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Why Steve Irwin–You’re Dead!

They put spaghetti on toast, drink beer out of infuriatingly small glasses and give awards to the dead for toying with animals. This, by itself, might simply be another cultural statement about Australia. But when it involves an educational institution, a university which claims, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement, to be within the top 50 of the world, it probably deserves to be examined. On ‘Steve Irwin Day’ ( November 15), the University of Queensland decided to capitalise on Irwin’s memory one year after his death and posthumously award him an adjunct professorship.

Should this be questioned? If a barely living Michael Jackson can get an honorary degree from Oxford, so can Croc Hunter and Original Wild Life Warrior, Steve Irwin. An adjunct position might as well be a defunct position in many respects: it is given to persons outside faculty, often without academic rank, a means of giving students access to their ‘special’ knowledge. They are given honorary status, teach, and have access rights to the library and staff room, where distinctions between posthumous and intrahumous are often moot.

Another argument might be made. Universities are modern management houses, not centers of high learning that prize knowledge over commercial gimmickry. So why not reward business? Irwin was, after all, a business manager, managing everything from animals to his children. When he wasn’t reducing wildlife to desperate indignation before camera, he was ‘conserving’ them.

The aim of the Irwin industry was simple: a stake in Hollywood and a profitable enterprise that used animals in the manner of an eccentric zoo keeper on speed. One might call it ‘interactive’, high octane zoo keeping. It hardly qualifies as ‘research’. His American wife, Terri, did her best to support this endeavour, and daughter Bindi demonstrates why the interest in abolishing child exploitation in the late nineteenth century was such a bad idea: Bindi, now iconic, continues the legacy. She even writes songs, and the Australian public will listen.

The award also says much about the management style of the university in question. While the culprit was the School of Integrative Biology, it occurred on the Vice Chancellor’s watch. John Hay, terminal sufferer of the ‘edifice’ complex, has wailed about economic fundamentalism for some time. Here he was, fighting the forces of management, trying to make the best of a bad situation (reduced funding, economic stringency). All the time, he was beset by an ambition: to build himself into posterity. He did his best. Ghastly buildings that remind one of collapsible cardboard began to dominate the University of Queensland. Given his imminent retirement, this act of rewarding Irwin will not go unnoticed and may give him free admission to Australia Zoo.

Questioning the Irwin cult in Australia rarely takes place. This is obvious by such remarks as those by Professor Craig Franklin (another biological ‘integrationist’), who claimed that the posthumous award was made in recognition of Irwin’s ‘remarkable contribution to research and conservation.’ There is no debate on the subject, and a virtually non-existent list of research contributions by Irwin doesn’t trouble such cultists as Franklin. This is “commemorationism”. No questions asked.

BINOY KAMPMARK is a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He can be reached at bkampmark@gmail.com