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If academia was a sport: the press conference

“So, you’ve fallen in the latest Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, do you think that will effect your ability to recruit the top ATAR students next year?”

“Look, we acknowledge that we have fallen in those rankings but you have to take into consideration the particular measurements they use. Like all rankings they place weight on some areas and not others…we’ll look at the numbers once we get them in full and address any concerns that may be there.”

“Are you worried you will lose your high flyers?”

“No, not at all. We have a number of ECRs who are performing well at B and C level. And what pleases me is that they’re cross-disciplinary in their approach. They keep an open mind and that in turn gives the University options, it is beneficial for the broader good.”

“So you’re looking at the future, you’re not convinced you’re going to keep hold of your stars?”

“That’s not what I said. I have no doubt that our “stars”, as you put it, have as much faith in what they are doing here as I have. Sure, we have a few out on sabbatical at the moment but that is part of the tradition of this institution and to do without it would be damaging to this institution, and to academia in general. I don’t see that as a negative, I think anyone who did would have to question their commitment to scholarship.”

“You’re midway through your term as DVC, how would you rate your performance?”

“I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess, that’s not for me to gauge. Like all academics, you do at times feel fraudulent, but that comes with the territory. The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. If you think you know it all, you’re obviously not meant for this environment.”

“What do you say to claims that your University is losing its appeal?”

“I am not sure what you mean by “appeal”, it’s not a term I would use when talking about higher education or scholarship in general but I know you need an answer so I would say that it’s not a concern. We’re still here. Cancer still needs to be cured.”

But of course, this is Sydney

On Friday I walked out of the gates of Sydney Uni for the first time in ten years and knew I wasn’t due back next week. Yes, I’m in my early 30s (ahem), and I have worked at the same place for ten years. Not in the same job mind you, but definitely in the same place. And I don’t regret so much as a minute of it.

Sydney Uni sign

Sydney Uni is a funny place. When people first arrive they always remark how it’s a world unto itself, how once you step through the gates you are in a city. Its roads confound all who have been there less than several years. They wind and turn and are marked by buildings as wonderful as Physics and Anderson Stuart and as god-forsaken as Carslaw and the Transitory Building (which has been there at least since my parents were at uni). Once you’ve been there a while you appreciate the roads, Carslaw and the student-free times. You appreciate the fact that the Carillonist plays Waltzing Matilda and that some things that take one week in the real world take six months at Sydney.

Sydney is grandiose, it’s arrogant, it’s self-assured and absolutely self-obsessed but at the same time, strangely generous and quietly incompetent. It sometimes can’t see when it’s wrong. It doesn’t always believe you when you know you are right but is almost forgiving when you’re wrong. It’s full of unreconstructed old blokes and headstrong women but also has room for people who wouldn’t get a job in the real world due to their obsession with trains, their inability to socialise or their refusal to wear makeup.

Someone once offered me a job at a bank that would have no doubt got me a lot more money and catapulted me along the ‘career’ path at a good clip but she also acknowledged that to work at such a place would go against my “ideological beliefs” and she was dead right. Even though Sydney has more money than smaller universities could ever dream of and they promote themselves with the same keenness of commercial enterprises while pretending that resting on their laurels will be enough, if you work there you can always tell yourself you’re doing something for ‘the greater good’. There is a general sense that the Uni is part of something larger than ourselves, that even if we’re not actually saving lives with brain surgery, someone in the Uni is learning to do just that. As far-fetched and ridiculous as that sounds, this thought helps people stay there for years, to justify what they are doing. It makes them feel good.

Sydney has this ability to suck you in, to make you feel almost in love. For a core of people at the University, their devotion is undying even if full of loathing at times. They seem like a family, thrown together by something beyond their control but unable to rid themselves of the burden of the greater whole. They all have their own motivations and they’re not always clear or for the greater good. You can tell the ones who have been around for a while, they bitch and moan but would never dream of leaving, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. Is such an attachment healthy? Quite possibly not. At least they’re not emotionally invested in a bank.

So I walked out and thought it would be fairly momentous but in the end I was just glad to get home and get on with things. It hasn’t really sunk in. I have a lot of people there about whom I feel strongly, one way or the other. I have seen my life changed dramatically by the Uni, from my son to partners, to my dog. I am pretty sure that to become too maudlin over it would be reason enough to have left. It’s a place of work. Such feelings are just not healthy. Surely.