A Handy Guide To Student Consultation

A piece I wrote for the Higher Education online section of the Australian. Published September 26, 2013.

ALLOW me to present a handy guide for senior university executives: 'How To Get The Answer You Want Out Of Student Consultation'.

Step 1: It's important to agree on principles for consultation: More specifically, it’s important to agree on your principles for consultation. After all, we can’t just have anyone coming in with an opinion and expecting it to be taking seriously. It’d end in anarchy!

You know what all the important issues are and you know what is important to students. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by student representatives pushing their own personal agendas because they’re obviously just pushing their own barrow.

If the student representatives refuse to agree with your assessment of priorities, then there must be something wrong with them. Feel free to cast them aside and find your own more sensible and co-operative student representatives. They only represent the shabby 10 per cent of students who could be bothered voting. You’ll be able to find a student somewhere that’s much more representative of all students. (Hint: the business and law schools are usually a good place to start looking).

You don’t have to consult, but if you do, make a big deal out of it. Talk about it in front of your peers a lot, and make up phrases and acronyms to describe it. It will seem even more unique to other management types who visibly recoil at the suggestion of having to deal with students at all.

(See also the extended guide chapters: ‘You can have input but we will make all the decisions’ and ‘Engage student reps for consultation until they don't agree with you’).

Step 2: Student unions are rolling in money so feel free to make them conduct market research: If you’re not sure what student reps tell you is true or if a proposal is worthwhile, you don’t have to accept it straight away. Send the students away on a data-gathering mission or tell them to produce a feasibility study.

Don’t worry, you won’t need to do any of the work yourself. You work for a university, and universities are responsible with money, unlike student unions. Feel free to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to any internal project you like without seeing any plans or a proposal at all. Your job is SECURE.

(See also: ‘No matter how simple the fact, it ain’t true until a survey says it’s true').

Step 3: All students are -- and have always been – the same. So feel free to make decisions based on what things were like when you were a student: Don’t let the fact that you earn a lot more than students stop you from empathising with them. You were once a student too.

Granted, you didn’t have to pay for your degree or work part-time while you studied, but those are just minor differences.

Since all students are the same, feel free to make generalist statements. Young women and international students don’t drink alcohol. Young people are all tech-savvy and want to spend all their time staring at a screen. Work ethic is a thing of the past. No need for justification.

(See also: ‘I know what you’re going through; I struggle with the mortgage payments on my million-dollar house').

Step 4: Selectively quote examples from other sandstone universities (but only when it suits): For everything that a university does, you can always find a way to demonstrate that the other universities either do it better, or they do it worse. This can be very helpful when it comes to justifying your own priorities and disregarding those of your students.

Cite a study to back up your argument if you can, or even better, tell the students that you can’t show them the data because it’s commercial-in-confidence. Don’t worry about the statistical validity of any studies you use; you’re an academic so everything you say can be trusted.

(See also: ‘Rankings don't matter ’til I say they do (which is usually when I'm allocating resources').

So there you have it! With these handy tricks you’ll be able to neutralise any student uprising. And if you’re ever in doubt just blame the federal government. If you didn’t create the problem, you don’t have to fix it.

Hello Mr, Nice To Meet You

Ryan Fitzgibbon is a man who is sick of the clichés, often perpetuated by major gay lifestyle publications, that surround the gay community.

‘Few of us fit into that mould of what you see on the cover [of gay magazines] and what you see on websites, and what you see in porn’, he says to me over the phone from his office in Sydney. ‘The state of the publishing and fashion media is all about being perfect.’

HelloMr1.jpg

Fitzgibbon notes that there has been a lot of discussion and effort to change the perceptions of what it means for women to be ‘normal’ and accept and love their bodies, but he believes similar issues exist unchecked for gay men.

‘There hasn’t been the same sort of conversation about gay men. The statistics of gay men with eating disorders, it’s just perpetuated by the kind of things we put out.’

That’s one of the reasons Fitzgibbon decided to start his own publication, Hello Mr. He wants to change the conversation and present relevant material for a generation of men who date men who feel misrepresented.

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‘My goal was to not print a rainbow in any of the pages, and I succeeded’, he laughs.

‘[Hello Mr.] is giving voice and giving face to a different type of gay man, who doesn’t really care to be objectified in that same way. Down to the realistic portrayal of how our bodies look, to even the choice of paper I used for the magazine, it’s real and it feels more authentic.’

He also differs from the mainstream in his opinion on the priorities of the gay community. ‘The main topic of discussion is marriage equality’, he explains. ‘It’s really taken the priority and puts a lot of emphasis on our values as an entire generation.’

‘While we all probably share many of those qualities and hopes for our own lives, it’s not really the thing that defines us.’

‘The only images that you ever see… [are] two mums holding a rainbow flag, or two men embracing because they love each other so much. It’s all good and well, but the rainbow flag isn’t all there is to us.’

One of the strongest themes in the first issue is that of vulnerability. ‘There’s such an image of perfection that we feel needs to be upheld’, Fitzgibbon explains. ‘We’ve always had to uphold this hand holding, kissing, perfect image of a family.’

‘[Once we] start to just be really honest about how we felt, what we thought, what we cared about, what really tears us apart, I think a lot of people just really pour their hearts out to share their story.’

HelloMr3.jpg

Fitzgibbon has certainly tried to capture the stories of a broad cross section of gay men, with contributors of all ages and from all nationalities. This international flavour perhaps stems from the fact that he is quite the globetrotter himself.

After growing up and going to school in Michigan, Fitzgibbon moved to San Francisco to work for a design firm. ‘That job was a consultancy for a global design agency that took me everywhere’, he tells me. ‘I was flying to do market research in India and Brazil and all over the world, and eventually Melbourne as well.’

After meeting a designer in Melbourne and getting a taste of Australia, he decided that Australia was the best place from which to produce and launch Hello Mr.

But now that his Australian visa has expired, he has decided to move to a new city – this time, New York. He tells me that ‘New York is such a hub for media.’

‘Now that I’ve got a physical artifact out there I can really shop it around and get attention by having something to have the conversation around.’

The first issue of Hello Mr. is available now in print or for iPad at hellomrmag.com.

Photography by Luisa Brimble (magazine spreads) and Benny Capp (portrait).

This piece was originally written for On Dit.

Happy 80th Birthday On Dit

I wrote a little birthday message to On Dit, originally published in On Dit issue 80.11

Happy Birthday On Dit, you spring chicken!

You’ve been around for 80 years, but sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same. In your very first edition, in 1932, one of the writers talks about “the well known fact that undergraduates are not sufficiently interested in the fascinating squabbles of contemporary politics”, and “hopes were expressed for a brighter future.” Fast-forward to 2012, and commentators everywhere spend their time lamenting the apathy of youth. How very familiar.

From the beginning, you have been giving a voice to the needs and opinions of University of Adelaide students. In 1932 you were instrumental in influencing the University by supporting students in their demands to have the Barr Smith Library open at nighttime. Fast-forward to 2012, and students now spend their time complaining that Hub Central isn’t open overnight on the weekends. How very familiar.

After the Second World War, when politics and student activism covered the University, you weren’t afraid to take a stand. Your archives document the attitude of students at the time and provide a complete history of the era, giving a student written account of both the University and national current affairs.

In June 1968 you published an issue considering Australia’s obligations to the Aboriginal people, calling for a “crucial battle on a war against large commercial interests” and advertising an All Night Vigil outside the Police Headquarters. Fast-forward to 2012, and the nation is debating whether or not we should have a debate about indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution. How very familiar.

Of course, not everything has remained the same. Over the years you’ve taken the form of a two-page broadsheet, a weekly newspaper, a half-tabloid newsprint magazine, and the fortnightly magazine format we have now.

Many of your editors and contributors have gone on to big things. You can count the Hon Dr John Bannon (former Premier), David Penberthy (Editor of the Punch), Clementine Ford (writer), Sarah Hanson-Young (Senator), Shaun Micallef (comedian), and Julia Gillard (Prime Minister, duh) amongst your alumni, as well as many others.

You’ve also seen some controversy in your time, like the year that Senator Nick Xenophon (or Xenophou, as he was then known) edited you and then admitted the following year that the election had been rigged by his mates. He’s surprisingly candid about the whole affair now.

You hold a special place in the history of the University, and the contribution you make to student life is immeasurable. It’s critically important that students have the opportunity to voice their opinions and have dialogues on University affairs and stories important to students. You provide that outlet.

Once again, happy birthday, and keep it up old chum.