Melbourne’s “Toxic” Arts

Having given Monash University a whack, it’s time to take a quick look at the University of Melbourne. A couple of intriguing reports about the University appeared earlier this week in Melbourne’s Age newspaper. The reports are most interesting for what was not written.

The first report, by Kylar Loussikian and which appeared on Monday, detailed allegations apparently raised by Professor Jennifer Milam, Head of the School of Culture and Communications. Professor Milam is reportedly in a legal battle with the University of Melbourne, stemming from accusations of bullying against her.

That battle is notable (and see an earlier report here), but the focus of Loussikian’s report, and his second report with Tom Cowie the following day, was on a more general issue, the supposedly “toxic” environment in Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts. That characterisation appears to be due to the university’s former vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis.

According to Loussikian and Cowie:

  • A legal review conducted by the University of Melbourne “found four heads of school [in the Faculty of Arts] were ‘undermining’ acting dean [of Arts] Denise Varney“.
  • Professor Varney, who had been in the School of Culture and Communications, was promoted to acting dean in February. Academics claimed to The Age that school heads had been discouraged from applying for the acting dean position.
  • Milam has “alleged to have implied that the faculty [of Arts] was hiding profits”.

There’s plenty more detail and colour in Loussikian and Cowie’s reports, including the suggestion that the four heads in question could be investigated for misconduct, which “could lead to dismissal”. Two of the heads are also named: Professor Milam and Professor Trevor Burnard, who was head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies up until July and who is reportedly leaving the University.

So, what is really going on? God only knows. But there is one glaring question underlying all this: if those four heads in Arts were indeed “undermining” Dean Varnie then why were they undermining her? What is the underlying substance of the dispute? The secondary but still important question is how Professor Varnie came to be acting dean. If heads in Arts were discouraged from applying, then by whom, and why?

We know nothing about this dispute other than what has been reported. There’s plenty nasty we could say in general about Australian arts and humanities and vice chancellors and heads and deans. We have friends at the University of Melbourne who pretty much loathe everything about the place. But can the systemic awfulness of Australian universities offer any insight into this very specific dispute? God only knows.

All that seems clear is that there’s a larger and, we’ll guess, more important story that, for whatever reason, Loussikian and Cowie aren’t telling.

Monash Extends a Backhander

One of the better offerings for Victoria’s senior students is Extension Studies. Corresponding roughly to America’s Advanced Placement program, ES permits a school student to undertake a university subject as part of VCE, albeit as a lower weighted, fifth or sixth subject.

The extension studies program is not without its flaws. In particular, there are no externally defined curricula or standards, with, rather, each participating university shaping their ES subjects to match their own university subjects. Consequently, there is significant variance in the content, quality and difficulty of the ES subjects offered. This also creates issues for the AP aspect of the program; on occasion, students aligned with one university have had difficulty receiving credit from another; this subject mismatching has also been exacerbated by the arrogance of some university administrators. It can also be a non-trivial task finding keen and competent teachers for ES which, as always, means the wealthier private schools benefit much more than public schools. And, some weirdness from VTAC hasn’t helped matters.

Nonetheless, extension studies functions reasonably well overall and can be of genuine value to a keen or strong student. Apart from the immediate reward of richer study while at school, ES can give a student a jump on their university education and effectively lower their uni fees. (The fees, one is always obliged to mention, which were introduced by this Labor asshole.)

Which is why Monash University’s decision this year to cease offering extension studies is so disappointing, and so annoying. This has created the ridiculous situation where the John Monash Science School, which is, you know, Monash University’s science school, is having to look elsewhere for their extension studies. And of course it is not just future JMSS students that are being screwed around.

What was Monash’s reason? All they wrote to ES subject administrators was, “In recent years, there has been a consistent decline in the number of students taking up this opportunity due to a range of factors.”

Yeah, well, maybe. Maybe numbers have declined, although enrolment in mathematics (with which we’ve been associated) has been healthy and stable. And, Monash might have mentioned that amongst the “factors” in that “range” are Monash’s relatively high cost for a participating student, combined with Monash’s effective discouragement of the participation of smaller schools.

It’s difficult to tell what is really going on, what is the real reason for Monash’s decision. The obvious suspicion is it has to do with money, although the program is not administratively heavy and ought to be pretty cheap to run; indeed, it’s the individual departments that have to pay for the academics to teach and administer and grade the subjects, almost certainly at a loss. The Mathematics Department has always lost money on the deal, and has never whined about it.

The other suspicion is that Monash’s extension program wasn’t attracting sufficient school students to study at Monash, whatever “sufficient” might mean. In contrast, the Mathematics Department has never worried about whether the program attracts more students to do mathematics at Monash; they’ve just accepted that that’s what a principled Department should do.

So, what was it? Was it Monash engaging in particularly obtuse neoliberal bean counting? Or, was it Monash disregarding any notion of community obligation? We’re not sure. But, we’re guessing the answer is “Yes”.

Wollongong the Craven

It would appear that the Ramsey Centre‘s Degree in Western Civilisation will now be a thing. This comes after the ANU rejected the idea out of concerns about Ramsey’s autocratic meddling. And, it comes after Sydney University shot itself in the foot by censoring its own academics. But, the University of Wollongong is hellbent on offering Ramsey’s Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation. This comes with the news that the University Council overruled Wollongong’s academic senate because, after all, what would those silly academics know about academic integrity?

Jillian Broadbent, UoW’s chancellor, claimed that the council had “full respect for the university’s academic process”. If only Broadbent had a modicum of respect for the meaning of English words.

Underlying all of this is the question of the meaning of “Western civilisation”. UoW advertises that in Ramsey’s degree a student will:

Learn how to think critically and creatively as you examine topics in ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of religion and political philosophy.” 

The irony is palpable. But, at least it makes clear what is meant by “Western civilisation”. It means the power of a business-bloated gang to use Orwellian language while ramming through the selling out of a public institution to rich bigots.

We intend these words, of course, with the fullest of respect.

Signs of the Times

Our second sabbatical post concerns, well, the reader can decide what it concerns.

Last year, diagnostic quizzes were given to a large class of first year mathematics students at a Victorian tertiary institution. The majority of these students had completed Specialist Mathematics or an equivalent. On average, these would not have been the top Specialist students, nor would they have been the weakest. The results of these quizzes were, let’s say, interesting.

It was notable, for example, that around 2/5 of these students failed to simplify the likes of 81-3/4. And, around 2/3 of the students failed to solve an inequality such as 2 + 4x ≥ x2 + 5. And, around 3/5 of the students failed to correctly evaluate \boldsymbol {\int_0^{\pi} \sin 5x \,{\rm d}x}\, or similar. There were many such notable outcomes.

Most striking for us, however, were questions concerning lists of numbers, such as those displayed above. Students were asked to write the listed numbers in ascending order. And, though a majority of the students answered correctly, about 1/4 of the students did not.

What, then, does it tell us if a quarter of post-Specialist students cannot order a list of common numbers? Is this acceptable? If not, what or whom are we to blame? Will the outcome of the current VCAA review improve things, or will it make matters worse?

Tricky, tricky questions.