When Brian Schmidt began work as the Australian National University's 12th vice-chancellor in January, he told this newspaper's education editor, Emma Macdonald, that "the goal of the university isn't to count pennies and destroy great parts of the university. The goal of the university is to be great."
His assertion followed a query regarding the probability of budget cuts at the School of Culture, History and Language. No decisions had been made following a review of the College of Asia and the Pacific (under which the school sits), but Professor Schmidt volunteered that the "international experts" brought in to oversee the process had "said this is a truly great department. And it is. In fact, it's one of the crown jewels of the university."
Doubtless intended to reassure academic staff bruised by the budget cuts, industrial tension and the near-death experience of the School of Music that marked Ian Young's five-year tenure as ANU vice-chancellor, Professor Schmidt's words now ring somewhat hollow.
Last month, the university announced that under a new management plan, 15 staff at the school would go and a further six senior academics specialising in the teaching of Sanskrit, Hindi, Thai and Vietnamese would move to contract employment. One of the affected scholars, Dr McComas Taylor, claims the cuts (which have already extended to the dropping of Javanese and Tibetan from CHL course lists) will see an end to excellence in Asian studies at the ANU and damage its international reputation.
Given that Asia-Pacific studies is one of the relatively few areas where the ANU can claim world leadership in research, Dr Taylor's claim stands scrutiny. The cuts are all the more puzzling because the post-war governments that sponsored the ANU's foundation did so out of a belief that it would enable Australia to forge a deeper, more intellectual engagement with our neighbourhood.
The reason these changes have been implemented is, of course, money, and the tendency of cash-strapped governments to pare back tertiary education funding or attach strings to its disbursement. That has necessitated some hard thinking on the part of universities. But what ought to have been a relatively straightforward process – looking at the big picture and deciding which courses are a good fit and which aren't – has been greatly complicated by the monetisation and corporatisation of universities.
The School of Culture, History and Language is one of the ANU's strongest research performers, and a big part of the reason the College of Asia and the Pacific enjoys the reputation it does. However, for the consultants and administrators contemplating the $1.5 million operating deficit the school recorded last financial year, what seems to have mattered most was the resolution of a localised budget crisis, not consideration of an enviable academic reputation.
A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing was how Oscar Wilde pithily defined a cynic, though he could well have been talking of some of the cost-conscious vice-chancellors who inhabit certain Australian campuses.
Professor Schmidt's January comments indicate he's not that way inclined, but ANU staffers will be hoping he backs those words with firm commitments at some point.