In 2016 my career went bung at the University of Melbourne. The academic year began with a bang of bad publicity. And ended with a whimper of exhaustion and despair.

Not the end of anyone’s world, by any stretch. Trivial compared to your Trumps. A bagatelle compared to your Brexits. Infinitesimally piffling, compared to your pandemics. (As we’ll see, it often helps to put things in an international perspective).

But still just a little bit tragic, personally speaking. It began with an unexpected attack in the media, one fine day in March. Which set in train a curious chain of allergic reactions, cranky emails, back-channel accusations and other repercussions.

In my work, a modest effort to make an impact had hit a few fans. And with the 50 shades of backlash thus unleashed, my fans were few.

In a sense, this series of unfortunate events was an inside job. Most of the protagonists knew each other. But that didn’t help matters much. If anything, it made them worse. As the weeks and months passed, there would be mixed messages, strange evasions and ominous silences.

The Year My Career Broke had begun well enough. Summer holidays done. Kids back at school. A new paper about to be published in our Institute’s Journal. In our building on the Parkville campus, the Centre was coming back to life. Meetings underway in the seminar rooms, greetings on stairs and in corridors. Staff and students were busy at their desks, or catching up over coffee in the tea room.

Elisabeth Murdoch building, University of Melbourne Image: Pip Wilson

After years of sharing facilities and projects, the Institute had merged with the Centre. In 2016 we had another small new intake of students, for our Master of Tertiary Education Management program. Our first round of face-to-face class-time was planned for early March. Students would fly in from around the country and offshore, to spend four days on campus with us for presentations, group discussions and practical work.

My PowerPoint slides were (almost) prepared. As usual, they would focus on the inner workings of our own small world of higher education policy and management. We’d study the dilemmas of government funding, student fees and university revenue; the effects of policy reforms on university budgets and strategies; and ways of adapting, leading and managing in a university setting. The wider context was the Western university tradition, framed in the words and deeds and inner eyes of eloquent old white guys.

In this context, as explained in Newman’s Idea, the University was designed to offer a safe space for the “collision of mind with mind and knowledge with knowledge”. Scholars would congregate to study and share their findings, ideas and insights. They would refine, reframe and refute each other’s views, to head-butt and crap-shoot their way to truth and knowledge. And as they collectively pursued this infinitely variable mission, the University would help its host society to develop and sustain an ever more enlightened and civilised world.

Quotes from Immanuel Kant, 1784, What is Enlightenment? and John Henry Newman, 1852, The Idea of a University

However, my study of this system of principles hadn’t prepared me for the slow motion crash course in academic politics in which I had unwittingly enrolled. That was the year I realised that, after years of work in higher education, I’d been living in a parallel university. Who knew then how much headache this particular “collision of mind with mind” would cause? Or how much collateral damage an “error exposed” could create? Or how the frank, ironic airing of “inconvenient truth” could cancel a career, like reputational kryptonite?

At the start of March I sat in the office, sharpening quotes and reshuffling slides for the following week’s program. By the time the problem surfaced, I was up to my eyebrows in classes.

As I read the situation at that point, this was a storm in a teacup. Some simple mistakes that were easily explained, and soon sorted. But as the year progressed, we never did. Looking back, I would recall that old line about academic politics: often intense when the stakes seem small, and the substantive issues trivial. Here with an echo of a Scorsese film, where someone with clout makes it known that they are “a little concerned”.

When I learned of these “concerns” I took steps to address them as simply, quickly and openly as other parties would allow. But each path was blocked by some new complication.

In April I was told there was a possible legal problem. And by May it was clear that my little problem was bigger than it seemed. To judge from the cones of silence that descended, by August I had crossed a few lines, and gone astray in an unmapped minefield. Reading between them, by then there were senior people who were “more than a little concerned“. And quite possibly, quite pissed off to still be dealing with a scholar so far off-piste.

Winter came and went. I kept up my daily trudge to campus on trains and trams, self-siloed in light music and crime fiction. Once there I’d park my carcase at my desk, and get on with the day-job. Designing test questions. Marking student papers. Helping plan for a conference in Queensland, on university service improvement and innovation. Preparing a presentation on student expectations, for one of the Centre’s seminars, in August. Drafting a chapter on university management, for the Centre’s new Visions publication, in September.

By then I had raised some concerns of my own. But as the months slipped by, there was no progress on these. And it was clear from the wall of silence that my push for explanations wasn’t appreciated. As Christmas approached, I would not have been entirely surprised to wake up one day and discover beneath my bedspread the severed head of John Henry Newman.

As a rule, we Australian academics are expected to “publish or perish”. Who knew that it could be so easy to publish and perish?

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