Parachuted professors

Apr 11, 2023
Illustration of a graduate in cap and gown with scroll

In a who-cares-about-standards world, the appointment of some university professors looks very much like insider trading, secret patronage, and who you know, not what you know. How else to explain appointments as professors of public figures, seemingly agile enough to vault over the usual obstacles straight to the top of the academic hierarchy?

Most treadmill academics have no such luxury, as they toil over many years to achieve stratospheric student evaluations, acquire large research grants, publish quotas of refereed articles, write books and undertake masses of soul-destroying administration. They’re also expected to conjure a track record of original research, develop ‘marketable’ units and undertake what is glibly referred to as ‘community service’.

The ascent to the professoriate from the lowly rung of associate lecturer or lecturer is long and arduous, often taking its toll on the mental health of upwardly mobile aspirants. Many prefer to consign themselves to a life of status obscurity by remaining at their appointed level until they reach retirement, or experience premature death. Traditionally, there have been two avenues to attaining the most prestigious academic positions. Until the end of the 20th century, or thereabouts, most professorial positions were advertised internationally. Candidates’ applications were subject to rigorous appraisal of their research, teaching and publications record. A shortlist was drawn up by a qualified and diverse university committee. Nothing secret; everything in the open; criteria clear and transparent, and every effort made to afford short-listed candidates an equal opportunity of obtaining a given position.

The process is not without its drawbacks, of course. Occasionally manoeuvrings in relationships bore fruit for some candidates over others, but generally speaking, every effort was made to ensure that standards were maintained. Since the beginning of the 21st century, professorial appointments resulting from international advertisement and open competition have been replaced in many instances by less than transparent processes. Many treadmill academics are understandably perturbed to learn of certain individuals being catapulted into professorships without having to respond to an advertisement or of having to go through years of in-house scrutiny. These same individuals are rarely if ever exposed to the nuances of academic culture which, once upon a time, was all about interdisciplinary collegiality. No longer.

Instead, a new practice of celebrity parachuting has taken hold. The process involves a high-profile politician, journalist or public servant donning a corporate parachute and landing straight into a leather-bound professorial chair, from which s/he is invited to conduct various administrative and scholarly duties.

The chosen few, and there are growing numbers of them, such as former political heavyweights like George Brandis (Professor in the Practice of National Security, Policy and Law, ANU), Pru Goward (Professor of Social Interventions and Policy, Western Sydney University), and journalist Peter Greste (Adjunct Professor, School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland) have benefitted from their membership of an exclusive club. Reputationally, however, you’d surely expect these parachute jumpers to have an admirable track record, free of too many controversies. It doesn’t always turn out that way.

In October 2021, the Australian Financial Review noted how former NSW state Minister, Pru Goward took issue with the “underclass”, describing lower socio-economic Australians as “dysfunctional, lazy proles”. Did such insights influence her appointment as a Professor of Social Intervention and Policy at the University of Western Sydney? As further proof of her qualification as a social policy visionary, she described social workers, front-line staff in social welfare interventions, as “patronising do gooders”, “who had thought it would be nice to be kind for a living”. Pru Goward now gains her living as a professor? Really?

George Brandis is another recently parachuted appointee. His seemingly glittering political and legal career was punctuated by numerous controversies, including, inter alia, supporting and approving an ASIO raid on former ACT Attorney General and brave whistle-blower Bernard Collaery, a decision heavily criticised by the International Court of Justice which determined that evidence from the raid could not be used. Never bashful of airing his views, Brandis also took to attacking those deemed unacceptable to the less-than-compassionate Abbott government, including the celebrated Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, whose independence he questioned. Brandis also accused The Greens of being “eco fascist”, and opined that “people have a right to be bigots”.

And then there’s journalist Peter Greste: deservedly well known for having endured imprisonment in Egypt. Yet once ensconced in his academic post, Greste publicly states that Julian Assange is not really a journalist – an ill-informed and cruel attack on an already vulnerable and well credentialed person. If the Notoriety for Ever club were to fund a really worthy cause, Julian Assange could be awarded several professorial appointments by offering him a chair of media communications, digital know-how, political courage, investigative reporting, and intolerance of cruelty and injustice.

In a world of scepticism about science, and reluctance to properly fund universities, tertiary chiefs seem to think that prestige might be gained by adding known names to their academic roster. Like bogus claims about the benefits of trickledown economics, appointing a pompous former Attorney General to a national university is assumed to change the public’s perception of institutional importance. The question surely is: can crusty, hard-nosed celebrity politicians adapt to the realities of what is supposed to be the cut and thrust of intellectual life? How do they navigate the schism between realpolitik and what counts as intellectual work (admittedly, not easy in today’s university environment). Are we seriously to believe that back door professorial appointments are simply the transfer of expertise from one professional arena to another? George Brandis a professor? You must be joking! Apparently not. In the end, questionable appointments of celebrity figures with dubious track records to prestigious academic positions only serves to further diminish the reputation of Australian universities. Without proper scrutiny of qualification and skills relevance, appraisal of standards in teaching, and peer evaluation of publications, celebrity appointments appear to replicate age-old habits of patronage and privilege.

Ultimately, the revival of university collegiality, agreeable standards and satisfying employment opportunities are hindered, not aided, by parachuting public notables to professorial positions.

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