting locally and thinking locally too. I’ll be mindful of that other great line, “everyone wants to save the planet, but no one wants to help with the dishes.”  As we move back to campus after COVID I will also be trying to encourage and support on campus events.

Global recognition and impact is important, but it should not always be prioritised over local action that occurs  “on country.” I guess modern Australia has always suffered from the “cultural cringe” and a feeling that “life is elsewhere,” but after two years of living locally I think many of us have discovered that real local communities are hugely important, and contributions to local events matter.

The trouble, of course, is that the importance of local contributions can be difficult to measure. I once had a colleague on the university promotion committee who explained that a senior lecturer should have impact within the state, an associate professor within Australia, and a professor should have an international reputation and impact.

This classification was neat and measurable. It satisfied a longing for objective clarity, but it stuck in my throat. Such a system could support the promotion of a generation of professors, who like Tony Hancock’s radio ham, had a friend in every university … except their own. I felt that the quality of local contribution was a key issue at every level – but acknowledged that both local impact and global reach were worth looking for.

In sport I am heartened that the Australian Rules football and the State of Origin games seem to be as respected as the Olympics. There is no doubt that in many sports (though perhaps not in Sheffield Shield cricket) local achievement is well and truly enough.

For students and their teachers, local academic achievement is important. Currently students may be tuning in from across the world but it is important that they connect with someone here – and if it’s me it will be someone here on Bidjigal Country. The real interactions students have with their teachers and with each other will sit within their memories and help shape their identities. The substance will relate to individual lecturers, individual classes, and courses co-ordinated by people within academic departments or schools – not by the university bureaucracy as a whole or by “the cloud.”

Nor do I expect AI tutors to take over. AI will increasingly deliver rapid and accurate fact checking but it won’t be what inspires students to sweat through their studies. You need a proper football coach of flesh and blood to drive you to be intellectually match fit, and you need to hone your skills with teammates rather than just practicing drills on Wii.

The butterflies are coming back to campus now and the students too. Some are still stuck offshore, and now that so much is available digitally some will miss the occasional class and catch up on-line. I won’t be mandating attendance at everything (because that’s not fair on everyone) but I’ll be nudging at every opportunity. Because local events, lectures, tutes, pracs, seminars, conferences, and celebrations are the stuff of life.

And I hope our students when they graduate will prioritise their contributions to their local communities and gain a sense of belonging from that. A few will have a global impact, some will be like the poet Homer and create great works from isolated island homes, some will make world changing discoveries, others will just be appreciated locally, and yes, a few may generate tornadoes in Texas, but hopefully only a few.

Professor Merlin Crossley,Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality 



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