The tragedy and self-harm of celebrity appointments in the universities

Jul 10, 2022
A Board and Diploma
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The appointment of Chancellors, celebrity professors and even high-level management in Australia’s universities, especially at the Australian National University, is best understood comparatively – as a template derived from the Roman Curia, and water polo – and through the application of The Generalised Iceberg Theorem: two-thirds of what determines outcomes takes place out of sight.

Appointments under the rubric just mentioned are made and pronounced ex cathedra – by virtue of, or in the exercise of certain offices or positions rather than by the informed and engaged community the appointee is ostensibly to become part of. And for good reason: it would, or should, scandalise any self-respecting academic community. (See, also, Bismarck’s Law on the making of sausages).

The problem is that, under the cloak of confidentiality, the sense of unease that many of these appointments are curious, scandalous, or bizarre is irrepressible. This sense is also permanent: the universities keep doing it.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise because it’s an extension of the way some appointments – I emphasise some – were traditionally made at the ANU (the author’s own university). From its earliest days, it maintained such close relations with government that its Vice-Chancellor, in 1955, could assure the Minister for External Affairs (who, in turn, assured the Prime Minister, but urged him nevertheless to pressure the Vice-Chancellor), that the ‘right type of man’ would be sought for appointment to the Chair of International Relations. Specifically and importantly, he was someone selected on the basis of ‘qualifications other than professional’.

This matters if the University is defined as a unique site of teaching, inquiry, research, and writing which, above all, is marked by its independence from the various forces which influence so much of the life outside of the academy. What it does, in classical formulation, is reduce the entropy of time and fight against it.

It fights against it, furthermore, as a stable institution, able, because of its historical consciousness, “to preserve at least a pocket of memory, “ and maintain, as Regis Debray recalls it, “a tribal reservation for the ethics of truth.”

The University, then, is of a dominant site of secular critique with the explicit purpose providing the educated and active citizenry who are indispensable for a free and inclusive democratic society, and within the belief that critical citizens are made, not born. In turn, turn, this democratic education must take the form of being an education for democracy and must argue for its means as well as its ends.

Ultimately, this is to be encapsulated within the principles which all education should take place, intellectual freedom and ethical responsibility. And also within the awareness that the University is perfect or ideal and is, perhaps, best described in the Latin phrase, ecclesia semper reformanda – a community always in need of reform.

A return to the sense of unease makes more sense, then, if set against the principles just canvassed, buttressed by the record, indicative only, of my alma mater – the Australian National University – because it provides a case in point.

For example, at the level of Chancellor, ANU’s appointments of late, reflect a predilection for former politicians of Cabinet level. Of the last five Chancellors (1994-2022) four have been so distinguished, and the list is bipartisan.

The question is why – why does the ANU (and it is not alone) feel the need to acquire former politicians to preside over its Council and play a leading role in official functions?

The immediate, almost reflex answer would be that such appointees have successful, even distinguished careers behind them which warrant such a position. But the immediate, equally reflex dismissal would be that, even if their respective careers were successful, there are certain types of success that ought to positively disqualify their appointments to the Chancellorship of any Australian university, not least the ANU.

Among these would be:

  • In political life, especially a lengthy political life they engaged in acts of bastardry. Excuses that this was required by the Party or the National Interest are hollow given that academics would be, and many are, held in contempt for proffering the same excuse for structuring their teaching, research, and writing along such lines.
  • As Ministers of the Crown they executed, or supported policies and strategies that made Australia complicit in, inter alia, genocide, and illegal wars and practices which were unethical and immoral.
  • In political life they were hostile to transparency and the principles on which academic-intellectual life is founded.
  • The appearance of political jockeying and/or favour-seeking at the expense of those universities who cannot attract former high-ranking political figures.
  • Their political careers were infused with a dedication to practices which are inimical to democratic politics and sound and robust scholarship, namely to operate under a veil of secrecy which, too often was to thwart questions and objections which engaged citizens would voice if they knew what was going on.

The above question, then, becomes urgent in the knowledge that the ANU has recently appointed former Liberal Party Senator, and Attorney General, George Brandis, to the position of Professor in the Practice of National Security in the National Security College (NSC) where, apparently, where he will continue the University’s work on national security policy and law.

Of note is that, politically speaking, Brandis rejoices in the persona once applied to him – “a big beast.” This, apparently is derived from his record while Attorney-General, which involved ministerial oversight and responsibility for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and domestic national security law, and the various controversial initiatives he took in that role.

On the public record and in reports over the last decade, these included:

  • Moves to block the release of secret archives that would reveal the Australian government’s knowledge of Indonesian war crimes in East Timor.
  • Dismissal as “nonsense” the idea that new intelligence secrecy laws could be invoked to save governments from political embarrassment.
  • Authorisation of an ASIO raid – and seizure of documentation – on the Canberra-based Australian lawyer representing the government of Timor-Leste in the dispute.
  • A record of consistent expansion of the power of the state against the individual in the most illiberal of ways – such as passing sweeping laws giving authorities access to citizens’ metadata, despite being unable to explain what metadata was.
  • Expansion of the government’s regime of control orders, so that children as young as 14 can be monitored in this way.
  • Proposing legislation to give ASIO officers greater immunity from prosecution if they commit a crime in the course of a “special intelligence operation”, which has no clear characteristic other than that the attorney-general declares it to exist as he pleases.

In brief, the NSC has not appointed a scholar dedicated to the openness of inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and academic and press freedom but a choreographer of secrecy. Secrecy in this context needs to be understood as both a force which structures social relations and mode of power against those who have been trained to encounter and uncover the enterprises of the state and to engage in critique of it.

It is concerned with the whole spectrum of the management of information – from evasion, to delay, to obfuscation. It is a strategy of denial.

The immediate question that arises, then, how a record such as this accords with an appointment to any self-respecting, self-critical university. Or perhaps the question should focus on the university and not the appointment: has the ANU finally, through its National Security College (NSC) in particular, succumbed to one of the worst instincts of its managerial class?

The precedent is found in 1997, when, in extraordinary attempt to prevent the Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission from making an Award to better protect fixed-term employees in higher education, the Australian Vice-Chancellors argued that the universities were no different to government departments and were, accordingly, “agencies of the state.”

It might also be noted that, on the establishment of the NSC, and in line with Public Service practice in general, security clearances were mandatory for all academic appointees.

What, then to make of the developments canvassed here? If the definition of the University and the vocabulary deployed in its service raises a smile because they are thought to be so archaic, then that, ironically, is the proof how far the academy has fallen.

As with the Church at the time of the Reformation, it is though the institution has gone elsewhere – it exists in partibus infidelium. What remains are the accidents – material qualities -of the traditional University, but not its essence.

Why, for example, call a former politician “Professor” when their career is, to say the least, untainted by loyalty to the Enlightenment project and their academic qualifications unlikely to get them shortlisted for even a base-grade lectureship?

Menzies must bear the blame. His project was incomplete: he did not establish a House of Lords and that is a great shame because Australia lacks some place wherein long-serving political apparatchiks with illusions of past adequacy could be diverted from the University. In such a place they could debate each other and instruct those with an excess of discretionary time, and experience the delight in being known as (for example) The Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland; indeed, this Great Office of State has remained vacant for the last 100 years and remains available.

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