Immortality (of a sort)

Last week I submitted a teaching module on the Politics of Higher Education (co-authored with Cathy Rytmeister) for peer review. All going well, it should be part of a MOOC (massive open online course, for those outside higher education) next year. [Update: you can find Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching here. Enrolments are open to all and it is free of charge]. This is a predominantly Australian module that explores how history informs the future and takes a big picture look at the political, economic, social and cultural factors that have shaped the Australian higher education system as we know it today.

Working on the module gave me the opportunity to reread a wonderful historic collection, Select Documents in Australian History 1851-1900 (Clark, 1969), pictured below in my new reading nook at home.

Education is just one small section of the book, but is a great resource for thinking about the aims and purposes of a university. The collection includes a newspaper report of a speech by William Charles Wentworth to the Legislative Council of NSW on 4 October 1849 proposing the establishment of Australia’s first university, the University of Sydney. It reads:

[Wentworth] hoped the institution they now contemplated would afford a sphere of instruction, not for that colony alone, but for the whole family of man. That it would be the fountain of knowledge at whose spring all might drink, be they Christian, Mahomedan, Jew, or Heathen. That its gates would be open to all whether they were disciples of Moses, of Jesus, of Bramin, of Mahomed, or Vishnu, or of Buddha …

He believed [the establishment of the university] would be the crowning act of the deeds of the [Legislative] Council … So long as this institution should exist they would not be forgotten—so long as it flourished their memory would not decay. He looked upon this measure as more important than all that they had heretofore done in that House. They had passed laws, but those laws might be altered—might, in the change of fleeting circumstances, be swept away; but this measure—this, which was to enlighten the mind—to refine the understanding and to elevate the soul of their fellow-men—this, of all their acts, alone contained the germ of immortality (pp 697-698).

SydneyThe University of Sydney, circa 1863-1865. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

Also included in the collection is an excerpt from the 1904 Final Report of the Royal Commission on the University of Melbourne (Clark 1969) which describes the function of a university:

In a country like this, where there are no leisured classes, and where everyone has to make his living, a University can only be truly national by association with the life’s work of the people. It is too commonly supposed the object of a University is to train students to obtain degrees. Although this is doubtless an important function, yet, its chief object is to educate—that is, to fully develop the faculties of the students, and to extend the bounds of knowledge … In fact, a student should be able to get the best instruction and education in all branches of knowledge and, what is more important, actual training in the methods of research, so as to be able himself to add to the existing stock of knowledge (pp 698-699).

I love these glimpses into the hopes for the universities of the future. They are simultaneously egalitarian (open to all religions) and blinkered (for men only). They make great claims for knowledge, and appeal to pomposity (sadly, the Legislative Council can’t claim to be immortalised in our memory).

As an aside, it’s also enjoyable to take a look at the historical documents surrounding individual institutions. My own university, for example, was described on its establishment as ‘Australia’s most radical and unconventional university’ yet it carries the name of a staunch conservative governor (Mansfield and Hutchison, 1992). The university has a wonderful online archive relating to his life and work but, arguably, our institutional memory is more patchy. I did come across this interesting, but seemingly not recently updated, blog on the radical history of the university. It’s well worth a read for those interested in student activism, alongside Rebecca Dolhinow’s paper in Australian Universities’ Review on Activism on the Corporate Campus.

How much has really changed since these documents were written in 1849 and 1904? We are still focussed on the life’s work of the people, but we call it employability. We train students, including undergraduates, in research methods. We may not claim to enlighten the souls of our students but, by another name, we seek to transform them through our teaching. Plus ça change.

Mark one box only

Image result for same sex marriage postal vote

International readers will find themselves happily distant from the ridiculousness of same sex marriage postal vote here in Australia. At my university, Academic Senate issued a carefully worded statement:

The Academic Senate respects the diversity of opinions in relation to the issue of marriage equality. The Academic Senate encourages and advocates respectful debate around the issue and supports LGBTQI students and staff of the University, particularly at this time. The Academic Senate affirms its support for marriage equality

This statement attempts to simultaneously acknowledge dissenting views, advocate for debate, support staff and students and affirm a position. That’s a lot of baggage for three sentences!

Our VC issued the following message, which avoids an explicit positional statement:

Over the coming weeks I expect that we will see increased discussion about marriage in Australia. This is an emotive issue for many, and positions will be expressed passionately and firmly. At [our University], we expect that all members of our community will be respectful and courteous, regardless of their views on the issue. Staff and student Codes of Conduct apply at all times; these prohibit harassment or discrimination including on the basis of sexual orientation. We all have a right to learn, live and work in an environment free from prejudice and discrimination.

Our work together to strengthen the communitarian spirit of [the University] over many years is tested at times when societal issues which are divisive and polarising are on the table for discussion and decision across the nation. It is at such times that every member of the community of this University can contribute by ensuring the interactions and discourse are conducted in a way which recognises the great value that every student and staff member brings to [the University].

Other universities have issued similar statements. You can read various examples, more or less prevaricating, here and here and here. Clashes at (at least) one university provide some context for the multiple aims of these statements. And here are interesting cases of a retracted statement and pressure from a VC to vote yes.

I was frustrated by these equivocations, but I have had thoughtful discussions with colleagues and friends that have interrupted my thinking on whether, and how, institutions should make statements inviting debate about same sex marriage.  My usual inclination in politics is to favour constructive dissent—which is easy to say when it is not my life being debated— but I am now wondering what we gain (or lose) by framing same sex marriage as a debate, and reflecting on the contradictory discourses evident in these statements.

In so many areas, I want universities to have a stronger political voice (one example is Australia’s treatment of refugees, another is fossil fuel divestment). As always, @acahacker put it well in a tweet:

The unevenness of what is opened up for debate (within and beyond universities) and what remains unquestioned is thought-provoking.