Canberra’s loss is Mānoa’s gain as the ANU walks away from decades of excellence

I do not normally write about my duties as a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa on this blog, since the blog isn’t associated with UHM and most of what I do in the classroom and committee meetings doesn’t belong on the Internet. But the Australian National University’s (ANU) recent decision to cut its School of Culture, History, and Language (CHL) deserves to be widely noted. This decision is not the first restructuring at Australia’s flagship university, and it will probably not be the last. But it is unique for its severity, short-sightedness, and the damage it will do to Australia’s well-earned reputation for excellence in studies of Asia and the Pacific.  I would urge all readers to sign this petition to preserve the school. That said, there is one benefit to the ANU’s cuts: The increasing prestige and eminence of my university as a world center for study of Asia and the Pacific.

There are relatively few universities in the world which focus on the Pacific, which is my area of study. Mānoa, the University of Auckland, the ANU, and a few others schools have a friendly rivalry in which each of us strive to produce work that is not only on the cutting edge of science, but also of enduring scholarly value. For years, I have looked at the ANU’s rich resources, deep faculty expertise, and quality graduate students with respect, admiration, and not a little envy. It is, therefore, amazing to me that the university’s administration could so damage the university’s standing by scoring an own goal when it’s job is supposed to be strengthening Australia’s international reputation, not weakening it.

All universities face funding issues these days, and there were legitimate reasons to worry about CHL’s funding structure. I know we at Mānoa feel stretched thin. But despite my reasoned disagreements with our legislature’s funding decisions, I feel confident that they would never engage in the kind of self-destructive behavior we have seen out of ANU in the past couple of months. We at Mānoa are proud of our hard-earned reputation, which ranges from mainstream impartial social science to revolutionary calls for indigenous sovereignty. And now, our international reputation has been increased merely because we have not — let’s not mince words here — arbitrarily fired the expert professors, instructors, and staff that make our university great.

There was a time when American academics could look to Australia as role model of how universities should work: The ANU had less bureaucracy than state schools in the US. There was less fractious political discord. The university had the courage of its convictions, and was willing to act on them. It was a great Australian institution: It saw there was a job to be done, and got on with it. Today, Australia seems to have imported the worst models of corporate administration from the US in the mistaken impression that they were actually the best: The endless, meaningless metrics, valuing quantity over quality, and valuing administration more than teaching and research.

The ANU now expects Anglophone students to learn languages like Vietnamese (which radically from English) without the help of skilled teachers. I honestly have no idea why the ANU administration thinks its current plan of moving to online teaching (!) and using untrained native speakers to teach courses will work. It may be that they have simply never tried to learn a non-Indo-European language, or experienced the value that skilled instructors add to the learning process. In my life I have taken classes in French, German, Hebrew, Hawaiian, and Mandarin from native speakers both with and without expertise as teachers. I have also tried to learn a language from tapes and a workbook (Tok Pisin) and  in the field (Ipili) where I had to start from scratch eliciting pronouns. Based on this extensive experience, I feel that the ANU’s current plans for language instruction are pure rubbish.

We all know what the results will be when the ANU tries to do things on the cheap: What Akbar Ahmed calls “Instant experts” who produce seven page research papers about countries whose language they do not speak and whose history they do not know. In the US, we learned the consequences of this superficial expertise when we built the invasion and occupation of Iraq around it. Does Australia really want to go down this same path at a time when its relations with Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam grow increasingly crucial to its future?

It is true that something had to be done given CHL’s budget. It is true that some languages will continue to be taught at the ANU by qualified staff. And it is true that many staff will find homes in other academic units in the university. But this is cold comfort. And make no mistake: This is not the last cut of this nature the ANU will see. This one — and the next one — clearly demonstrate that the ANU is unable to discern its own best interests, or to act on them. And there is plenty of time for it to bungle the job in the future.

Normally I would be delighted with the unexpected boost to Mānoa’s prestige ANU’s self-destruction will cause. But the situation there is far too grim for schadenfreude. The academic community at the ANU are literally in shock at what they have to face. My contacts there are trying to console dozens of graduate students and trying to salvage careers from the wreckage. I would urge you to  sign this petition to preserve the school.

Personally, I’m deeply saddened by what has gone on at the ANU, and feel guilty that I have no been more active advocating for the school before the cuts, rather than after. But in all likelihood this will be just one more moment in an ongoing struggle to save higher education in Australia. One of the greatest figures in the history of the United States, Frederick Douglass, once wrote “find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” The earlier and more strongly Australian academics build coalitions like the National Alliance for Public Universities which oppose these cuts, the harder it will be for the administration to make another one. Although it is against the best interests my university’s profile, I know it is in the interests of my vocation — and in the public’s interest — to partner with those in Australia who want to continue to have pride in their educational system, and their country’s future.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Canberra’s loss is Mānoa’s gain as the ANU walks away from decades of excellence

  1. Have signed the petition.

    Interesting sidelight: The window for signing the petition appeared in Japanese with numerous Pacific Island places appearing in katakana, the san-serif syllabary, before the usual list of countries for which Japanese has kanji, Chinese character, names.

  2. As a graduate of The ANU I can say that I’m more than a little disappointed. Sure, we had restructuring of schools and programs over the time I was there, but none of them as harmful to the school’s reputation as these!

  3. Thanks Alex. “This is not the last cut of this nature the ANU will see” because it is not the first, not even this year. In February, quietly and without fanfare, another unit at the ANU axed the contracts of six of its most active research scholars in Melanesia (including myself), again due to funding constraints. The reality of the funding shortfall was not at issue, although it does raise the question of why the Australian government appears to be running its universities roughly the way it runs its mining sector, along boom and bust principles. The result of this kind of fiscal instability is that actual scholarship is almost invariably eschewed in favour of the kinds of “instant experts” you describe here, wherein rough and ready policy documents that have never been peer reviewed can be generated very quickly to keep the sources of government funding happy and create a simulacrum of research activity. But the damage to the ANU’s reputation will ultimately be done not by petitions or public declarations that you or I might make, but simply by the absence of any real scholarship coming out of units that have behaved in this spectacularly short-sighted and self-defeating fashion.

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