Scotland’s Celebrity Rectors: The Chosen Ones of the Undergrad Vox Pops

Popular Culture, Tertiary Ed

A Rector is a type of office-holder pertaining to both the ecclesiastical and the academic realm. It is in this second context of the term, that of academe, that is the focus of this blog. The word ‘rector’ itself derives from the Latin regere (Ruler), and in the 17th century it signified one who governed a city, state or region. In the contemporary world of universities it is widely employed in Europe, Latin America, Russia, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and the Middle East. Its meaning varies from place to place, in some of these the term rector is often used in the sense of chancellor, ie, the executive head of a university but much more likely it denotes the ceremonial head.

The Ancient Universities of Scotland (Aberdeen)
In the English speaking world the rector is not a common office in the university hierarchy, the exception to this being Scotland where the post dates back to the 16th century. Each of the four ‘ancient’ universities of Scotland (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) plus Dundee – all have the office of rector, in some cases it is called, more grandly, lord rector. Scottish rectors are elected by the student body for a three year term, although at the University of Edinburgh rectors are still elected by both students and staff.

In the sphere of higher education the duties of rectors vary from institution to institution but broadly they are there to represent the interests of students in the wider university context on various governing bodies, eg, in Scotland they might also chair the University Court, the highest governing council of the university. One way they directly represent students is in an ombudsmen’s role, being a forum for students to air their grievances and complaints and a conduit to have their issues addressed within the university. Other duties of a rector might include participating in convocation ceremonies [‘What does the Rector even do?’,].

In past centuries the Scottish tradition was for noblemen as rectors, titled gentlemen with a assortment of names sounding like variations on the “8th Earl of Cumbleyheathwaite”. By the 20th century the post tended to be filled by high achievers from business, politics, the civil service, the military, and the occasional notable clergyman. In the interwar period St Andrews set a precedent, by electing inventor Guglielmo Marconi, North Pole explorer Fridtjof Nansen and writer Rudyard Kipling to the post. After WWII Edinburgh University followed suit by electing the popular British actors Alastair Sim and James Robertson Justice, having earlier given the post to Churchill and a host of other MPs.

Nero as Rector
By the late sixties and the seventies celebrity rectors were starting to become a feature of the academic landscape. Students at Dundee University elected actor and “Renaissance Man” of letters Peter Ustinov for a second term which seems a measure of his popularity … perhaps this was not universally the case however. In his memoirs Dear Me, the rector emeritus expressed stinging criticisms of the arts students at Dundee for having the temerity to protest vociferously against the Vietnam War and militarism and authoritarianism in general, whilst under his watch. The peeved thespian compared them unfavourably to the University’s political and socially apathetic but scholastically conscientious engineering students.

Other colourful rectors followed at Dundee. Actor and omnipresent TV personality Stephen Fry was a popular rector in the 1990s, a popularity apparently not tarnished by Fry’s recent admissions that he used cocaine and Ecstasy during his rectorship at the University [Reported in The Courier (UK, 14 Oct. 2014)]. NB: the good burghers of the Dundee University community, if perturbed by this revelation, should take comfort in Fry’s disclosure in his memoirs that he also snorted coke on a visit to Buckingham Palace, so Dundee is in lofty company. The incumbent rector of Dundee University in 2015 is another celebrated Hollywood actor, Brian Cox, a Dundee local whose two terms are incident free to this point.

Dundee students may have expressed a preference for actors as their rectors but this has not exclusively been the case. In the 1970s they selected chef, broadcaster and politician Clement Freud (grandson of the father of Psychobabbling, Sigmund Freud). Clem Freud later had a second turn as rector, this time at St Andrews University where he edged out polarising feminist icon Germaine Greer in the ballot for the job.

Rector for Silly Walks
St Andrews’ most high-profile rector in recent history was comic actor John Cleese (1970-73), the “Minister for Silly Walks” himself. Cleese proved a popular rector at St Andrews and his staunchly anti-Vietnam War speeches struck a receptive cord among politicised students of the day. Cleese was an active participant in University activities and allayed any fears there may have been about his whacky persona bringing discredit on the office with any “Monty Python” antics [Cinema St Andrews, ‘John Cleese elected Rector of University of St Andrews’,]. Actors and television personalities have been the preferred flavour of the St Andrews’ student body, numbering Tim Brooke-Taylor, Frank Muir and Nicholas Parsons amongst their “media-sourced” rectors.

Whereas Dundee University’s preference has been for actors as rectors, Glasgow University students in recent times have made more bolder political choices. The Glasgow rectors have ranged from ANC (African National Congress) anti-Apartheid activists, Albert Lutuli and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to establishment vilified ‘whistleblowers’ Mordechai Vanunu and Edward Snowden (the current rector). The selection of these individuals were only symbolic choices as rectors (meant as a student statement of support and solidarity with international figures and causes) as none of the people were free to travel to Scotland to take up their posts. Accordingly the office of rector has been effectively unoccupied during these tenures.

A recent working(sic) rector voted in by matriculated Glasgow students was the actor and journalist Ross Kemp. Kemp’s term was truncated as a result of an abysmal performance in the post (repeated failure to attend important university events like the “freshers’ welcome”). The Students Representative Council at Glasgow carried a vote of no confidence in him and forced his resignation[‘Kemp quits university post’, BBC News,].

Aberdeen University students have been a little more restrained than their southern Scottish university counterparts in seeking out the very famous for rector, opting in the main for locally known identities. The University hasn’t steered clear entirely of rectors with celebrity status. In the early 2000s it had Clarissa Dickson Wright, TV cook and writer, one half of the popular “Two Fat Ladies” series, as its rector (though perceptive gender equality enumerators would have already noted that women have been numerically disadvantaged in the bestowing of the post of rector across all the institutions❈).

The ambitious & frugal young Mr Brown – his first leg on the political ladder
Overall, opinion north of the River Tweed has been mixed about the merits of celebrity rectors. Those who support the trend and try to explain its appeal, point to the growing dissatisfaction of students with party politics, and the perception that politicians are bland and dour and lacking in dynamic, like recent British PM Gordon Brown who was rector of Edinburgh University back in the early 1970s – having been elected to the office whilst still being a student (unusual). Entertainers and media personalities on the other hand, the theory goes, can add cache to the university, attracting positive publicity and much-needed funding … and they can bring a fresh, outsider’s perspective to what are traditional organisations.

Of course how successful or otherwise the celebrity rector is comes down to the individual. A factor in how much benefit the celebrity can be as rector is how much time (and energy) the incumbent can give to the position. Rectors with heavy demands on their time due to their full-time “day jobs” will be restricted in what they can give to the office. Also, if a rector attracts adverse publicity during his or her tenure (eg, Fry and Kemp), by association it could reflect badly on the institution [‘After this soap, your next role will be a rector’, Times Higher Education, (22 Jun. 2001)].

The process for the election of Scottish rectors is open and quite democratic. Only 20 signatures are required to nominate someone for rector, which can give rise to surprising nominations. For example a Dundee student nominated his pet rat for the post, which might be viewed by some as trivialising and ridiculing the office. A nominee in 1928 for rector of St Andrews, coming clear out of right field, was Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. Had the Fascist head of state been successful in his bid it might have been interesting to see what if anything he would have done with the office[ibid.].

So, an academic post with the potential to maximise publicity for financially-struggling universities in Scotland, I am left to ponder the obvious thought that comes to me … why wasn’t Billy Connolly on anyone’s short-list when they were putting forward the next round of nominees for rectors?

❈ this comes as no surprise but women have been under-represented as university rectors even in more socially-inclusive, recent times

Desperately Seeking … a Nerdy Niche for a Needy Nerd

Creative Writing, Media & Communications, Tertiary Ed

Before the academic year begins around 1st of March each year, the modern university secures itself a little respite from the normal grind of being snowed under by an avalanche of undergrad applications for special consideration, extensions for assignments and what-have-you. At this juncture, with enhanced institutional prestige and a lucrative government funding payoff in the offering, universities are all about chasing the elite students and affixing them to the masthead of their little community flagships. Observe this piece if you will from a distinguished regional newspaper profiling one such high-in-demand student’s experience of the academic “horse-trading” that passes for the admissions phase of the tertiary ed year:


The Girla Sentinel: The Voice of the Dusty Outback

Outback News
National News

Higher Education

The 99.95 country girl has the big smoke universities tripping over each other to gain her nod of assent

Date: January 2, 2015

Katerina Asbestocladding
Senior HE Writer

Whose $10,000 smells sweetest? Medicine-bound Ingressa is number 1 draft pick for the 2015 academic season!

imagePhoto: Stefan Severedhead

It’s decision-time for wannabe uni students who must lodge their main round course preferences with the Universities Admissions Centre by midnight on Friday.

For some applicants with modest academic credentials they will take any offer they can get … even if it arrives, proverbially-like, in the mail by mistake (they wish!). Other super swots like Ingressa Alyen-Body of Girlambone Swamp, NSW, are in the fortunate position of being able to pick-and-chose between attractive offers from competing top-tier tertiary institutions. All the universities are chasing Ingressa because she attained the maximum possible ATAR score in the state, a percentile of 99.95. With the lure of a Commonwealth Scholarship worth $10,000 a year, both Sydney and UNSW Medicine Schools have put feelers out for the 2014 HSC over-achiever.

Reflecting on this, Ingressa (better known as “Miss Clever Clogs” around Girlambone) cheerfully indicated that it might come down to which university has the best daggy parties for brainiacs. So far the only universities to make Ingressa a firm pre-offer of a place in medicine are the University of Central Australia, Birdsville, and the University of the Warrumbungles in the Backabyond. Ingressa has rejected both of these universities outright, principally on the grounds (or lack of grounds) that she couldn’t find them on Google Maps.

Ingressa confessed to me in an exclusive interview for the Sentinel that she had been socially ostracised as a nerdy dork by her fellow students at Belanglo State Forest High School. “If it hadn’t been for the kindly old recreational activities teacher Mr Milat I would have been very lonely all the way through my school years”. Even the school’s Ur-Geeks Society which everyone else boycotts wouldn’t let me join, even as a quarantined associate. She was looking ahead to moving forward to an opportunity to make new friends at university … “18 years of unrelenting peer rejection must surely end”, she added in a tone befitting her sense of social isolation.

Photo: Stefan Severedhead
Ingressa hasn’t made her big choice yet but concluded by saying that at this point she was slightly favouring either “Kenso Tech” AKA UNSW or Bendigo Uni. The clinching factor in the end may turn on personal connections and the happy prospect of joining a cohort of similarly awkward, dysfunctional nerdy misfits. Aside from the kudos, Ingressa said that UNSW has two pluses in its favour. She won’t be a total stranger there, a close neighbour of hers from the ‘Swamp’, Mr Alain Stalker, is already an undergraduate at the University studying ontological hermeneutics. Ingressa is also excited at having recently discovered that UNSW has a really active Desperate and Dateless Nerdy Geeks Society, “A chance”, she gushed, “to be accepted – finally, to be amongst my own kind of people … socially-outcast eggheads”.


Down and Out in the Warrumbungles: Student Life at the University Coalface

Creative Writing, Media & Communications, Tertiary Ed

As aspiring students get ready to make the transition to university, it’s timely to take a look back at the story of a typical first-year undergraduate from the class of 2014 in a characteristic regional Australian tertiary education hub.


The Centralian

All that’s new from the centre of the continentimage


The pressure of being a fresher
By Kerry-Anne Wilderbeest
May 31, 2014

Manitoba can barely speak without erupting into a flood of tears! Her Reichian Gestalt Therapist has prescribed her sedatives to cope with depression and anxiety, and after this week it will only get worse.

The 23-year-old is one of thousands of first-year uni students who are careening headlong into what counsellors say is the toughest test of their academic careers – getting through their first end of semester exams.

Semester assessments may not seem at all daunting to those annoying little swotting tragics within the student body but to the less conscientious “party-animal” types, it produces visions of train wrecks and beads of sweat around the temples. According to the naturally warm and empathetic University of the Warrumbungles head counsellor, Dr Ethel Molestrangler, it is a flashpoint for many freshmen – when all the external pressures of starting a new chapter in life collides with the reality of coping academically at a tertiary level. Drop-out rates go through the stratosphere at this time of year, low-percentage subjects get ruthlessly dropped and uni counselling units become popular places for new undergrads to congregate.

DET figures show that about 75% of first-years are not sighted again after the end of ‘O’ Week, except episodically in the union bar. Of the 1800 freshmen who enrolled at UOTW in February last year, 1700 had stopped attending classes by Easter (200 of these however were members of the University’s Red Sea Pedestrian Walkers Club protesting against the sale of Vietnamese pork rolls in the University Food Hall during Passover).

“Things are really crook for me … I haven’t slept properly in about three weeks”, Manitoba moaned in a veiled reference to the poor quality of her Sealy Posturepedic, adding unhelpfully that that she needed to remind herself to phone the Bungles’ 40 Winks store to check on the mattress warranty.

At the beginning of the year, having jogged across Jogjakarta, Manitoba island-hopped all the way to the Warrumbungles to join her partner, Winsome Perving, and begin a degree in plant pathology. On top of trying to settle into a new home and earning well below the Henderson Poverty Line from her part-time night job as an exotic crops cultivator, Manitoba has to deal with the unfamiliarity of the Australian tertiary ed system. Having to bribe lecturers with dead fish to secure extensions on assignments has come as a real shock to a girl of her sensitivities.

Manitoba is desperate, this coming week she will sit three exams, two lab tests and submit four assignments as part of the first raft of assessments for her course. “If the University admino-fascists don’t allow my request to withdraw without penalty from half of my semester one program, I may have to chain myself to the Vice-Chancellor’s Rolls Royce … I want the entire administration to know that I’m fully prepared to engage in a futile and meaningless gesture if that’s what is required!”, she plaintively added.image

Middle East Conflict: The Personal and the Political in One Department

Creative Writing, Politics, Tertiary Ed

Indulge me if you would and spare me a few minutes to recount the following little tale about an academic department in a leafy, red brick outer-suburban university in the Antipodes. This story has a ring to it so palpably real that were it not for the certain knowledge that it is a fictional account, an imaginative invention of my mind, I could almost feel I was there, observing it first-hand! Indeed, I shall put myself into the story (as a mute, peripheral onlooker) as it unfolds. The setting for this narrative is a second generation middle-ranking tertiary institution in the early 1980s. For purposes of imprecise identification lets call it Governor Bligh University … that’s got a nice colonial ring to it!

Leafy western redbrick
At the beginning of the 1980s I commenced what I refer to in a jocular fashion as my undergraduate career at Gov Bligh University. I did have earlier brief tertiary false starts at Kenso Tech Uni and Warrumbungles CAE but the less said about these the better … and I won’t even mention the University of Central Australia (he says mentioning it!). I came to GBU as a cod-ordinary arts student very keen to study politics. In particular what was starting to catch my attention was the evolving political situation in the Middle East.

This newfound fascination with Middle East politics was, admittedly, partly motivated by an extrinsic factor: I had a Coptic Egyptian girlfriend at the time, but that aside I definitely had an intrinsic interest in the political dynamics of this crucial and volatile region of the world (and yes, my interest in Middle East politics did outlast my interest in my Middle Eastern girlfriend!). So, wanting to get a handle on the complex, endlessly convoluted politics of the region, I signed up for MEP269. In doing so, I unwittingly became an observer of an engrossing little political (and personal) duel between a brace of antagonistic academics.

The study of Middle East politics in the Department of Political Science at GBU at that time worked like this: two lecturers took turns to run the introductory UG course on a year-to-year basis. In the year that I took the course it was the turn of Dr Noam Mordecai-Ryka. Had I taken it the year before or the year after, the Middle East course would have been run by Professor Dwayne Boemsteenboer. Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka were poles apart in so many aspects of their views and personalities. Each of them were driven by a passionate, some would say partisan, commitment to one particular side of the Middle East debate. From this clash of personalities came a mutually personal and increasingly bitter enmity. Boemsteenboer was a very self-confident, somewhat intimidating mid-west American Arabist with Iraqi Ba’ath Party sympathies, whereas Mordecai-Ryka was a liberal Australian Jewish scholar of East European ancestry with an entrenched commitment to the cause of Zionism (albeit from the standpoint of a small ‘z’ Zionist).

The consequence of this pedagogic bifurcation was that if you were taking MEP269 one year you would get Boemsteenboer’s pro-Palestinian slant on the Middle East situation, one heavily critical of his own countrymen’s (America’s) complicity in the imbroglio and sheeting home the blame for a lack of progress toward peace to the intransigent Israeli bullies, buttressed by US superpower, and unwilling to negotiate a just solution. Boemsteenboer’s homeland, the US, would be lambasted for using a non-Arab, alien, Western implant (the state of Israel) for Cold War gains, as a proxy military force to gain a hegemonic advantage over the Soviet Union in the region.


But if you took MEP269 on the alternate year you would get the avowedly Israeli perspective of Mordecai-Ryka and his young female Jewish tutorial assistants, and an emphasis on Israel’s isolated position in a hostile sea of surrounding, undemocratic, authoritarian Arab States intent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland. Israel’s continued hard line on West Bank Palestinians would be justified on the grounds that the small ‘underdog’ Jewish state was fighting for its very survival. Indeed, I well remember during this period Mordecai-Ryka being interviewed on ABC TV just after Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Noam’s response to a question from interviewer Murf Paulfry was to justify Israel’s use of this dangerous pre-emptive strike option on the grounds that Israel would never be the second state in the ME region to launch an attack against its enemies.

Less I give a distorted view of these two academics’ teaching styles, let me hasten to add that for either of the combatants we are not talking here about the crass arguments and wholly transparent bias of, say, a David Irvine trying to rewrite the history of the Nazis’ Jewish holocaust. Both Mordecai-Ryka and Boemsteenboer were well respected scholars with a string of insightful and critically well-received papers on the Middle East to their names, but the reality is that both had a political axe to grind, and so any expectation one might have of an objective, neutral, down the centre account of the Middle East conflict was out the window.

The task of the inexperienced undergraduate politics neophyte taking the course would be to try to read widely on the topic at hand and reach a well-reasoned conclusion which balances the robustly-argued critique on the conflict presented to them by the convenor (be it a pro-Palestinian or a pro-Israeli one) and the countervailing arguments from the other side of the debate. Great if it happens and a terrific learning skill to acquire, but the question that poses itself is how many first year students fresh from Year 12 would have the experience and sophistication to pull it off? Inevitably, the endorsement of a partisan position on the Middle East also had a polarising effect on students taking the course.

When I came to Gov Bligh University and enrolled in the Politics Department in the first semester, it was not long before I discovered a state of fraught and increasingly icy relations between Professor Boemsteenboer and Dr Mordecai-Ryka. The personal tensions seemed to have built up over the previous two years, ever since Mordecai-Ryka arrived as a fresh-faced lecturer at GBU with his recently minted National University PhD and some ‘intelligence’ work background.

What started off conceivably as a simple difference of opinion or value-systems, a rigorous intellectual debate between two superbright scholars within the same department, eventually developed into an antagonism that became very personal. Everyone in the Department (and many outside) knew that the atmosphere between the two was quite toxic, both were inclined to avoid each other where possible. The ill-will between the two was clearly discernible to colleagues (Mordecai-Ryka himself when I encouraged him to reflect on his differences with Boemsteenboer described him in highly disparaging terms).

There was nothing dramatic, no observable verbal exchanges or confrontations between them, but an on-going, lingering war of words which extended beyond Mordecai-Ryka’s departure from GBU. The feud between them eventually spilled out beyond the department and the University and into the wider academic community. Even the Sydney Morning Herald ran articles about the heated, personal conflict, depicting it somewhat over-statedly in boxing terms as a sort of head-to-head public slanging match.

Someone in the Department of Political Science obviously had a wickedly mischievous sense of humour about the Mordecai-Ryka/Boemsteenboer animus. When Mordecai-Ryka returned from OSP the last time before leaving Gov Bligh for good, he was re-officed into a room right next door to Boemsteenboer! I could almost visualise the sparks of vitriol being projected from both sides against the adjoining wall!

I can’t speak with any certainty about Boemsteenboer’s motives or the emotional and intellectual drivers that propelled him to hitch his colours to the Palestinian mast. He remained an elusive figure around the campus, not very visible except for classes. My personal contact with the American don was restricted to observing his slick and authoritative lecturing style in the International Relations course, and to a singular encounter at enrolment where he dismissively and unreasonably (to my mind) refused to sign my program to take extra semester units. Whereas with Mordecai-Ryka, who was convenor for both poli-sci courses I took that year, Middle East Politics and Australian Foreign Policy, I was able to get some insights into what was firing his engine.

What came across clearly enough to the interested observer was the outward appearance of the personality differences between the two exceptional Middle East scholars. Boemsteenboer was fairly stiff and colourless, blunt-talking, seemingly without humour, and unnervingly robot-like in his rapid delivery of facts and cogent arguments in lectures. He was not given to any visible warmth or friendly disposition, and you would certainly never call him exuberant (the term “charisma by-pass” comes to mind). You had to readily concede that he really knew his stuff, but you were not likely to be charmed, or inspired even, by him in conversation.

Corridors of discord

Ryka on the other hand always came across as far more approachable, personable and engaging (very PR conscious), got on with the other Governor Bligh academics apart from those with a political axe to grind. Noam made himself very available to his students – he freely gave out his home number to students! I recall talking to him at home on the phone on a number of occasions. Mordecai-Ryka certainly connected with students in a way that the remote and aloof Boemsteenboer could or would never do. It was apparent that Mordecai-Ryka was keen to progress up the academic ladder, conscientious in his work and committed in putting his hand up for the little administrative tasks (committee participation, academic advising, etc) that many, less motivated academics, would try to avoid like the plague! This made Mordecai-Ryka popular, getting on well with the head of department and it was no surprise that he was rewarded by being promoted to senior lecturer in minimum time.

Mordecai-Ryka left Gov Bligh a couple of years later with his ambitions enlarged to go on to great (vain)glory in the US. No doubt, had Mordecai-Ryka been satisfied to stay on the academic treadmill in Australia, he would easily have made professor. In any circumstance he was never one to understate his academic accomplishments, as a memorable interview he gave several years ago to Australian television reinforced. An enthralled female interviewer gushing over the Australian background of the now American power player, referred to him as having once been a lecturer in a modest regional city university, pointedly Mordecai-Ryka was super quick to correct her minor, inconsequential inaccuracy with the self-satisfied words,”Senior lecturer, Jana”.

Talking at length with Mordecai-Ryka after classes made me acutely aware of the depths of his ambitions. I asked him once why the Middle East was his bag, the focal point of his intellectual energies, his answer, sidestepping the obvious personal element of his Jewishness, was to declare that he was only interested “in the big picture”, the global dimension! His background gave a clue to his ambitions, with fierce sibling rivalry playing its part. Mordecai-Ryka’s older brother, Moshe, had already made a name for himself in academic circles and literary publications, so the younger Noam always felt he had a lot to emulate, a lot of ground to catch up (significantly the older Mordecai-Ryka brother did eventually become a full professor in Australia – unlike Noam).

Intra-university disapproval of the young Jewish politics lecturer was not confined to Professor Boemsteenboer. After a history class given by an abstrusely intellectual and flaky Marxist lecturer one day, I was walking along the Humanities Building corridor with the same academic, when Mordecai-Ryka walked past us from the opposite direction. I acknowledged Noam who I was on good terms with. The left-wing dogmatist, let’s call him Dr Mervyn Picklewhiting, stone-facedly ignored Mordecai-Ryka (works for him!), then straight after he had passed us leaned over conspiratorially to me and murmured sotto voce, “he’s a spy!” The academics in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Gov Bligh, at that time described as ranging the full ideological gamut from “a Marxist orientation to those whose political critique of post-industrial society was informed by Marxism”. Picklewhiting and his lot, with paranoiac zeal, outed Mordecai-Ryka, as a ‘spook’ – supposedly to do with his having previously been employed within the Australian intelligence network in an agency allied to ASIO.

After a couple of years Mordecai-Ryka decided both the Gov Bligh and the Australian pond was too small for his aspirations and left the University to reside permanently in Washington and work for American think tanks and Israeli lobby groups. Within a short period he had done a ‘Rupert Murdoch’, trading his Australian citizenship for a glossy American one. This was a necessary step in the Mordecai-Ryka grand plan, opening the door for him to the US State Department and swift promotion to high diplomatic and consular US posts in Israel.

When I eventually heard about the ‘Americanisation’ of Mordecai-Ryka it made me chuckle! I recalled that Noam had once mentioned in class his overseas’ experiences of meeting strangers who responded positively to him when they discovered that he was Australian. Mordecai-Ryka waxed lyrical with pride about the high regard this identity was held in internationally. Vaulting ambition and expediency can bring about a complete turnaround in values and in allegiances!

In the end both Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka seemed to overreach through injudiciousness or perhaps a touch of hubris, and got a bit burnt, Icarus-like, by their outspokenness and capacity to polarise. Boemsteenboer found himself in the hot seat during the 1st Gulf War copping flack from the Australian Government for voicing public opposition to its decision to invade Iraq. This incident prompted conservative political commentators and the Australian Jewish lobby to vilify him for what they saw as bias against Israel and inevitably, and expression of the American’s anti-Semitism. Eventually Boemsteenboer left Governor Bligh and Australia to return to his homeland.

For his part, Mordecai-Ryka’s smooth pathway through the corridors of power in Washington received a jolt when he was recalled from his post in Tel Aviv and denied a security clearance relating to irregularities in the handling of administrative matters under his charge. His star did eventually rise again, such was the determined nature of the Jewish political dealmaker, but he was much more chastened and wide-eyed about the world of politics second time round.

With Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka back in the US, although based in widely disparate parts of the country (both of them still “rusted-on” to their opposing ideological standpoints), the corridors of Governor Bligh University must seem a much more mundane and comparatively ho-humdrum milieu these days – especially in the Department of Political Science.

A Few Observations on Nepotism, Corruption and Financial Mismanagement in Australian Universities¤

Tertiary Ed


It is instructive to reflect on the fact that there has been no tradition of ‘whistle-blowing’ in the Australian public universities sector. And yet, as we see from time to time, scandals and serious irregularities within the corridors of these venerable institutions have come to light.  A couple of years ago, the Vice Chancellor of Queensland University was forced to resign his post when it was revealed that his daughter was given an undergraduate place in UQ’s medicine degree ahead of 343 better qualified applicants, and despite her having failed the MBBS admissions test! Strings do get pulled in the loftiest climes of Academe, and in this particular matter, the misdemeanour went before the Crimes and Misconduct Commission. I know of other instances, not quite as blatant, where senior academics have sought to exert influence on the process, making special pleading cases to their university’s admissions office on behalf of their unqualified relatives.

Australian universities are able to give offers to applicants in this way without the need for the applicant to demonstrate that he or she meets the required academic standard. These are called ‘forced offers’ and although intended to be used only for exceptional circumstances, are quite discretionary in their application. Twenty years ago, a leading university in Sydney gained the opprobrium of its competitor institutions when it made a large number of forced offers for nursing to current Year 12 students prior to their HSC results being known. This was a very irregular occurrence indeed, because the concept of forced offers, intrinsically, was designed with non-current Year 12 applicants exclusively in mind. But it does happen, even at the biggest universities.

In addition to the issue of admission irregularities, its interesting that a lot of what goes on in Australian universities behind the doors, in their allocations of monies and their practices, manages largely to avoid in-depth public scrutiny. Media outlets in this age of intense demand for university entry are known to assign specialist reporters to cover higher education (Abel Contractor was one such reporter employed by the Sydney Morning Herald in this specialist role several years ago). Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, a lot of what goes on within Australian universities flies under the radar. The media usually gets no further than to scratch at the surface.

Many of the dubious practices that occur, and I’m talking about mismanagement and misallocation of revenues as much as out-and-out corruption and nepotism, remain in-house and thus out of the gaze of the media. Occasionally, the news outlets will run stories about the ultra-generous perks of office enjoyed by VCs, things like the UNSW Vice Chancellor having the use of a mansion as part of his package, similarly, Sydney University’s lavish entitlements that come with the job of VC, a Macquarie University VC’s special deal to secure an associate professor’s salary for life of part of the termination package, but the story doesn’t usually probe deeper than this. Sometimes, like the Queensland vice chancellor’s appallingly bad judgement in seeking to influence his daughter’s application, the high office-holder goes beyond the Pale and everyone finds out. The registrar of UTS in Sydney in the 1980s was gaoled for embezzling funds from the University, and the key office of university registrar was abolished and not restored for approximately 12 years!

The vice chancellor’s post, as well as being highly lucrative, commands a tremendous amount of power within the university, and considerable influence in the wider tertiary education sector. Sure, theoretically there are checks on that power, not from the chancellor which is by and large a ceremonial leadership role, but from Senate and Council. But a determined VC can bring pressure on these committees or alter their membership to bring about his or her desired outcomes. The inordinate and exceptional power of the vice chancellor is evident in all spheres of university life. Vice chancellors in Australia normally have a discretionary fund, a seemingly bottomless pit of disposable money in a university climate of ever-tightening financial strictures. The VC can choose to use these funds however he or she deems fit.

Years ago, the vice chancellor at a university I used to work for, decided to spend the bulk of that year’s discretionary allowance on the purchase of a rather grand and extremely expensive pipe organ. The organ was imported from England, along with the owner of the organ company who was put up in a 5 star hotel whilst he carefully oversaw its delivery, tuning and setting*. When this was completed, in the middle of first semester enrolments, the VC in a characteristic display of self-indulgence, called a halt to enrolments, took over the enrolment venue for a night, cleared out the enrolment booths and rolled out the red carpet (literally) for 36 selectively invited VIPs…the beneficiares of a very exclusive organ performance. The whole enrolment process put on hold for a elite soirée of privileged mates at taxpayers’ expense – democracy in action university style!

The organ in question was purchased supposedly to be played at graduation ceremonies in the main hall. The problem with this idea soon became clear. To be able to play it in the graduation hall meant knocking out about three rows of seats in a hall that was already too small for the demand placed on it by the demands for graduation seating. As a result, it couldn’t be played during graduations. Eventually, it was carted over to the University Theatre, an interior with unsuitable acoustics. In transit the organ was knocked out of alignment and had to be retuned to get the pitch perfect again. After precious few performances in the theatre, some time later this expensive ‘white elephant’ was returned permanently to its original, dust-gathering location in the hall. Now, I ask you, does that sound like a good investment in and allocation of public funds?

To nepotism, mismanagement and misallocation of funds and resources, can be added corruption. I mentioned the registrar at UTS before who embezzled university finances. At the same university as the hardly used, exorbitantly-priced pipe organ, there was also fertile ground for fraudulent activities. The vice chancellor had her favourites among the various business units and departments of the University. In the aftermath of the fallout experienced by universities due to the ‘Razor Gang’ cuts on tertiary education expenditure, and the resultant need of universities to self-fund, first among the favourites was the International Office. Because international students were a burgeoning area in universities in those days when the A$ was undervalued, and because international students are full-fee payers, it is no surprise that the International Office was so popular with a VC desperately looking for alternate sources of funding. All public universities do this, get the internationals in at all costs, get them through at all costs (this is a whole other story), then replace them with more of the same. On-going income generation.

A grateful VC rewarded the International Office with increased staffing and resources (more than their student workload required), and gave its director tacit acquiescence if not carte blanche  (certainly no scrutiny) for his idiosyncratic approach to managing his unit. Freed of any financial controls or apparent accountability, the director felt no compunction about gifting the juicy contract for the International Office’s extensive array of glossy publications, uncompetitively tendered, to his daughter-in-law’s printing company in Melbourne. In a work environment with deep-seated abuse of office like this, it does not surprise that waste and extravagance was also endemic. One such instance involved professors, dignitaries and directors of exchange programs from overseas tertiary institutions. When they visited the International Office, staff thought nothing about hiring taxis on a routine basis to ferry round the visitors on sight-seeing trips to Newcastle, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains.

Other areas of this university were equally prone to misuse and mismanagement of public funds. In the 1990s the University moved to introduce a new student system, it committed to a particular vendor and followed through to the extent of sinking $6-7 million into the project. Then, the University project team discovered at that advanced stage that what the provider was offering wasn’t compatible with the University’s student administration requirements, and so the University pulled the plug on the project. $6-7 million! And nobody was sacked, nobody was asked to account for this gross business systems blunder. Of course not, because the University Executive had given the project the green light, they were implicated! So, the whole thing was quietly swept under the carpet, and never mentioned again. It beggars belief! But I marvel over what appropriate use this wasted $6-7 million could have gone toward, such as legitimate core university objectives like improving learning outcomes.

That public funds allocated to universities in Australia are misused in the ways outlined above, and that many of those financial misappropriations are not acted on by the university itself or by the higher ed authorities, taints the higher education system. The lack of accountability makes universities appear as if they are ‘sacred cows’ that cannot be reined in. This, and abuses of office by the powerful elements in universities, make the sector cry out for much needed reform.

¤ I have not been concerned about sheer incompetence in this blog piece. Instances of the incompetence of tertiary Ed institutions have become the stuff of legend over the years…such as the time the University of Sydney mailed out the mid-year results to all of its 44,000 students, listing the subjects completed in Semester 1 perfectly…just the one little hitch – the administration had omitted to include any grades on every one of the mailed notices!!! I wonder at how many pairs of eyes this blundering mistake had to pass before USYD unbelievably green-lighted this monumental, embarrassing oversight?


* He was a cheery English chappie by the name of Clive who was so intent on getting the organ just right to please his generous benefactor that he kind of, unknowingly, suggested to me the desirability of putting an end to “all that noise in the hall!” (ie, enrolment preparation), so that he could concentrate on the crucial task at hand, his organ-tuning task! I politely mentioned to him, in the way you placate an aberrant, irrational child, that I understood his concerns…No, more than that, it was a good idea! Clive’s face brightened! (mischievously I couldn’t help baiting him!), but there was just one little catch I explained – once the students found out (that it was Clive who was responsible) it would bring the wrath of approximately 10,000 new and re-enrolling students anxious to sign up for their uni subjects down on to his singular head! The cheerfulness quickly drained out of his countenance.