By Winthrop Professor Ray da Silva Rosa
President, UWA Academic Staff Association
UWA shares a common purpose with the Australia Council: to achieve international excellence. A recent review of the Australian Council endorsed ‘excellence' as the basis of its grants and claimed that due to the Council's funding "Australia now punches far above its weight on the international arts stage".
Aspiring to "punch above one's weight" seems a characteristically Australian ambition but achieving excellence has universal appeal. Indeed, a few years back Cornell University Parking Service won an award for excellence for achieving a remarkable level of efficiency in restricting motor vehicle access.
US literary academic Michael Berube noted that "excellence could just as well have meant making people's lives easier by increasing the number of parking spaces available to faculty. The issue here is not the merits of either option but the fact that excellence can function equally well as an evaluative criterion on either side of the issue of what constitutes ‘excellence in parking' because excellence has no content to call its own".
Endorsing excellence as the basis of grant giving may be a politically expedient way of avoiding the tricky issue of formulating a rule to decide which arts projects to fund - to its authors' credit, the Australia Council review noted many respondents had identified the vacuity of excellence as a criterion - but is such evasion appropriate for a university?
Actually, the problem for UWA is not so much evasion but rather the sleight-of-hand by which ‘excellence' gets defined in particular ways inimical to its values.
For instance, UWA has set its sights on being a top-fifty university as measured by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU ) but the ARWU does not rate the Arts and Humanities "because of the technical difficulties in finding internationally comparable indicators with reliable data". Nor, despite its pretension to being an ‘academic' ranking, does the ARWU give any weight to teaching and learning. The unpalatable consequence is that should UWA choose to follow an ‘efficient' path to improving its ARWU ranking it is likely those activities and pursuits not covered by the ARWU system will get short shrift. Their excellence, defined in ways other than the ARWU system, will be seen as beside the point or, at best, subject to continual call for justification.
The conflation of what is capable of being recognised as ‘excellent' with what is measurable and subject to audit and control is the heart of the problem.
The eminent early 20th century economist Frank Knight was scathing in his assessment of the saying, often attributed to Lord Kelvin, that "where you cannot measure your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory". In labelling this view misleading and pernicious, Knight pointed out "in the field of human interests and relationships much of our most important knowledge is inherently non-quantitative, and could not conceivably be put in quantitative form without being destroyed. Perhaps we do not ‘know' that our friends really are our friends; in any case an attempt to measure their friendship would hardly make the knowledge either more certain or more satisfactory! "
If a university motto or marketing slogan is necessary, UWA has a perfectly adequate one. ‘Seek wisdom' is a beguiling description of what is distinctive about what we do at UWA - in the Arts, in Business, in Physics, the Humanities, in Agriculture ... in all areas. It doesn't pointlessly elevate one form of knowledge above others. It may even prompt us to aspire not so much to ‘punch above our weight' but rather to ‘pull our own weight'.
Let us ditch the banality of ‘Achieving Excellence' and return to ‘Seek Wisdom'.
Published in UWA News, 20 August 2012