“They’re bastards.”

I was standing in the Vice-Chancellor’s office on a Tuesday afternoon in late May. On the way up to Level 9, I’d reflected that it had been a decade since I’d worked in the Raymond Priestley Building.

Back in 2005, I’d been part of a small group that the VC had enlisted to work on the University’s new Growing Esteem strategy (based on the University motto – postera crescam laude – drawn, I’d been able to advise, from one of Horace’s Odes.)

It had been nice to sit up there high above the campus, in a room with a view of the Ormond College clock tower. After leaving, I’d continued to share with Glyn an abiding interest in higher education policy. At one point we’d co-authored a book chapter on university leadership. Drawing on insights from Clark Kerr and others (naturally, Machiavelli), it considered the endless list of competing demands on the time and attention of university leaders, who often had to face decisions that entailed infinite shades of compromise.

Image source: Time Magazine, 1960

Along the way, we’d reflected on the distinct institutional features of universities as scholarly communities:

Universities illustrate, and often accentuate, the dilemmas of leading a public institution … It would be refreshing to discover that, given the value such institutions place on the dispassionate sifting of logic and evidence, scholarly communities had found ways to govern their affairs in more enlightened and exemplary ways than (say) business or government enterprises. Such an ideal approach, of course, would leave universities immune to office politics, palace intrigue, or factional antagonism. Yet, by most insider accounts, university leadership remains a risky business, as fraught in every way as leadership in institutions not so obviously committed to evidence and dispassionate debate. Examples abound of university leaders caught in the cross-fire between the demands of student activists, the grievances of faculty members, the sensitivities of government authorities and corporate sponsors, and public displays of wrangling among colleagues in the media

On this particular Tuesday I was there to see if Glyn could help in my wrangle with The Australian (Chapter 14). He’d been aware of my view since 2015, that OECD figures didn’t prove our sector’s case on under-funding. Back then I’d been a bit concerned about allergic reactions. But was reassured by early responses from Glyn and Gwil Croucher at the time.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Saturday, 19 September 2015 3:41 PM
To: Glyn Davis; Gwilym Croucher
Subject: Conversation article on OECD funding comparisons 

Glyn, Gwil – Attached for interest is a piece I’ve been working on for the Conversation … arguing that it is not clear that our universities are as under-funded as they seem. This may cause indigestion in some quarters; but hopefully will serve as a reminder that comparisons need to be treated with caution. Regards, Geoff

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Wednesday, 23 September 2015 3:29 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Gwilym Croucher
Subject: Re: Conversation article on OECD funding comparisons 

Thanks Geoff, apologies for the delay in responding … Much enjoyed your article unpicking what we mean by OECD comparisons.  By reading the data against growth rather than a static single year picture, the Australian claim to ‘underspending’ is reduced significantly.  A strong conclusion and worth publishing. Regards, Glyn

Gwil had replied along similar lines, and we’d speculated about whether an independent buffer body was needed to provide more authoritative advice on the sector’s finances.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 24 September 2015 11:19 AM
To: Gwilym Croucher; Glyn Davis
Subject: RE: Conversation article on OECD funding comparisons 

Thanks Gwil, I agree … Perhaps it’s another reason for a Commission, which could tap ongoing expert advice on how we fare with OECD statistics, rather than leave the comparison task to individual commentators and advocacy groups. It’s easy to see why Education at a Glance is misread and misreported, as people browse the 75 page section on spending. I’m not always sure exactly what the tables include or exclude, so it’s a bit of a minefield … I’m now confident that the Conversation piece is as straight and transparent as it can be in the space – but, may still need to don my flak jacket when it appears, because this perspective will be counter-intuitive for many. Regards, Geoff

In the event, the Conversation piece didn’t trigger any backlash at all in 2015. Comments from readers with expertise seemed to concur, that our second-lowest in the OECD line was a furphy (as one reader put it).

But now, in 2016, highlighting the fact was also a heresy – not least with The Australian. After my first letter hadn’t led to any redress (Chapter 15), I’d gone back to the Australian Press Council’s principles: 3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance … 4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3...

Over the weekend I’d sent Glyn a rather lengthy update on the Journal saga. And a draft letter to The Australian, with some detailed notes on what I’d been up to on that front.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Sun, 22 May 2016 at 16:05
Subject: IN CONFIDENCE – OECD paper
To: Glyn Davis

Glyn, An update and a personal request. Following legal advice on the misreporting of my paper, I have sought an apology and right of reply from The Australian. Their initial response offers neither … Meanwhile the journal itself, alarmed at the complaint received in March (in the form of a phone call, not a formal written complaint) and the adverse media reporting, withdrew the online publication of the article at Easter. This occurred without the author’s consent, and the publisher took the view that I or they would need to gain the complainant’s consent to republish the paper … I believe I have clarified the paper enough to the complainant and lowered the risk of legal action on this front from the journal’s point of view; but to support my case in dealing with the journal it would help if I could gain at least a right of reply from The Australian. I have not mentioned your name in any dealings with any party so far, to maintain the neutrality of your position in this dispute. However, a brief letter of support to The Australian on the principle of (at least) a right of reply would lead them to give the matter more serious consideration. I have attached a copy of my letter to them and their response … If you wish not to involve yourself in this matter, I would not take it amiss. A complex and unusual situation; and I’m sure the whole saga will make an interesting case study one day. Regards, Geoff

The draft letter itself was simple enough:

Dear Mr WhittakerAs you know Dr Geoff Sharrock of this University has sought a formal apology for your publication’s misquotation and misreporting of his scholarly work … I agree with Dr Sharrock that Julie Hare has misquoted his paper and misreported its analysis … In the event that The Australian does not reconsider the matter and offer an apology and right of reply as sought by Dr Sharrock, my office will support him in taking the matter further, with the Australian Press Council. Kind regards, Glyn Davis

Glyn was sympathetic toward the distress he detected behind my now quite detailed complaint, which I’d set out in an attachment. This is 3am stuff. Yet for all my sifting of logic and evidence, he didn’t think my threat of a complaint to the Press Council would sway The Australian. Nor even a threat of legal action on this basis. Back in April I’d passed on my advice to the Journal that I’d begun to look into this (Chapter 12).

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Thursday, 21 April 2016 2:44 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Thanks Geoff, though read with considerable sadness.  This is not a matter that should require lawyers, nor you to end up in court against The Australian, with its unlimited resources. Regards, Glyn

He was far from alone in this view. As a friend I met for coffee later said, it was like going up against the Death Star. I assured Glyn that I didn’t want to go down this path.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Thursday, 21 April 2016 3:09 pm
To: Glyn Davis
Subject: RE: OECD paper

Thanks Glyn, and I hope it won’t come to a court case. In part my advice to the publisher is intended to make it clear that, in dealing with any demand or legal threat about (re)publication of my paper there are two sides to this story; and that it is not simply a matter of meeting the preferences of the complainant, however risk-averse the legal department may be … in my exchanges with Julie Hare, when hoping to persuade her to publish my response, I did say that without naming names, there was some dismay at the way the paper was reported; some responses from parties named in my paper who were quite unfussed about it; and also some support for the paper’s substantive analysis, as a contribution to the way OECD comparisons have been (mis)understood in funding debates. Regards, Geoff

(At this point, gentle reader, you may wonder: how many Sliding Doors moments can there be in this slow-motion scholarly train wreck? As Chapter 4 noted, that first year as an academic infidel turned in part on my taste for Tolstoy and a new ABC drama. While writing the paper, I’d been watching an adaptation of Anna Karenina. The Beautiful Lie was not about skewed views of seemingly vital statistics, but about obsession, delusion and folly. By the end, I couldn’t give a Vronsky about the doomed Anna’s feckless infidelities. But was dismayed when she met her fate on that train track…)

…And dismayed at the time to discover how skewed all those “big picture” OECD funding comparisons were. Who could have foretold, from such a simple train of thought, that my findings were doomed to be pushed under a bus? After all, Beautiful Lies reaffirmed what the Base Funding Review had already found, years earlier (Chapter 15):

it is worth noting that some nations have experienced a falling GDPIt is difficult to establish credible international benchmarks between the Australian higher education system and higher education systems in other countries because of differences between the funding systems and the diversity in many higher education systems…”

As for my latest letter, as a political strategy it seemed likely to be futile. On Glyn’s reading, there was enough there in my paper (not least that title) for The Australian to defend Hare’s report in court if they had to. My inner farmboy sighed, but tried to keep things light.

Maybe I should’ve called it Crapshoot, I suggested.

He explained that even the VC’s office was unable to shift The Australian in this area: They’re bastards. All the OVC could do in such cases was post its own version on the University website. I sighed again: I’ve asked the Institute to do that, but they won’t.

While he didn’t believe it would work, Glyn was still willing to send a letter. I thanked him for the offer, and left to consider it further.

Stepping out of the Raymond Priestley, I didn’t feel ready to head back to my desk in Old Pathology (now known as the Elisabeth Murdoch Building). Instead, I went the other way, towards Union House. Did it make any sense to take on the Murdoch Press?

In Union House, I walked past the Plush Fish sushi bar. Then, on an impulse, turned and went upstairs, to the foyer of the Guild Theatre. Entering, I sat for a minute in the empty front row. It was a small, intimate space. Decades earlier, as a clueless undergraduate, I’d taken part in student productions there. In an Ormond College play on the university experience – So Many of Them Aren’t – I had convincingly portrayed a clueless undergraduate. Then came my only title role – as a seagull in Chekhov’s The Seagull. I’d been shot on-stage with my own double-barrelled shotgun (otherwise kept under my bed in Ormond College). Each night that week I would die quietly in my chair, fake blood spilling from my speechless mouth…

I stood up. And reflected that as omens went, these memories weren’t helping in my current situation. And that, whenever I told my tale to those outside the University – like an albatross that had somehow shot itself – their reading of the matter was simple: you’re being bullied because they “find your lack of faith disturbing” – but even if you’re right, they have more power, so you won’t win.

I left the theatre. Downstairs I resisted an impulse to wander into the Union Theatre (more undergraduate memories: there I’d once played a high-minded but misguided surgeon, in a production of Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog.) Exiting Union House, I wended my way west, past the Babel building (where I’d studied French and German). Turning left onto Professor’s Walk, I headed down past the Baillieu Library toward Arts South (where I’d studied Latin and English Literature).

At the corner I paused at the western entrance of the underground car park. As ever, the Atlas figures seemed weary and careworn. More bloody omens. (That day I could identify more with the old bearded one on the right.) By some trick of memory, for a moment I expected to see a sign with Abandon hope, ye who enter here. But there was none.

I stepped inside. A dark and echoing space. Not a soul in sight.

Heretics, I recalled, got a pretty raw deal in Dante’s nine circles of hell. Or rather, an over-cooked one. Kept in flaming tombs on Level 6, they weren’t quite as badly off as the murderers and tyrants below them on Level 7. Or the frauds, propagandists and hypocrites down on Level 8. But still: why not let more heretics spend time in limbo on Level 1, with virtuous pagans such as Virgil and Horace?

After my Level 9 discussion in the Raymond Priestly, I was still unsure of my next steps. Venturing further, I recalled that, decades earlier, I’d seen a performance of Prometheus Bound in this carpark, early one Sunday morning. Another bad omen, I thought – perhaps I’ve offended Zeus as well.

Image sources: Southern Lawn Car Park entrance (University of Melbourne); Prometheus being chained by Vulcan (Dirck van Baburen 1623, Rijksmuseum)

I wandered on past a rack of bicycles and seemingly infinite rows of cars. At a glance they were mainly Mazdas or Toyotas or Hondas or Hyundais. A few Volvos and BMWs. Several hybrids, and an eye-catching Tesla. And not a Holden or a Ford in sight.

Then as I’d almost reached the other side, a very old, slightly rusty Ford caught my eye. With a shock of recognition I saw what it was. A 1967 XR Falcon – the first car I’d ever owned, as a student (and long before I’d ever heard of Extinction Rebellion).

I was about to take a closer look when two students appeared. A woman wearing black leather pants, and a bloke in a black leather jacket. With his right leg encased in plaster, he was using crutches to keep up. She strode to the XR, stuck a key in the door, slid into the driver’s seat, then reached across to unlock the other side. He opened the passenger door and backed himself in, then slid his crutches into the back seat. She started the car, revved the engine, stepped on the clutch, clanked it into first gear with the column shift, and drove out through the eastern entrance in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

As the cloud dissipated I recalled that back in the 1970s, the car park had featured in a famous movie. And was known to some ever since as the Mad Max carpark. Perhaps a good omen, finally! I thought.

I strode with new purpose up the ramp, toward the eastern exit. Stepping back out into the daylight, I found myself not far from the Raymond Priestley. From there it was a short walk back to my office in Old Pathology. Once there, I packed my bag and left, heading for a tram on Swanston Street.

Elisabeth Murdoch building (formerly Old Pathology), University of Melbourne Image: Pip Wilson

That evening I followed up with The Lawyer on the final wording of my second letter. By the next afternoon I was ready. I sent another note to Glyn, then sent the letter to The Australian.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Wednesday, 25 May 2016 3:10 pm
To: Glyn Davis

Glyn, Thanks for making time to discuss this with me yesterday, it was much appreciated; and also for your kind offer of a brief letter of support if requested. On reflection, I won’t ask you for such a letter. Instead I will just email my own note of reply to The Australian EIC today, with (updated) annotated response attached, and cc you into that email. In my covering note I will just say that I’ve kept you informed since the day of Julie’s report, and that we have discussed the matter this week. No need for you to say anything at all; but Julie will know that you know. Then I’ll forward my email to Leo, for information, on the LH Martin side. (Leo has seen my earlier letter). Thanks again, Geoff

Glyn got to my note and the letter itself the next evening.

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Thursday, 26 May 2016 8:17 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock

Thanks Geoff, and just catching up on email now. Thanks for this advice, and best wishes with the next steps. As we discussed, there is principle involved, and also sanity.  Sadly they don’t always correlate. Regards, Glyn

Indeed, I thought – but (as Dante might say) What the hell – have shotgun, will travel. Sometimes – even if your chances seem slim – you need to take on the bullies of the world. And go a little bit Mad Max if necessary.

Later than evening he replied to my letter, cc’d to The Australian.

From: Glyn Davis 
Date: Thu, 26 May 2016 at 20:28
Subject: Re: letter of complaint re misreporting of academic work
To: Geoff Sharrock (and The Australian)

Thank you Dr Sharrock for this copy of your letter of concern to The Australian, and best wishes in resolving the matters outlined in the attachment. Glyn Davis

I wasn’t sure what The Australian would do this time. But as noted back then, gentle reader – I’m sure the whole saga will make an interesting case study one day.

Further reading

Glyn Davis and Geoff Sharrock, 2009, Leadership of the Modern University

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