Further thoughts on strategy, mission and narrative

There has been a long gap since my last post in this blog as I had a couple of weeks of international travel for the university followed by Vice-Chancellor’s Forum and then two weeks’ leave.  Since then (as well as catching up on tasks) I have started my round of presentations to staff and we have also had a University Council Planning session.  In these I have been presenting my thoughts on the mission, or what I have called the narrative, of the university.

Soul Power

With apologies to James Brown, I wanted to start by talking about the notion of ‘soul’ for an organisation.  This was one of the concepts that was in my mind at the start of the year as it struck me that CSU really seemed to have it.  My working definition of this would be an organisation that sees you, recognises you and responds to you.  I think we will all have had the experience of engaging with organisations who seem the very opposite.

My sense is that by and large we do a pretty good job of this at CSU, although I would also be sure that at least some people will have different stories to tell.  However, for a university I think we should be aiming to sustain a strong sense of community and to be seen to have a soul.  If you don’t mind some gentle implied profanity, I quite liked Jonathan Fields ‘Commandments of Epic Biz’ and I’m also taken with Seth Godin’s notion of developing tribes.

So to roll on from this, in my presentations and through this blog I am looking to prompt some further discussion about what we should be trying to achieve as a university and about how brave we might be in thinking about that.

Have Universities Lost the Plot?

Let’s start with the question of whether the higher education system still has a soul.  Richard Hil has recently had a book published called ‘Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university’.  I have to confess that I have not yet read this book but, from the publicity and from listening to Richard Hil on LateNight Live, the theme is broadly that things have gone downhill and it’s all the fault of corporatist university leaders and government bureaucrats.  My thoughts are that (a) things are not entirely as bad as this would suggest and (b) only some of it is the fault of university leaders and bureaucrats (although some of it undoubtedly is).  I believe there are systemic features of higher education which have led us to the current situation.

To focus in a little on the teaching and learning mission, one of the issues identified is whether we are being too instrumental and vocational in our approach to education.  In the promotional material for Richard Hil’s book on the web page he quotes an academic as suggesting we should think more about ‘peace, love, beauty, living sustainably, being an active citizen, getting along with your neighbours, building respectful relationships, becoming ethically and spiritually reflective, mindful, truly globally attuned with an altruistic rather than individualistic bent’.

Personally, I would fully endorse this set of aims and I don’t see a conflict between them and developing effective professionals.  On the contrary, in discussion with industry leaders they frequently complain that graduates are too vocationally focused and don’t have breadth of view.  (One energy company leader told me he really likes engineering graduates who can quote Shakespeare because it demonstrates they have a broader grasp of humanity, for example).  I am also of the view that events such as the Global Financial Crisis demonstrate the need for professions to take a wider moral view of their actions.

I don’t think I am alone in this. If you read anything about the history of universities, you will usually find the senior leadership embracing a broad view of education and encouraging inter-disciplinary studies.  And yet, most institutions get drawn towards discipline specialism and narrow technical focus.  Why is this?

One of the things that happens in the university system is that disciplines develop their own logic and power.  This is expressed in a structural sense by the desire of Schools or departments to protect their EFTSL streams and squeeze out other electives and in an individual sense by a desire for academics to teach their own speciality.  Both of these tend to lead to curriculum that is biased towards technical discipline content and therefore works against exposing students to breadth. This is a feature that has been actively managed in the history of CSU’s forerunners.  In Theo Barker’s history of Mitchell College he notes that a controversial restructure was partly to overcome Departments “… devising units that seemed likely to be popular and pushing them through the system onto the approved list … a Department presented a united front on such matters.  However, all Departments stood alone because each was indifferent to the woes of its rivals.”  As we have seen with the ERA process, there is also generally a higher value placed on abstract theoretical research and again this tends to drive academics towards pursuing speciality and theory.

Another issue is the systemic drivers of corporate finance.  Bill Massy, who was the Chief Financial Officer of Stanford University, gave a seminar a few years ago for the LH Martin Institute.  Part of what Bill presented was a mathematical proof that you can’t starve a not for profit organisation into following its mission.  This is because as money gets tighter, the organisation becomes more and more desperate to get its hands on discretionary income and hence behaves more like a for-profit corporation.

Of course, as long as people want to be paid to come to work, money is required.  I think that universities have probably always been somewhat guilty of chasing money (the reputation of vice-chancellors on this score has neither greatly improved nor worsened over the decades).  However, in response to the tightening of finances through the late 90s and early 2000s, I think Australian Higher Education did become a bit too focussed on finding ways to add to the bottom line without considering the fit to intellectual mission.  I don’t personally think there is necessarily a conflict between the profit motive and social good, but I do think we need to be clear about what our intellectual aims are.

For The Public Good

I will mention that we do talk about the mission and vision of CSU in a number of places, but nowhere do we any longer specify what they actually are.  ‘For The Public Good’ is of course the University’s motto, taken from Charles Sturt’s writings on his experience as an explorer.  Consistent with this, to borrow from The Castle, there is ‘the vibe’ about CSU of an institution committed to social good and its communities.  I therefore hope that what I’m going to lay out below chimes pretty well with what people are feeling.

From discussions at Vice-Chancellor’s Forum, I gather we have not managed to settle on an explicit mission for several reasons.  First, we are a very complex institution and therefore we have hit the usual problem on trying to formulate a mission, which is that everyone can object to something.  Second, I think we are conflicted about the notion of ‘regional’ as we are not sure whether this is a good thing to line up behind or not.  Third, there is the healthy scepticism about managerial nonsense and that we might end up with, to quote Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, “a long and complicated sentence which demonstrates management’s inability to think clearly”.

I will split it up with some thoughts on who we should think of as ‘the public’ and then subsequently on what we might mean by ‘the good’.

Who Are ‘The Public’?

So, first ‘the public’ and I believe this has to be the communities in our footprint in regional NSW.  I will start by saying I love the notion of regional.  I have lived in regional Australia ever since arriving in the country and I love these communities.  I have experienced regional Australia as friendly, vibrant, authentic and a place where people and their lives are important.  There is a wonderful sense of connection and community in regional Australia.

In Canada earlier this year I came across a wonderful quote from Greg Curnoe, a painter from Ontario in Canada who founded a school of painting called London Regionalism.  He said:

Provincialism is what people do when they live, as they think, ‘out there in the sticks’ and they try to imitate what they think is hip in the big centres.  Regionalism is simply what people do when they are at ease with themselves in their own environment.

Universities are a critical part of regional communities.  Some universities in the United States have begun to use the term ‘anchor institution’ to describe themselves.  An anchor institution is one that is a significant economic, social and cultural player in its region.  One of the tests is whether you would move your headquarters somewhere else.  In pressing people on our regional mission, this has been one of my litmus test questions and the answer is always ‘no, we would not’.  It is also worth noting that the CSU Act specifies that we should pay

…  particular regard to the needs and aspirations of the residents of western and south-western New South Wales

There has been a concern that embracing regionality might mean we put off students from metropolitan areas.  However, survey work conducted last year for the CSU branding exercise shows that students see us as “hard-working & practical; friendly & down-to-earth; environmentally minded; promotes individuality – no discrimination, equal chances”.  I would suggest that this perception matches perfectly the values of regional Australia and hence is true to our nature and appealing to those outside our region.  For a university that takes a serious interest in wine, I have suggested that there is an analogy there.  Wine is a product that is enjoyed globally but whose origins are an essential part of the reason for drinking it.  Likewise, we can attract students because of who we are, not just because of where we are.

The final point about regionality is the importance of engaging with Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous communities.   Indigenous people are a significant section of our home population and if we are to serve our community we must take educational achievement for Indigenous students seriously. Engaging with Indigenous knowledge provides cross-cultural competency (a critical skill in a globalised world) and also contributes to what Jack Manning-Bancroft, CEO of AIME, has described as a ‘richer sense of Australian identity’.

To build off that last point, to me regional and rural Australia is at the heart of the sense of Australian identity.  Many of the things that Australians are admired for abroad including friendliness, egalitarianism, honesty, directness, practicality and doggedness are in part founded on the history of engaging with the land.

Our intellectual agenda, including our approach to research, should therefore be based on the issues of our region.  A true university is one that is networked beyond its home region and therefore we should work with anyone in the world who shares our concerns.

What is ‘The Good’?

In relation to a university, which primarily affects what’s in people’s heads, my descriptors for this were:

  • ‘To lead a satisfying, fulfilling life and to strive for this for others’

or perhaps:

  • ‘Whole, wise, strong professionals in whole, wise, strong communities’

However, in reading the nominations we had made for Indigenous Elders’ awards, I was taken with a concept from Wiradjuri which is yindyamarra winhanga-nha, translated as ‘the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to “live well in a world worth living in”’.  I thought this was a lovely formulation and have asked the Elders if they wouldn’t mind if we borrowed it.

To map this into the kinds of people we are trying to foster in our communities, I would argue we need people who have the following qualities:

  • People who are excited by learning.   My belief is that the emotional kick from the ‘aha’ moments you experience through learning, scholarship and research is what keeps people interested in and committed to learning.  The desire to pass on this passion to students and the community is reflected in teaching, research supervision, publication and engagement.
  • People who have gumption.  I took this term from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a long time ago.  Pirsig says “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.” The Dictionary provided on Apple Macs defines gumption as “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness”.  Both seem to me to fit well with what is required to make an employable graduate, an excellent professional, as well as the best of the spirit of bush practicality. I do recognise that, unfortunately, people now tend to associate gumption with a particular brand of bathroom cleaner.
  • People who appreciate the physical, spiritual and the intellectual. To have a healthy community, I believe you need to have a sense of a full human life.  This cannot be founded on intellectual pursuits alone.  Again, as a university with strong interests in areas such as agriculture, wine, theology and Indigenous knowledge we are well placed to engage in a broader sense of human understanding.
  • People comfortable with themselves.  To be comfortable in your own skin, it helps to understand your own cultural background and what has shaped you.  Getting an insight into others’ cultures and worldviews is a powerful way to look back upon yourself and develop this understanding.  As the poet Robbie Burns said, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!”
  • People committed to community.  In addition to the above, there also needs to be an explicit commitment to developing and maintaining community.  I think this fits well with interests like Policing and inter-faith dialogue, as well as covering disciplines like social work and journalism.

I think these attributes fit well with, but I think slightly expand on, the eight commitments in the CSU Degree Initiative.  Through the CSU Degree Principles we do have a commitment to including breadth in the curriculum and ensuring all graduates have exposure to Indigenous knowledge, sustainability, ethics and global citizenship and internationalisation.  I realise this is a significant task and is providing a lot of work for the Course Directors and Course Teams, but I believe it is important work.  However, we may need to have a look at better theming the initiatives we currently have around teaching and learning.


I was excited to come to CSU, and am excited to be here, because I think we are a very distinctive institution.  As noted above, we are an anchor institution for our communities, we have a very diverse and interesting academic profile with a holistic view of human life, we are focussed on education for the professions and knowledge with a practical outcome.  We are still a young and dynamic institution; part of the feedback I have been given by stakeholders is that we are an institution that is able to get things done.  Also, we are not too seduced by our own importance.

Early this year, James Haire, Director of our Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, talked to me about their work in inter-faith dialogue being about encouraging people to ‘bring their whole selves to the table’.  I really like the idea of a university that welcomes the whole person and to go back to the start of this, that seems to me to fit with the notion of an organisation with a soul.  I am very mindful of encouraging and nurturing that in my time as Vice-Chancellor.

So, I will look forward to continuing to discuss these ideas with the aim of pulling together a more explicit mission statement or narrative over the next month or two.

11 thoughts

  1. I really appreciated the depth of this blog. It is so constructive to think in terms of enhancing professionalism through holistic approaches to education. All communities need altruistic professionals whose contribution goes beyond learning for earning.

  2. Great inspirational blog. I do indeed believe university study should involve ‘peace, love, beauty, living sustainably, being an active citizen, getting along with your neighbours, building respectful relationships, becoming ethically and spiritually reflective, mindful, truly globally attuned with an altruistic rather than individualistic bent’.
    We need to be we need to be very accurate, or truthful, about the definition of the terms ‘respectful relationship’ ‘reflective’ and ‘mindful’ in the above quote though, so they don’t just become white noise. At the moment I believe we focus more on flexibility and retaining the student in a course than actually make sure the above attributes are achieved. We should be trying to build relationships with our students rather than just make them learn content. As a university we have a duty to make our students think, reflect and become independent. These attributes are often the first to go when pressures like student numbers, shorter teaching periods and content knowledge are increasing. Building relationships with a course cohort from day 1 will enable us to do more in those areas.

    I really like the term anchor institution. In my opinion CSU should be the entrance to tertiary education for a lot of people that would not be able to access tertiary education because of money, distance and maybe even entrance scores. We should get as many students in as possible in first year, work very hard to make them succeed but also be rigorous in letting them know when tertiary education is not their strength. In short make CSU a true meritocracy.

  3. A soul for an organisation is critical particularly when a preoccupation with technology has scrambled from efficiency levels to obsessive ones. This may well be the time to reflect on a more humanistic ethos where staff feel valued and learners are inspired to learn. Such an ethos engenders more intrinsic self-motivation because there is a sense of belonging; a sense of worth.

    Otherwise we risk morphing into a deformed organisation with a seemingly well-developed technological leg but with a “humanistic” limb that has atrophied through disuse into a weak, ineffective flipper. Such an imbalanced pair of supports will struggle to keep the organisational body upright. Where will the organisational soul be then?

  4. “I am also of the view that events such as the Global Financial Crisis demonstrate the need for professions to take a wider moral view of their actions.”

    Thanks VC Vann, for making this comment. I agree that there is a moral crisis that underlies the GFC. The global financial crisis is not an event but a condition. We have to engineer ourselves out of it just as we have engineered ourselves in. This is not something that is going to ‘solve’ itself – at least not in a way that humans will survive with the same commitments that they entered it with. We really need to stop thinking that we are good problem solvers and that anything that confronts us can be turned into a well defined problem with a well defined solution. We have to become much sharper critics of the world we have created and to find means of coping with higher levels of uncertainty than we have become used to. This is not because of a lack of knowledge but because of an increase in knowledge, including confusion from contradictory messages of our experts emanating across different disciplines. Our gifts (and talents) for control that have been delivered through modernisation are turning into our nemesis. We have to be much more adept at coping with new ways of understanding the world and acting within it. This, I believe, is the challenge not just for our universities but for the communities they act within.

  5. “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost”
    (quoted in David Whyte (1996) The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, New York: Doubleday.)

    After 11 years as an academic at CSU (and over 25 years as student and professional practitioner of skills, knowledge and wisdom begun on the Boorooma hillside), I awoke, that what had long been an open if regulated squatters run – in which learning was sustained and belonging was cultivated; had become a neglected copse of scrappy over-planted saplings around some deep rooted, hollowed out gums that nested a mix of galahs and cockatoos, aspiring ever upwards and seeding ever outwards (Oh Canada, Oh Dubbo, Oh, Hell, Hay and Booligal) even more under-nourished and and unprotected new growth. This was the dust through fingers promised by distraction of the National University of Inland Australia for the Professions – and this was not what I had become a teaching and professional academic for – – nor was it what my colleagues (for the most part) had aspired to either, but what to do?

    To use your analogy look on down the line and see the washed out sleepers and warped rails, the firemen shovelling more and more, faster and faster as the Engineer with his foot on the dead mans plate stared into the horizon….. – was it lack of gumption that said to me (and to a visible number of my peers) -“jump”? or the preservation of our soul – our integrity and our humanity. I have dusted off a few scrapes and am walking along the track in the same direction but at a more sensible pace, sharing water and nuts and a bit of sunlight with the saplings on the edges – the screeching birds in the tree grate still, and occasionally I look into the forest and wonder – but I’d rather be a tumble weed on the plain, than a dead tree in the forest….

  6. Thank you for this thought provoking piece. It is important that staff reflect on their perceptions of the organisation. In an article in a management newsletter (http://www.management-issues.com/2006/6/22/opinion/what-is-your-organisation-like.asp) Max McKeown discusses the use of metaphors to describe people’s perceptions of their organisation and the insight provided by looking at the assumptions behind those metaphors. McKeown refers to Gareth Morgan’s eight archetypal metaphors for organisations: machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, flux and transformation, and instruments of domination. Interestingly, the academic in Richard Hill’s article uses two metaphors stating “there’s more to life than being a cog in the machine of economic growth…” and referring to the University as being “a drive through facility”. Other examples of metaphors for companies in McKeown’s article include “like a friend”, “like a family”, “like a fly trap”, “like a fascist regime”. In this case perception is not necessarily reality, and understanding perception can reveal areas for change.

    Words and phrases evoke images and this differs from person to person. To me, regional infers, on one hand, specialised or on the other hand, limited. Being regionally based, engaging with Indigenous culture and being aligned with Australian values suggests very different images from those suggested by the term “regional University”. Metropolitan Universities do not generally identify as being linked to a specialisation or geographic area. The term sandstone suggests enduring, dependable and strong, perhaps even wealthy. I think the term anchor institution is good and implies strength as well as giving a sense of holding together, an important concept in regional and rural environments. A quick Google search refers to anchor used in this way as “a central cohesive source of support and stability”. Other similar, but perhaps less attractive terms, include cornerstone, keystone, backbone, mainstay, foundation and lynchpin. Is there such a symbolic term for a University in regional Australia?

  7. Tony to continue on your theme, and I must admit to looking at my own response to the VC and my use of metaphors – but one thing that has long bugged me is the view that regional is “necessarily different to normal” and idealistically easier (perhaps slower, or less frantic), but also more, as you say, “limited”. Central this is the disdain for the generalist – and that places particular pressures upon rural professionals – it took medicine along time to re-vaue general practice – largely because of the rural medical crisis, one hopes CSU’s latest seed casting in this area, embraces generalist practice and defends it.

  8. The art historian Michael Baxandall once talked about the idea of ‘influence’, in the way artists (painters, musicians etc.) are often asked who their main ‘influences’ are. Baxandall pointed out that this idea is back-to-front. He noted that when an artist is inspired by another artist, it isn’t a ‘push’ arrangement where the influenced artist accesses some sort of creative momentum thrown into the aether by the influencing artist. It’s the artist who is inspired by another artist that uses it to create, and in the process helps to build a tradition and essence of that style of work. History has no in-built inertia.

    Organisations are the same. Their ‘soul’ is not some essence they have that can be found by a process of looking or analysis, it’s reinvented every single day. Always by looking to the past and using it to reshape the present according to a vision of the future. Organisations have no inertia, in the same way history doesn’t – any stability and ongoing progress is made, every day. The piece on metaphors Tony quoted is interesting, and I’m reminded of the work of the primatologist Shirley Strum, who showed that primate societies have had every metaphor possible thrown at them over time to justify all sorts of conclusions, but in her close study of them she realised that each was made anew every day. You become what you practice (which is what I think Andy is saying in some ways too by replacing “the University” with “we” – CSU is what we decide it is, based on this process of historical renewal, from day to day).

    So I don’t know what the soul of CSU is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not some thing we can find, it’s something we will create and make continue through that continuous process of looking backwards and forwards at the same time, while working in the present day, every day. Interestingly one of the official symbols of CSU (now gone I think) was always the Roman Janus – looking forwards and backwards, at the same time.

    Specifically about regionality and the public good etc. and how those might be looked at in this Janus way, should probably be a separate comment, this one is too long already !

  9. Have been travelling for the last few days so have not had the space to make a substantive reply, but really enjoying the very thoughtful discussion in the comments. Thanks! Noting the responses from Wouter, Derek and Andrea, one quote that I have long enjoyed is from Martin Luther King: “The means by which we live has outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

  10. In addition to ‘soul’, its is great to hear the idea of ‘breadth’ being raised! I must admit I love the Canadian system where the only criterion for a set number of subjects is that they cannot be related to your main discipline/degree. I even harbour a secret longing that a humanities subject should be compulsory for all.
    On the downside, I suspect I may have to now limit the use of my favourite Rabbie Burns quote (or I will be accused of copying!) – but doesn’t it just sum up what we need to be and how we want others to ‘see’ us! An institution that has its own identity: where our own (internal) high expectations and standards and recognition of the great achievements of our students and staff are also recognised externally. A university that is known to be proactive, inclusive, innovative and moving confidently into the future.
    Despite the current external and internal pressures and changes (or is it because of them?!), this is an exciting time to be part of the Higher Education system and, I think, particularly CSU.

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