On the Sunday before I was to meet with the Vice-Chancellor, Christians across the world were reflecting on the Biblical story we call ‘The Temptations of Jesus’.
Before beginning the ministry that would lead to his arrest and execution that Christians remember each year at Easter, Jesus goes out into the desert ‘for forty days’ to ‘find himself’.
The story is a fable, meant to teach us moral lessons. There is more to life than the material (‘Man cannot live on bread alone’) and we are mortal creatures, not Gods (‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’).
But it was the second ‘temptation’ that resonated in the back of my mind as we began our conversation in the VC’s office on the top floor of the new glass cube called the Hub. As the VC exulted with me in the magnificent panoramic view, looking to the north over all of Adelaide, I wanted to celebrate with him. A better view than Mt Lofty or Windy Point! But I was completely thrown by the Sunday text still reverberating in my mind: ‘Then the Devil took him up and showed him in a second all the kingdoms of the world…all this will be yours, if you worship me’!
I had always admired the symbolic action of the former Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Len Faulkner, when he was first appointed to Adelaide. He immediately bought a simple house in the western suburbs and quietly invited a group of Vietnamese nuns looking for a home, to take over his Palace, situated among the mansions in leafy North Adelaide.
So here I was, distracted and conflicted in my mind before we had even sat down!
Just for fun, I had forwarded the VC some Leunig cartoons, suggesting they might be some source of discussion.
I had assumed they might lead us into some of the big issues in the university. So my already messed up mind was further thrown into disarray, with C.P. Snow’s ‘clash of cultures’ to also contend with – me, an arty intuitive, at home with images, symbolic action and metaphor and the VC, at home in the analytical and logically linear world, as you would expect of someone graced by a distinguished career in genetics.
I had come to explore what common ground there might be for Oasis with the yet unreleased new university strategic plan. What part could Oasis play?
In the conversation I mentioned how corporate the university had become.
“What do you mean by ‘corporate’?
The symbolism of the ‘top floor view’ immediately came to the front of my thoughts. So I took a deep breath and launched in.
I said that I thought the corporate was characterized by a group of people who had a top floor life of their own, up there engaging in executive decision making, while the grassroots below got on with the daily realities of their vocations – and little real communication took place between the two.
That, the VC thought, was just ‘bad management’.
Every school teacher worth their salt knows that if you really want to find out what’s happening in the school you talk to the caretaker or the groundsman. At Flinders, my confidante had been the Student Union printer, who was as sharp as a tack and had been around from the beginning. Big loss to me when he lost his job in the restructure caused by the Howard government’s assault on student unions.
A few days after my uncomfortable top floor conversation I was down in the Caretaker’s room as part of my rounds. I joked about a huge stack of toilet paper, yet to be delivered. ‘That’s for the Hub and this is for the rest of us – the Hub gets two ply and the rest of the university gets one ply!’
‘Bad management indeed!’ I thought. I don’t know about you, but I always fold my toilet paper to make three ply!
In our modern world, issues are rarely black or white – God or the Devil. Life is often a balancing act of conflicting interests and negotiation of different perspectives.
We construct our worlds – whether those worlds are religious, social or organizational. They can be constructed on self-interest, achieved by economic power and assumed authority and status. In fact the first step toward corporatization might be to make self-interest a virtue!
Is there a place for those of us who are constructing a different world on the values that have contributed to the flourishing of civilisations and not their ultimate demise?
This post was inspired by an interview with Human Rights Commisioner, Gillian Triggs, ‘I knew I could have destroyed them’, recorded in the Saturday Paper, April 23-29, 2016.