Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dear Dead Days

A piece I wrote back in 1976 about how Melbourne University was run. A blend of quite accurate analysis of committee functioning and a total blindness about how the old collegial faculty- and professor-based university was quite soon going to flip over into an administrator-run business model.

A Bucketful of Fog

Chris Borthwick

Farrago, Friday, May 7, 1976

To most students the government of this university is rather like the weather. Inescapable, in general uncommented on, occasionally absolutely bloody, and quite unresponsive to anything they might say, shriek, plead or do. The rare activist seeks to take more positive action and goes after it like St. George after the dragon, only to find herself/himself rather more in the position of Ibsen's Peer Gynt battling the Great Boyg:

PEER GYNT (returning) Forward and back, it's just as far. Out or in, it's a narrow door. He's there! And there! And beyond the bend! As soon as I'm out, he rings me round. Your name? Let me see you! Say what you are!


PEER GYNT (groping about) Not dead, nor alive. Slime; gray air, Not even a form. It's like trading jabs With a den of snarling, half‑aware bear cubs. (Shrieks) Stand up to me!

THE VOICE The Boyg's not insane.


THE VOICE The Boyg doesn't strike.

PEER GYNT Fight! Come on!

THE VOICE The Boyg doesn't fight‑and doesn't lose.

PEER GYNT For a gnome on my back, raking his spurs! Or only so much as a year‑old troll! Something to fight with. But there's nothing at all­ Now he's snoring! Boyg!


PEER GYNT Use force!

THE VOICE The great Boyg conquers in quietness.

PEER GYNT If the price of life is this agony, even one hour's too much to pay. (Sinks down).

Unfortunately, any explanation that produces a clear and simple picture of the way the university works is going to give a totally misleading picture of a university that works tortuously, secretly, indirectly and blindly. All I can hope to do is to provide you with a slightly more educated brand of ignorance.

One way of mapping the progress of a proposal through the system might be to show it coming up from the faculty and going into the academic committee to be considered by the Vice‑Chancellor, the Deputy Vice‑Chancellor, the Chairman of the Board, the Vice‑Chairman of the Board, the Vice‑Principal, the Registrar, and 11 other people; sent from there to the Policy committee to be considered by the Vice‑Chancellor, the Deputy Vice‑Chancellor, the Chairman of the Board, the Vice‑Chairman of the Board, the Vice‑Principal, the Registrar, and 11 other people; passed on to the Professorial Board to be considered by the Vice‑Chancellor, the Deputy Vice‑Chancellor, the Chairman and Vice‑Chairman of the Board, the Vice‑Principal, and 150 other people; sent on to Council to be finally passed on by the Vice‑Chancellor, the Deputy Vice‑Chancellor, the Chairman of the Board, the Vice‑Principal, and 34 other people The power of a committee varies inversely with the number of people over and above the core. The weakest is the Professorial Board, which has 150 extra bodies; the strongest is the administrative committee, which has none.

Can we then conclude that power in the university lies in the hands of the Vice‑Chancellor? Regrettably, no. That's always been the problem with student agitation. It's never been possible to get public feeling moving on an issue unless it can be presented as a battle between the Vice‑Chancellor and the students; but any fight on that basis, any victory, even, on that basis, isn't going to have any effect on the deep structure of the university. Don't overlook the chairman of the Board ‑ he's ubiquitous, too.

The professorial members of the Council ‑ Professors Simon, Jubb, and Townsend ‑ sit on the Board, Council, Policy, the Joint Committee, the Central Budgets Committee, Central Building Planning, and Staff, not a bad selection. You can't draw a hard‑and‑fast division between administration and academics. The Vice‑Chancellor has probably got more power than anybody else, any other single person, but he has to work within a fairly limited set of boundaries established by the common assumptions of the men around him. These men are known collectively as the heavies. They are found at the heart of all the committees of the university and they have enormous influence. They may not be liked, they may not even be universally admired, but they are respected.

If you want to open up the upper levels of the university to wide public participation, the heavies have to have their powers diminished to make room for the newcomers. The problem that steps forward here is that the heavies haven't extorted their powers by force; they've been given them by free consent. Most of the top positions go (nominally) by election; if there was an immediate spill and another election the same men would probably get in again, and if they didn't others indistinguishable would. The heavies are chosen because they're bloody good at their jobs.

A lot of the business of the university has to be done ‑ 50 million dollars have to be spent (of that more later), appointments have to be made, decisions have to be taken. People who are willing to take them have to be found. People who will work hard, make no spectacular errors, stand up for their friends, can get the business through the committees ‑ particularly that last. Men who know how to handle committees are going to rise to the top in any system where committees rule. It's that simple.

Committee management is inherently manipulative, and that's the source of a lot of the complaints about the university and its functioning. Last week I was talking with a man who turned without a break from denouncing the Vice‑Chancellor for stifling an item by burying it in an inconspicuous position in the Board minutes to a consideration of how he could so arrange the business of a minor faculty committee he chaired so that there wouldn't be too much waffling discussion of one of the items he wanted to see passed. All committees corrupt; vital committees corrupt vitally.

There is very little point in putting student representatives on committees unless you are willing to accept the limitations of the medium. The successful committeeman never says no; he says yes, but... and people who want to say no, people who want to import moral issues into something everybody else around the table sees as a matter of mechanics, are going to get rolled. If you want the university to work – if you want the university to work better ‑ if you want the university, even, to work differently, join the committee: if you want a different university, forget about it.

Most of the decisions around the university wore taken either in Canberra or in 1950. The university does not exist to teach ‑ that function could be performed without nearly as much bother. It exists to give employment to teachers. Correspondingly, it has an immense aversion to firing people; consequently, it has the vast bulk of its funds tied up in salaries and very little scope for movements in unexpected directions. In times of dearth like the present it has virtually none ‑ if you assume, as the university in session invariably does, that nothing can be done without money to administer the change and that nobody will work except for payment. Money is a determinant too, in most of the changes that do take place. The cut goes deeper than simply "There's no money; we can't do (x)". Nobody can be around the university long without hearing "The money's there; we've got to do (x) or we'll lose it". It should also be noted that the only fully autonomous power students have is the power to switch subjects or (in extreme cases) to fail or drop out, thus costing their departments' anything between 625 and 2520 dollars.

The university is also governed by an accumulation of structure and theory dating back to the twelfth century or 1860, whichever is the nearer. There is general agreement that the university suffers from a number of disadvantages because of its size; there is complete unanimity that growth is an irreversible ailment. Any decision that has been taken that has added one staff member to the university cannot thereafter be reconsidered. The tensions between the professional faculties and the non‑professional faculties have been built into the foundations and cannot now be rethought. The concept of the discipline governs all. Discipline, as applied to the discipline of French, say, or Botany or Economic History, is one of the rare terms in use in this area that says what it means ‑ 'training, esp. of the kind that produces self‑control, orderliness, and obedience. . . ' and it is the cement that binds the university together. A professor in Engineering would not regard himself as competent to pronounce on whether a professor of Fine Arts was setting a course that was sensible, or enlightening, or balanced in its matter; he would regard himself as competent ‑ indeed, as compelled by the honour of the university ‑ to pronounce on whether or not it was sufficiently close to the requirements of a 'discipline' ‑ whether it makes its students work enough; whether it has enough essays or lectures. These are the things that the Academic Committee of the Professorial Board concerns itself with. It seems hardly appropriate to talk about hidden curriculum when everybody is prepared to be so entirely overt about it. Again, though, the critic of university government must be prepared to face the possibility that in criticising the university in this aspect we are in fact simply saying that we are not prepared to accept a university at all ‑ that we are looking for something entirely different that can only be found, if at all, somewhere else.

We've come some way from the chart. At this stage we are considering the narrowness of the area between the decisions the Vice‑Chancellor must make and the decisions he cannot make ‑ the two or three percent of what goes on around the university that can be affected by argument. Discouraging, isn't it?

Luckily, the scene is more open at the subject level. One of the most important things to realize in any survey of where power is in the university and how one lays hands on it is that the power over the last few years has been flowing from the centre to the faculties, and that most important decisions are now taken at faculty level. If you want to increase your influence (within limits, within limits) the faculty is the place to go. The central budgets committee now has students on it; the central budgets committee has just given most of its decision‑making power away to the faculty budgets committees, which don't. The problem now is that the student representation structure is highly centralized, designed to face a Vice‑Chancellor who has the clout, and isn't terribly well adapted to spread itself around the faculty level, while the faculty students’ societies do not attract the attention, prestige, or dedication that is evoked by the SRC. That's probably the most rewarding direction to take if you're after more say in decision‑making.

Remember, though, all through the system you're facing a very tough set of opponents and a very well‑defended set of institutions. You've got to decide between a good chance of getting minor changes and a minute chance of getting great changes. You're going to have to have stamina, disillusion, time, gab, insight, and nerve, all in enormous quantities. It is not easy, ever, to influence the university; but it can be done. Best of luck. I'll hold your coat.

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