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Gong gong & gong for ex-VC

Yesterday I went to a ceremony honouring La Trobe University’s former President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Osborne. He was given (i) an honorary doctorate, (ii) had the former Institute for Advanced Studies renamed after him and (iii) was given a large painting.

I had mixed feelings at this ceremony. Anyone who works in a job for 16 years deserves some ceremony on exiting. But the circumstances surrounding Professor Osborne’s departure were ambiguous. And I am always wary of exaggerated sentimentality towards the powerful and famous.

Vice-Chancellors these days are paid the salaries of corporate executives, have chauffer-driven cars and luxury housing provided as well as unlimited expense accounts. Their travel entitlements tally hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Given these inputs we have the right to expect a lot from them in terms of delivering quality academic outputs and promoting universities.

Professor Osborne has been a tireless critic of government red tape and regulation of the universities. He has also criticised the vocational emphasis of modern syllabi. At his speech yesterday he emphasis the phoniness of most university planning exercises. I agree with most of these points – they dominate modern academic life.

But I am not sure that Professor Osborne did as much as he could have in a constructive sense. Perhaps he could have done more to advance core academic values at La Trobe University. Certainly the physical facilities are woefully inadequate. But maybe I do not fully appreciate all of the financial and political constraints he faced.

It is a tough job that, if well done, calls for large rewards. We await Professor Osborne’s replacement.

7 comments to Gong gong & gong for ex-VC

  • conrad

    I guess a simple comparison to make to see if he really deserves these things is how well La Trobe has done under him vs. the other Australian universities — I think that such comparisons deserve to be done given the salaries these guys are getting.

    I’m not greatly aware of the history of La Trobe and other universities, but I was under the impression that once upon a time La Trobe was up there with other mid-level places like Griffith and Macquarie, which isn’t the case anymore. Even dives like Deakin seem to have done better than La Trobe in the last few years.

  • hc

    LTU has had a difficult time in recent years as have many campuses but its rankings in the Times Higher Education Supplement have improved from 148th to 98th in world. That’s not bad.

    In Arts LTU ranks 23rd which is very good – very strong in history.


    On these results it is ahead of the other universities you mention.

    The recent Melbourne Business School rankings put it 3rd in Victoria in economics (my field) and 12th in Australia. Again ahead of the universities you mention.

    I don’t agree that Deakin is one of the ‘dives’. In my own area it has good economists. It is doing very well in distance education.

    Macquarie needs a very firm kick in the backside – at least in the economics area.

  • rabee

    I think that he missed the opportunity to leverage the strength of economics at Latrobe and take advantage of the synergies that exist between world class departments at Latrobe, such as economics and statistics.

    Good universities have made Economics a strategic priority and have benefitted. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen at Latrobe.

    I simply don’t know what administrators had in mind at Latrobe. The priority now is to find a replacement that is more in tune with the way good Universities are heading.

  • hc

    Rabee, Generally I agree. But the economics and finance area has doubled in staffing over the past 3 years and MO can take some credit for that. There are now 3 professors of economics – not long ago there were none. Statistics was a traditional area of economic strength at LTU but I think is now much smaller than it was. Lack of students a problem.

    Economics has generally taken a battering at most of the non-sandstone universities. It remains the most central and important business discipline. I think it is on the road to recovery at LTU as everywhere.

    In the recent Melbourne Business School Rankings economics at LTU did much better than other areas – including other business areas.

  • conrad

    Whilst I think its a good idea to look at departments within universities as a whole, the methodology behinds some of these rankings (including the MBS) has a lot to be desired — in particular, I find it really hard to see what value asking what other people’s perceptions of the various departments in other universities is.

    Personally, I would find it hard to tell you accurately what is good/bad in my own department and others that I have worked at, let alone one’s I haven’t, and I’m sure I’m not the outlier here.

    In this respect, some of the stuff (I think in was in PNAS — I remember the nice graphs) looking at university strengths with quantitative measures seems to be the way to go.

    The other thing worthwhile thinking about is other people’s perceptions of the rankings. The only international one I can think of that gets taken seriously by anybody except university marketing people is the SJT one — and its certainly the one the students from Asia look at when looking for courses OS. In this case, whilst a department like La Trobe might be exceptionally good at history, the rest of its non-exceptional departments are important.

  • […] Johnson – how many gongs? It only seems like yesterday (November 2006)  that I farewelled Michael Osborne  as VC & President from LTU.  Now I learn that his replacement, Paul Johnson, will resign In December 2011. He is going to […]

  • Zoe Tropo

    Unfortunately, I see major crises ahead for all those universities that have diverted most of their resources from their core business (teaching and research) into administrative “services”.

    A brief survey indicates that this includes most of the universities in Australia, and many in the UK, North America and Europe.

    Publicly, the blame is being put on the perfect storm of the rising Australian dollar, higher Australian subject fees, and the ill-conceived measures to tighten student and work visas.

    Privately, academics are saying that the universities are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of these changes because they have recruited far too many staff in the cost centres.

    When only 3/8 of a university’s revenue is invested in education and research, and, until the recent freeze, only 1/6 of advertised positions were for departmental staff, the result is an unsustainable business model.

    One would think then that the first step a university in financial trauma would take would be to cutback on the many $300K+ bureaucrats and their clerical empires for cost-savings, but the first response is always to put pressure on Deans to cutback or abolish (nationally highly-ranked) departments that are producing good profits, e.g. $2 million per year, on the spurious ground that $3M/yr is wanted to pay the central administration’s salaries. Where, I ask, is the $2M/yr going to come from when the department has gone? What about the other departments who also gain revenue from the students who will now go to other institutions?

    One of many blatant instances of this lack of foresight is that La Trobe dissolved its Geology department precisely when the mining boom was taking off. I have no personal interest in Geology but this is symptomatic of the desperate need for competent decision-makers in the University sector.

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