The Quaintly Archaic Realm of Pointless Professors: A Case Study

Of course, when you are paying tuition fees (deferred or otherwise) the aim of the game when doing an undergraduate degree at a university is to pass all your courses and gain the intended qualification. What is the point otherwise? And these days, all undergraduates pay tuition fees (of one sort or another).

When your progress through a degree is measured by examination results, you will be wanting to avoid failures. The routine is pretty straight forward: follow what’s being delivered by your lecturers and return the answers that your instructors would judge as being correct for all assignments, tests and formal examinations. There is no real place in this routine for a good old argument. Usually. You either get a grasp on what are perceived by your instructors to be the ‘correct’ answers to likely examination questions or you fail. All of which is reasonably tried and true and perfectly acceptable to most students, particularly at the undergraduate level. Most undergrads have yet to derive a hot critical capacity through which to question the established wisdom of their instructors; so they mostly accept what they are taught as being, more or less, correct.

Now there is a huge cultural infrastructure behind this standard routine of trusting in what you are taught. All students come to appreciate the traditions of academic pecking orders and the related ascendency of apparent omniscience as an instructor progresses from the mere tutor level through to the god-like pinnacle of perfection embodied by full professors. But it is not just the students who tend to lap up this hierarchical pedigree thing; most academics believe in this ranking system with all the passions of a religious cult.

I am reasonably sure I started to question the perfection of this scheme by about the second year of my own four year undergraduate degree. Mainly because it was perfectly possible to uncover completely opposite opinions on some of the cardinal facts presented for our dutiful regurgitation. All you had to do is follow a few references down the chain into at most the mid-depths of grey upon which each fact floats to inspire ugly scenes of dissent in our orderly lecture halls. Libraries are dangerous places! Naturally, there are some teachers who like a good argument and reward those who seek nuance to the basics of any subject with higher marks. But there are even more teachers who take arguments from undergraduates as a personal assault. You can pick these latter instructors by the yes/no, tick box style exams they design.

Way back in the 1970’s, I completed a bachelors degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. My favourite courses were those that welcomed argument. My least favourite were those which demanded unequivocal, pin-point precision: like mathematics. Which is why, I now believe, the very least intelligent economists are those who like to articulate their thoughts through mathematics rather than equivocal prose. Which kind of explained why there was such a huge emphasis on mathematics as the language of economics at the University of New England at that time…

Marriage brought me back to Armidale ten years later after a wonderful stint as an economist with the then Department of Agriculture (where I could specialise in my favourite subject of the bee keeping industry). My wife was on a farm so was kind of fixed location wise (its hard to move house with 8,000 sheep in tow). So I applied for a tutorship as a pathway to a PhD.

Now that I was on the teaching side of things, I recalled the frustrations of argument avoidance when the pleasures of argument could be so much more fulfilling; for both me and my students. I bet you can see a problem developing here…

In the mid to late 1980’s, the ‘agricultural’ side of the agricultural economics teaching domain was regarded by my almost universally mathematically bent colleagues as a the crude, embarrassing side of an otherwise illustrious disciplinary domain. Our esteemed ‘senior colleagues’ would universally carve out the mathematical economics side of things as their own and find some poor schmuck to take on icky stuff like ‘farm management’ and the like. The tradition was to dump the dirty boots stuff on tutoring staff; like me. Fortunately, that suited me just fine! At least from my point of view.

You see, as I implied above, when mathematics is not the language of instruction, the prospect for argument and endless loops of animated research debate are free to reign. The very first thing I did when I took over the farm management dimension of my school’s agricultural economics undergraduate degree was to throw out all the archaic nonsense of programmable management; like linear programming and the like. Real farmers don’t construct elaborate mathematical predictive pathways to the resolution of perfect, optimal solutions to the conundrums that confound the vagaries of their cash flow. Most farmers know that all those unknowable bits like the weather, casino -like commodity prices and government policy shifts will always get in the way of any pretence to predictive precision. Rather, farm management is all about being systematic at interpreting and understanding the fundamentally chaotic system within which they operate. The more you admit the real world of chaos into farm management, the less and less mathematics has to offer. This suited me just fine. So I shifted the entire teaching programme towards farming systems management, with a big emphasis on understanding the various and numerous sources of chance that confront any real world manager. I kept hiring busses and kept on bussing my troops out to farms and forests to interact with primary producers first hand. My course started to cost a lot… Questions started to be asked. My contract renewals never exceeded two years at a time.

Incrementally, I stepped up from tutor to lecturer (level A to level B). Then I started to take on natural resource economics as well. Which is pretty well in line with the direction of my PhD (focused on the pollination business of the beekeeping industry). I started to observe some disquieting things. Like an active market in used major assessment projects for one of the courses I had just taken on. One of our Associate Professors had a kind of relaxed approach to the design of his student assessment projects: he’d simply rotate two projects over an ever recurring two year cycle. Canny students would search for high ranking projects from past students and simply tinker with their workings and resubmit for top marks. The market for these high ranked past project reports had become busy to say the least. So I had some major re-design work to do here as well.

As time passed, I started to develop some rather strong misgivings with regard to some of my colleagues. There were a few professors, I noticed, who contributed almost nothing at all. These kings were kind of light-on. One would tend to turn up irregularly only to lounge in his office listening to the cricket. Another, ‘highly esteemed international star in his field’ tended  mainly to visit to pick up his more than regular deliveries of wine. Then one day, my PhD supervisor (an Associate Professor en route to full Professorship two years hence) confronted me in the corridor and suggested that he would need to resign as a supervisor because ‘your inevitable failure will put a black mark on my record’. Now this guy had contributed virtually nothing to my work from day one (he was appointed to me rather than the other way around) and my work had started to diverge well into territory he considered to be heretical; but I still, naively, thought academics loved a great argument so this would be a journey for both of us. That was the big turning point for me in relation to my hitherto at least marginal acceptance of the hierarchies of grandeur upon which academics are wont to pose. This bloke was an embarrassment to my ideals for what a Professor should be all about! Yes, he was mathematically bent. He had diverted me onto pointless mathematical dead ends from day one. He even insisted that I visit his own personal academic hero when I went off on a study tour to the USA. At least I had the chance to meet an academic of at most equal worth to my supervisor and thus confirm the international spread of this academic malaise. But I got my PhD and it won an award. No doubt this helped my supervisor to get his promotion to full professor. He has only barely grunted at me since. He’s probably still embarrassed by my heresies… But this guy was a wonderful mentor for how to supervise a PhD. Henceforth, I would adopt an opposite approach in every way; which worked over the 20 PhD’s I supervised since.

But it all got worse when, following the duties I perceived for the teaching of natural resource economics, I started to explore the very new territory of ecological economics. I could have started to urinate in church by the reaction from my professorial colleagues. The Head of School started to receive complaints (he loved to tell me all about the antics of these complaining dorks). When I went on the organise the inaugural Ecological Economics Conference for Australia, I discovered that one of my ‘colleagues’ had threatened his own post graduate students with expulsion if they went to the event. This Conference was a huge hit. Academics came from around Australia (we located the event in the beach venue of Coffs Harbour). Not one academic from the University of New England attended. Not one. Two of my own students turned up. Something was wrong at the University of New England. And something was wrong with the renewal of my academic contract. I was to be ‘let go’ at the end of the year.

At this point I discovered the one and only Professor for whom I ever had any regard (in Australia). Professor John J Pigram. A geographer by training, he was then the Director of the rather world famous Centre for Water Policy Research at my university. John’s Centre was, literally, an island out on its own. A long and successful Centre with a cast of of high repute players on board; this crowd were disciplinarily eclectic to the core. So together with two of my PhD students, we went to pay John J Pigram a visit. Would he like all my Phd students (four at the time) and two of my Australian Research Council grants to add to his Centre’s core? He considered for a minute or two, picked up the phone and we were in. I was put on the books as a ‘consulting academic’. I would be paid in accordance with the research income I would bring in. I ended up being paid more than a full professor within a year. My PhD students grew to 18 within two years and our research income grew to the same degree. This Centre for Water Policy Research had taken on Ecological Economics with a passion. We prospered. We had a great time.

Like a hoard of Miss Haversham’s, my ex colleagues muttered and brayed behind closed doors; but I had plants on the inside to tell me all. I connected with the University’s Vice Chancellor who could see the merits of what it is that we could do. I eventually became the Centre’s next Director on the retirement of John J Pigram, ‘normalised’ (in the magical language of this University’s HR bureaucrats) down to a five year contract at the level of Associate Professor. And so we went for five great years. My emphasis was on matching PhD research projects with real world issues of significant regional concern. We were always testing the capacities of our ‘transdisciplinary’ team based approaches to dealing with hitherto intractable issues like logging in Tasmania and resolving unresolvable regional planning issues like the management of floods and the development of regional visions through which to underpin community-driven regional development planning.

But it all came crashing down. My supportive VIce Chancellor came to the end of her contract and moved on. The university’s professorial elites banded together to influence the selection of a replacement who would ‘respect their traditions’ and, generally, make their lives more comfortable than had been the case thus far. So they selected one of the most profoundly appalling intellectual dullards of all time to take over the show. They selected a pathological managerialist to drive the ship. They selected a professor who’d developed the notion that an organisation as complex as a university could be managed like a self regulating machine. His task was to rewire the works so that his autopilot could work. Out went anything vaguely challenging to his vision of sharply connected disciplinary cogs. His vision was for mechanisms of self regulating silos under a cascade of pathologically linear command and control. A ‘transdisciplinary’ research centre unconnected to the silos of his dream was hardly a sustainable proposition, as we were soon told.

In his first week, this Professor in charge came to pay us a visit. I had arranged for our impressively enthusiastic cohort of students, mentors and staff to entertain his visit and seek pathways through this vision with which we could never agree. We presented our work and our aims. We noted that what it was that we did was a precise fit to the new University Vision he had imposed (via a process of ‘consultation’ that Hitler would have admired): Regional Relevance with Global Impact. That’s precisely what we had been doing for years. Very few groups at our university had become so involved in work of strong regional relevance by way of extension to Global Impact as us. But I soon became crippled with embarrassment as this astoundingly appalling man declared that we would be wound up no matter what: we did not fit into his grand silo plan. As we were transdisciplinary, we would always be an ill-fit for a structure to be built around disciplinary concentration. This guy set the University back by, I reckon, 100 years.

So, they waited for my contract to fizzle out and like a bunch of cowards, refused to discuss any ideas for keeping an at least laterally re-conceived version of our show on the road. Like a bunch of cowards, they would avoid a hefty redundancy bill by simply waiting for my contact to expire before declaring our doors to be shut. That this would involve, literally, throwing my five remaining PhD students out on the street was considered to be ‘attrition’.

I will never forget my very last day. After 26 years on the teaching staff, I expected someone, somewhere, might like to actually express an at least insincere expression of farewell. By my last day, all our staff had moved on and my students had started to seek out other universities with which to enrol. (My adventures in seeking out these positions is a story for another time…) While we had a few big budget projects to complete, no one would be left to do the work. No one but me was left to explain the contempt of this university to those who had invested in us. I will never forget that last day. There was a phone call from the Vice Chancellor’s deputy: I should make sure I leave my keys behind and return my library books. That was it. That was the last word. I took my stuff and off I went. Never, ever, to return.

I wish I could report that things have improved at the University of New England in the past five years since my Centre was destroyed. But from all accounts, the managerialists have won. That Vice Chancellor left soon after me (in an unseemly hurry it would seem). The new guy suggested to me that the past was none of his concern. It was all ‘before his time’. He didn’t want to know. I was seeking formal resolution from the University to all my Centre’s clientele: I was seeking apologies and explanations to those who still, it would seem, are blaming me.

But, and here is a wonderful irony, on my last day that VIce Chancellor, as some kind of perverse parting gift of astonishing inanity, appointed me to the illustrious level of a full professor (adjunct). Which, I guess, helps defray any claim that my abject contempt for that most generally worthless class of academia – the Professors – is driven by any kind of jealousy on my part.

I could never, ever, recommend the University of New England to anyone. Until that appalling floating raft of tenured professors has ceased to clog the arteries of what could be a university of value and relevance to its own, ludicrously misplaced Vision. The true cutting edge of academia is rarely, if ever, driven by these tenured elites. The cutting stuff, in my experience, is always attributable to PhD students and junior staff still engaged with enthusiasm and something to prove. The role of a Professor is to facilitate learning and connection. It is not to serve as a brick wall to the learning journeys of others. Professors should never be there there with the aim of producing clones. If we are to take Professors as role models for learning, those professors at the University of New England with whom I had the misfortune to interact must be regarded as role models for disciplinary fundamentalism and self-constrained, blinkered thinking. But the biggest insight all is that these professors should never, ever, be appointed to lead universities and pretend competence with management. A publication record of (always limited) peer reviewed contributions to unutterably arcane disciplinary journals does not automatically qualify anyone to lead a complex organisation, let alone one where egotism has an institutionalised free rein.