Editor's Column

From Tragedy to Farce at Sydney University

For many years now, Quadrant has been describing the tragic decline of Australian universities and their replacement of traditional standards of scholarship with blatant leftist political ideology. In the past twelve months, however, tragedy has turned into farce. In particular, the story of what is now happening at the University of Sydney is enough to make graduates of that once venerable institution laugh or cry, or both.

Things started to go downhill fast in March this year when the University of Sydney appointed Mark Scott as vice-chancellor. Scott had no previous experience as an academic teacher and no research degrees. He usually calls himself “a manager” who claims he can run any organisation along corporate lines. That was what he said when the board of the ABC, on which I sat from 2006 to 2011, employed him as managing director and editor-in-chief. Despite promises that he would pursue greater diversity in the political views of staff appointments—he named Media Watch as one of the first programs he would reform—he failed to stem the rush of leftist staff appointments. As a result, the ABC went from bad to worse. On his watch, the long-term process of leftist staff capture of the corporation accelerated, giving them the almost complete control they enjoy today.

Keith Windschuttle appears in every Quadrant.
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The prospect of Scott managing a university on business principles will not last long. In fact, the first six months since his appointment was announced has seen a series of embarrassments for the university that have received rolling coverage in university publications, especially the student newspaper Honi Soit, and the newsletter of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, FASS News, which as an alumnus I receive regularly by email. The mainstream media have largely ignored this story, so let me tell it here.

Scott’s predecessor as vice-chancellor was Stephen Garton, who stood in for a few months between the departure of the long-standing vice-chancellor Michael Spence and Scott’s arrival in July this year. Garton used his short time in the job to nominate one his favourites, Annamarie Jagose, to his own former position as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost. Garton had done the same in 2017 when he appointed Jagose to succeed himself as Dean of Arts. It is hard to understand what Garton, who trained as a traditional historian, sees in Jagose. FASS News describes her qualifications as follows:

Annamarie Jagose is internationally known as a scholar in feminist studies, lesbian/gay studies and queer theory. She is the author of four monographs, most recently Orgasmology, which takes orgasm as its scholarly object in order to think queerly about questions of politics and pleasure; practice and subjectivity; agency and ethics.

Jagose was promoted to Dean of Arts following a stint in the university’s course in media studies, which attracts students who hope they will qualify as journalists but who discover after enrolment that their studies are dominated by radical theory rather than industry practice. It hardly needs saying that Jagose’s specialties in queer theory and cultural studies have no connection to traditional Western academic or vocational disciplines. It is a recently concocted ideology from identity politics. Among her research grants is one to study “Real sex in the cinema”, what most of us would call pornography.

This is the expertise of the person Mark Scott elevated to the university’s hierarchy. However, she has already embroiled him in two controversies that have generated unpleasant clashes with both students and staff.

The first issue centres on complaints by casual academic staff, those who teach students in tutorials and do occasional lecturing, that they were being underpaid. This was an academic union demand at Sydney that matched an existing claim of $16 million at the University of Melbourne. Last June, Garton, while still vice-chancellor, together with Jagose, then still the Dean of Arts, met a delegation of casual staff who accused the university of “wage theft” and unfair working conditions. The National Tertiary Education Union produced a survey of casuals that found 90 per cent had performed unpaid work in the second semester of the previous year. Garton and Jagose rejected the demand on largely semantic grounds about the meaning of “theft” and on their interpretation of the casuals’ enterprise agreement.

Students and permanent staff who had been allowed to attend the meeting in solidarity with casual staff were furious. They pointed out that the previous year the university had enjoyed a surplus of $106 million. Honi Soit reported the sequel: “Students confronted Garton and Jagose outside Taste Cafe, where the pair continued to evade questions, leaving when students started chanting: 1, 2, 3—F**k the VC!”

The second problematic issue is also about finances. In April, Jagose had drawn up an austerity plan for her faculty as part of overall university restructuring. She proposed saving $3.6 million a year by closing down courses and departments where enrolments were declining, and sacking their full-time and casual staff members. This included disbanding the School of Literature, Art and Media, the Department of Theatre and Performing Studies, and the Department of Studies in Religion. Students in these courses published an Open Letter in protest, signed by 200.

This generated a demonstration, complete with placards and loudspeakers, in the university quadrangle. Conspicuous by their presence was almost the entire body of students from the Gender and Cultural Studies departments, that is, students taking courses that Jagose herself had previously celebrated. They were particularly affronted by Jagose’s dismissal of their concerns. She actually claimed in FASS News that she was the one who was the victim in all of this. Some protesting students had chanted with her first name: “Annamarie get out. We know what you’re all about”. Jagose compared this “insinuatingly gendered recourse to my first name only” to the treatment of the alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins, who Scott Morrison once called “Brittany” in a public speech. Jagose made the most of this in her own defence: “The authority of the public man is augmented by referring to him via his patronymic surname; the authority of the public woman is undermined by the familiar claim to her personal name.”

However, the protesters were not amused by her pose as victim while she closed down departments, sacked staff and dismissed the claims of her university’s casual workers:

As members of Gender and Cultural Studies, we are well-positioned to identify this attack on women, queer people, and people of colour for what it is. To borrow a line from your message, you don’t have to be much of a queer theory maven to understand that women, queer people, and people of colour are far more likely to experience precarious employment involving poor wages and conditions, and systematic underpayment.

From July until September Jagose held her ground. When the Student Representative Council demanded she agree to “a publicly open and transparent meeting” between Dean and students, the Covid lockdown came to her rescue. She said she would stage a Zoom meeting but only six student representatives could attend and they could pose questions for just thirty minutes. The meeting that followed on September 9 did nothing to resolve the issue. Jagose declared she was “not going to accept the kind of stereotypical characterisation of a vicious managerial type with an axe hacking away” at staff and students. It was “hard work” being the Executive Dean of Arts, she said, and students should appreciate her for it.

In the middle of this impasse, Mark Scott arrived on campus. He took up his position as vice-chancellor on July 19. However, rather than take a firm stand, he soon made contradictory decisions about the issues involved.

On the one hand, he made a very public statement in support of Jagose by appointing her a permanent member of his administrative hierarchy. At the end of August, he confirmed her position as his Deputy Vice-Chancellor and university Provost, and went out of his way to publicly praise her “strong combination of leadership and management experience at the University”. At this time, he seemed to be positioning himself on the side of austerity.

However, by September 13 Scott decided to go down a different track. He announced he would accept the casuals’ charge of wage theft and pay their demands. He claimed a new analysis by the university’s accountants of payments backdated to 2014 showed the casuals were now owed $12.75 million. Hence, rather than face disaffected students and staff, Scott decided to portray himself as everyone’s friend.

None of this can last. Scott is now lumbered with two deputy vice-chancellors, both publicly committed to austerity, while he has taken the lazy politician’s response of buying off critics and letting the budget take care of itself. In the short term he has escaped the obscene chants hurled at Garton and Jagose. But in the longer term he has made a basket case for himself, a mess he will not find easy to untangle.

8 thoughts on “From Tragedy to Farce at Sydney University

  • Daffy says:

    Ah, the deceit of the universal manager. Having managed in a number of disparate fields I can say that managing in one’s own field is far simpler, more efficient, more effective and gains you more ears than fumbling around in a field that is not the one you know best. Happily, I’ve had great subordinates who I’ve got on well with so it all turned out well in the end. It doesn’t look like Scott is pursuing this approach.

  • terenc5 says:

    The university newsletter boasted that Australian VCs were the highest paid in the world. For this? Hoe about sacking all boards and appointing retired military officers and others with similar experience to sort out the lefties on campus. For a third of the wage. $300,000 sounds reasonable.

  • en passant says:

    Thanks to Frydeneconomics and the Covid Cash Splash Oz is broke. Oz ‘universities’ have to be a godsend for savings by simply cutting back their government grants by 50%. Oh, and cutting the ABC by 50% (or selling it off) would be another obviously good move.

  • padraic says:

    Phew! Not the Sydney Uni I knew. When I saw the CV of the Dean of Arts my initial reaction involved the expression “get a real job”

  • Stuart J. Burrows says:

    It seems that victim one-upmanship is the standard of debate we can look forward to. It’s hilarious how both Jagose and the students tried to invalidate the other by argumentum ab “oppressing women/queers/coloureds”.
    There was a similar round when Nicki Minaj tweeted about a family connection who had an adverse vaccine reaction. Joy Reid criticised her. (Both are black women.) Minaj responded: “The two white men sittin there nodding their heads cuz this uncle tomiana doing the work chile. How sad.”; “This is what happens when you’re so thirsty to down another black woman (by the request of the white man), that you didn’t bother to read all my tweets. “My God SISTER do better” imagine getting ur dumb ass on tv a min after a tweet to spread a false narrative about a black woman”; “A lying homophobic coon … Uncle Tomiana asked who on earth would trust the US FDA guys…”
    So we have a woman/queer academic vs women/queers/coloureds on a payment issue, and a black woman vs a black woman on vaccines, but somehow it’s still all about oppression by the straight white man.

  • ChrisPer says:

    David Stove
    Quadrant, May 1986, reprinted in Cricket versus Republicanism (Quakers Hill Press, 1995).

    THE FACULTY OF Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Long ago, I once proudly wore the white rabbit fur hood of a Sydney Arts graduate. Fake ermine it was, but back then Sydney Arts stood for scholarship that was hard earned, and an education that had considerable range and depth. Sydney Arts and students then may not have been perfect, but the older system at least turned out people who had a hold of sorts onto the wisdoms of the West; even amongst those who by the sixties were trying hard to dismantle these.
    There is so much now that is fake about a Sydney Arts degree that one wonders where to start. What on earth did Stephen Garton think he was doing allowing the Faculty of Arts to become a doctrinaire playground for querellous gender obsessives who hire only their own ilk, inevitably incapable of delivering sensible restructures? And why was Mark Scott ever made VC? Firm leadership that steers the University out of these shifting shoals is unlikely to emerge from a flighty bureaucrat lacking any academic gravitas. There must have been better candidates in this trail of wrong appointments.

    My only hope is that venerable institutions can outlast the people within them and renewal does come.

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