Brave New World? More like an old undemocratic one.
NSW State Secretary, Genevieve Kelly, has penned the following letter (Campus Review, 15 August 2011) in response to Fred Hilmer’s argument that modern university governance needs fewer elected representatives.
“Academics – and particularly historians – must have stifled a laugh when they read Fred Hilmer’s prescription for a “brave new world” of university governance. (Campus Review, June 14). According to the UNSW vice-chancellor, modern university governance needs fewer elected representatives, to create a more streamlined approach.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear Professor Hilmer thinks a university council should be little more than a rubber stamp for the whims of its executive. Elections are a messy business, after all, and to quote Campus Review, “Hilmer believes elected representatives on a council end up representing their constituents …”
Heaven forbid. Following Professor Hilmer’s logic, the suffragettes had it wrong. In fact, while we’re at it, why not pare back the vote to property owning males? That whole democracy thing is a little overrated, and terribly inconvenient.
If the notion of intellectual freedom means anything in a university setting, Fred Hilmer is the one who has it wrong. What is even more worrying is that he seems to be softening up opinion ahead of an assault on the already limited collegial processes open to staff and student university council representatives.
Let’s establish some basic parameters around this debate. Decision-making works best when it is inclusive and accountable. Achieving those twin aims requires a diversity of opinion, where conflict can set creative processes into action. Getting that diversity is difficult without enshrined democratic practice.
We’ve seen this played out in the corporate world. A management executive like Professor Hilmer should be aware of the example set by the likes of Enron, HIH and, in more recent times, News Corp.
In the case of Enron, the board’s audit committee was told on numerous occasions between 1999 and 2001 that the company’s accounting procedures were high risk.
Yet none of the directors objected. Even when the company paid $750 million in cash bonuses to executives, despite a reported net income of $975 million, the board was compliant.
We all know how the Enron story played out.
Nobody is suggesting a similar fate will befall UNSW, but "pushing the envelope"-type behaviour is far more likely if a culture of head-nodding and backslapping pervades the university council.
At times, this may mean it will take longer to scrutinise and debate management plans. Indeed, in some cases, management’s plans will be thwarted. However, these checks and balance may mean the system is actually working.
Fred Hilmer cites the example of the university’s disastrous foray into Singapore and we’re led to believe he rode in as a knight in shining armour to protect the university from the board’s decision.
Without independent, feisty university councils, however, we would likely see more, not fewer, executive adventures like the Singapore experience.
Given the present dominance of business figures on the university council, UNSW is in danger of becoming hostage to a narrow commercial agenda that will limit its ability to fulfill a broader social mission.
Having councillors who represent constituencies beyond this narrow cabal will be vital for ensuring the university meets the needs of all its stakeholders, not just the few.”