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Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor

They are some of the most remunerated officials of one of Australia’s most importantly lucrative sectors, drawing huge “packages”, as they are termed, for little more than ribbon cutting, attending meetings and overseeing policies that, if implemented, will have to be reversed at some point.

The modern university is neither corporation nor government agency. But it has the worst elements of both, endorsing the rapacity of the former without its benefits, and the bureaucracy of the latter without its purpose.  In it, a hybrid has developed, one that has, in turn, brought forth further creations of horror: the pro-vice chancellor and the deputies, a praetorian guard of management heavies with pygmy visions and armies of support staff who have not set foot in a library in years.

Their entire existence – this draining cabal that hoards and feeds – is premised on the irrelevant and the intangible: a visit to a counterpart university in a country they can barely name, signing a memorandum of understanding they will never read again, overseeing policies they neither understand nor care to.  That’s the “vision thing”, the bollocks of strategy that has seen Australia’s 38 public university vice-chancellors paid an average of $890,000 in 2016, with 12 earning more than $1 million.

The University of Melbourne’s Glyn Davis, whose vice-chancellorship is coming to an end next month, has proven reflective on that point.  In an August issue of the Australian Financial Review, he was willing to certain observations “in the certain knowledge they will be of no use whatsoever.”  (Uselessness is always a good start, and shows the immediate hurt expressed by those who think themselves useful.)

One such kernel was the sense of not being needed, an obvious point the vice-chancellors have been attempting to overcome since they became recipients of university largesse.  Sensibly, the professorial class at the university fought off a professional full-time vice-chancellor role “for nearly 80 years”. Australia’s famous military commander and part-time chancellor of University of Melbourne Sir John Monash “quit in frustration, famously declaring that he found it easier to organise an army on the Western Front than to run a university.”

That essence of not needing the appointment immediately distorts and corrupts.  “So to endure, the vice-chancellor must show she brings some benefit to justify the inconvenience.”  This is where Davis hits his stride. The vice-chancellor must always claim relevance, importance, and need, even if there is little to show for it. He claims that “much vice-chancellorial work is external and therefore largely invisible to the professors – representing the university to government and business, enthusing the alumni, touching donors for money.”

Davis, in other words, is suggesting that the modern vice-chancellor is pimp, wooer and crawler, an individual who is not necessarily an academic superstar who will lead the academe but a promoter who will seek to advance the emptiness of a world view jotted down by business planners.

Central to that promotion is something that no vice-chancellor can ever resist babbling about: strategy.  “Guiding the priorities that mean we do some things but not others, that we ensure the university articulates, and lives by, its aspirations.” Strategy is where the fare is earned, the supper sung for, as it “requires a full armoury of skills – values, vision, clarity, communication, an implementation plan, evaluation, reporting back.”  Is this a university Davis is writing about, or some emaciated version of IBM or Microsoft?

When things go wrong, the university politburo digs in, retaining the most god-awful flunkeys to construct meaningless ripostes to what was, to begin with, meaningless.  The VC, PVCs and Deputy PVCs are all, essentially, running an institution into the ground, but want reassurance in doing so that they have the backing of people who are, in all likelihood, going to be their victims.

They seek complicity, encouragement and backing. Staff surveys are sought by vice-chancellors on the almost meaningless suggestions that they care what university workers actually think.  (They don’t, and never will.  Estranged, they operate in the celestial dimension of self-serving mantras and false gains.)

One such recently conducted survey at RMIT, which was encouraged by senior managers with a fretful insistence typical of a suicidal creature who knows he will succeed, merely served to demonstrate that university managers (turncoat or failed academics, for the most part) are disliked, are deemed to be lacking a vision, and really ought to be done away with. The response from the vice-chancellor in question to such failings?  Keep up the good work, staff! You know you are liked.  Many a bucket to expectorate into was procured at that endorsement.

Davis’ replacement is Professor Duncan Maskell, senior pro-vice chancellor (planning and resources) at the University of Cambridge. It is significant to note why Maskell is taking up the reins.  Introduced as an academic expert in bacterial infections of livestock and people, it is clear why he enchanted the selection panel.  “He was,” noted the Australian Financial Review, “co-founder of Arrow Therapeutics, which was sold to AstraZeneca in 2007, a sale reportedly worth $150 million.”

University of Melbourne Chancellor Allan Myers suppliedthe standard form for such appointment: Maskell was “outstanding” as an academic, but what mattered were the numbers, the turnovers, the promotions, the management.  “He has responsibility for a turnover of approximately £2 billion per annum and is also responsible for Cambridge’s major building program”.

It is exactly such sentiments that treat the vice-chancellor, not as an intellectual leader but as an overpaid pseudo-corporate official.  We are told repeatedly that education is a matter best left to the CEOs and the administrators, not the teachers and scribblers. It further explains why universities – take RMIT as an example – prefer an individual who lacks any higher degrees but who supposedly boasts the pedigree of a former Microsoft employee. Such a being knows“how to help the university decide what our fees should be, how to market us more effectively – where to play and how to win.” Never mind that job losses, higher fees, and cut-backs are the result, or that students get poorer returns.

The upshot here is that the university vice-chancellor is not only meaningless at best, but parasitic and even destructive at worst.  Drawing life from the institution he or she purportedly protects but is, in truth, mauling, such a creature is best done away with.  Removing this gargoyle of encumbrance would also enable those who actually do the work – the research and teaching – to finally shave off an entire layering of dead wood that lies heavy upon the spirit of learning.  Vision, indeed.

 

 

 

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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