Making a difference…?

It sometimes seems strange to be part of a university that proudly proclaims its mantra of “people prepared to make a difference’ when, if academic staff seek to make a difference they are so often rebuffed, discounted, and sidelined.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the ending of faculties with decision-making powers, replaced by college meetings, which have at best an advisory role for management. Too often discussions at such meetings are already framed by decisions made prior to the meeting, making them at best, a ritual for signalling participation and endorsement, and at worst mere charade.

This is not to say that faculties were perfect; in many ways they were increasingly hamstrung by the overarching College structure whereby any difference academics sought to make had to be within overarching College expectations, demands, and management.

Likewise, we often hear calls for a different way of operating, calls for a more multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach; yet the division of our university into competing departments, schools, and colleges all jealously seeking to both retain and gain student numbers (EFTS) means that ‘being prepared to make a difference’ meets the inertia and self-interest of siloization.

Yet I believe that not only do most academic staff want to make a difference, but that many in management would like to facilitate the making of a difference. The trouble is that our structures create a system for the maintenance of the status quo.

In may ways it is like something I teach on, the issue of societal inequality.  We know there is structural inequality, we know that different possibilities could be undertaken but these require structural change and so we resort to the maintenance of the status quo.  This means the difference thought, the difference undertaken, the difference deemed permissible, are framed by the structures we seek to maintain, explicitly and implicitly, either by direct action or by inertia and apathy.

To make a difference, I think we have to be open to rethinking our university, our management, our academic departments, our colleges, our participation, and our responsibilities.  What we do not want is a post-quake university that increasingly resembles post-quake Christchurch (something else I teach on). Christchurch is basically rebuilding a 20th century city in the second decade of the 21st century. Our university is in danger of doing the same thing in university terms.

Christchurch was, post-quake, briefly on the Magnet Cities list of progressive, forward thinking, socially and economically successful cities. But it was soon taken off the list due to the failure to enact real change, to facilitate the innovative 21st century urban living we need. In short, being prepared to make a difference to how urban life can be thought and lived was an opportunity squandered.

My fear is that UC too often and too easily replicates the structures, the siloed units, the thinking, and the ‘achievable’ managed expectations that have made Christchurch a national and international symbol of how not to rebuild a city.

Or perhaps, that is actually the problem, because ’to make difference’ involves transformation rather than rebuilding.  Sadly, Christchurch has been rebuilt to replicate the status quo of a divided city riven by structural inequalities. It is a city that offers few meaningful, well-paid jobs for most of our graduates. A situation that means, as a university, we hopefully ‘add value for export’ to cities elsewhere.

Yet I believe a difference can be made and Uni-Voice is central to this possibility. UC still has the chance to be all that Christchurch has failed to be: a symbol of new thinking, new participation, and new possibilities. UC should be prepared to make a difference to the ways universities operate, to be a 21st century leader, not a passé 2Oth century byword for the status quo.

Mike Grimshaw

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