By Chris Wallace
The most important event in the intellectual life of this city for a decade is underway and you may not even know. It’s the crafting of ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young’s ANU by 2020 strategy, now in draft form and the subject of staff and student consultation within the university.
ANU is the number one Australian university in world rankings – the legacy of its conscious establishment by the federal government as an overwhelmingly research-based institution. It’s a $900 million a year business, employs the equivalent of 1,500 full-time academic and 2,200 general staff, and has 4,300 graduate students and 8,300 undergraduates.
Those bald facts don’t convey ANU’s historic role in Australia’s national life or how important is the university’s ongoing ability to keep its sinew supple, renew its muscle and recharge its spark. ANU was designed to be Australia’s brains trust, nestled near the federal parliament, generating intellectual capital for the national good, and Young is now the one responsible for delivering on that promise.
The Coombs Building was the site of one ANU by 2020 consultation this week. Young met on Wednesday with the departments of History and Philosophy over an informal morning tea – informal in the sense that no-one actually wore uniforms, feathered head-dresses, body paint or had swords dangling at their side. Otherwise it had a lot in common with ritual tribal ceremonies where tribute is laid at the feet of the visiting chieftain and discourse is kept within culturally-prescribed boundaries.
The accounts of their respective departments’ academic standing and achievements from Professor Ann McGrath (History) and Professor Bob Goodin (Philosophy) was impressive. Each was followed by a doctoral student and an academic outlining their current work. All up it was a highly convincing forty-five minute pitch and Young can only have been impressed.
The new vice-chancellor then asked a simple question: what stands in the way of them doing more of the same? It was smart because it goes straight to what would make a difference to output. You’ve got to love an engineer (Young’s original discipline)!
There was a wonderful moment of clear air, a big pause, and then Bob Goodin pointed, arm outstretched, at the two ANU administrators with oversight of the History and Philosophy departments, who had accompanied Young to the morning tea consultation. “You!” he declared.
Goodin then outlined the increasingly dead weight he believes the ANU bureaucracy to be on the academic life of the university. Philosophy’s Professor Geoff Brennan backed him up, adding that the increased “disciplinarity” triggered by bureaucratic changes in the university over time undermines what has been one of the ANU’s strengths: the ability to harbour and host visiting scholars working across disciplinary boundaries.
Philosophy’s Dr Jeremy Shearmur followed on from Goodin and Brennan, noting that since the carving up of the ANU into “colleges”, academics were being told what to do, usually without consultation and with marked unresponsiveness to input. Shearmur said it had got steadily worse over his nineteen years at ANU and noted, in fairness, that increased bureaucratization had partly been forced on the university by external forces. However, he added, there had not been sufficient “principled resistance” to it.
The vice-chancellors of Australia’s significant universities are indeed tearing their hair out over the current phase of higher education policy from federal governments of both political persuasion. It lacks historical perspective, strategic feel and exhibits a reflex reaction to regulate and further bureaucratise education.
This needs to be distinguished from organizational trends within the ANU. Young’s predecessor, Ian Chubb, did something radical which appears to have worked: he integrated the previously separate research and teaching arms of the university. Otherwise, however, the accretion of bureaucracy at ANU, with its peculiarly unaccountable tone and ambiguous institutional payoff continues. Everyone, staff and students alike, has their own story of the ANU bureaucracy. When you look at academic to non-academic staff ratio above, it’s reminiscent of Australia’s dire armed-forces-to-Defence-public-servant ratio. Redistribute resources to the sharp end, please!
Bob Goodin got the last word in as the ANU administrators to whom he had so dramatically pointed earlier brought the interesting discussion to a premature close. “As I've told your predecessors,” he said to Young, “I can do anything but I can't do everything.” If Young can bring some business process re-engineering to the ANU bureaucracy, he’ll be the toast of the Coombs Building tea room and beyond.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 18 June 2011