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September 24, 2018

Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor

Binoy Kampmark


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 supplied the 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.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  
He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: