by Sandy Burgham
I may have been the only one scribbling notes while listening to — namedrop alert — President Obama at that fancy schmancy dinner recently. While his observations on leadership were insightful, the one that has stuck with me is about when to give up power, when to stand aside to let younger, more relevant voices come through. It’s time for baby boomer bureaucrats to take seriously the gap between themselves and those younger generations who will inherit the mess they have created. Despite an admirable social conscience and a global awareness, these digital natives, Obama observed, are so frustrated and alienated by the system that they are showing a loathing to join it, preferring instead to “tend to their own small gardens”. We must, he implored, find a way to pull them into public discourse.
So I am in full support of a growing body of students and staff at the University of Auckland who are challenging management who wish to close three specialist libraries — Fine Art, Architecture and Planning, Music and Dance — without a proper consultation process. While the bureaucrats have backtracked and scrambled to declare, somewhat feebly, that they are listening, the review panel lacked adequate student representation and voice.
As a part-time student, I attended a post-closure announcement korero between key architects of the proposed restructure and a lecture theatre full of Fine Arts faculty students and others. What ensued was an example of why young people are so uninspired by the leadership that’s either asleep at the wheel, or out of touch with the needs of their young student body. These members of the establishment seemed embarrassingly inept in defending what has become a controversial review which seemed to ignore its own research findings, such as that art and design students search for information differently from those in other disciplines; the needs of artists are “extremely idiosyncratic“ and “for most information needs, browsing [in libraries] is the strongly preferred behaviour”. (Gosh, sounds like they need a specialist Fine Arts library!).
They were caught off-guard by the passionate and articulate students who see specialist libraries as the hub of their community and learning experience. The flawed review process is a prime example of what London School of Economics Professor David Graeber calls the “bullshitization of academic life” where “strategic mission statements” and “audits and monitoring” are more talked about than teaching and education. No doubt some bureaucrats needed to achieve spreadsheet KPIs and closing three specialist libraries is an easy answer. One would think the review committee would have considered “stakeholder engagement” (in plainspeak – talking and listening to students). Um, no, not really, it appears.
Students were angry, but out of it has bubbled up a good, old-fashioned, student movement. You can browse savethefineartslibary.com to read the offending documents, and put in a submission along with many of our leading gallerists, curators and artists. You might want to join a rally. Remember those? The atmosphere on a recent one was electric; over 1000 students, teachers and supporters marched, chanting “When arts and culture are under attack, stand up, fight back”. Spurred on, I read the university’s strategic plan, where I found broad-brush declarations such as “working to advance the intellectual, cultural, environmental, economic and social wellbeing of the peoples of Auckland and New Zealand” and “providing high quality management marked by open, transparent, responsive, and accountable academic and administrative policies, practices and service”. Hmm, the process and recommendations around the libraries seem to work against both.
I am hoping the powers-that-be realise that the tide is turning, as evidenced by our pregnant, unmarried PM, who not only has championed free tertiary education, but has also chosen to be Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage. The dissonance between a new generation of leaders and the baby boomers in power — who benefitted from specialist libraries when they were at university — has never been more evident. Their only hope in order to remain relevant is to listen. The fight is not about where to put a growing number of books — one rationale for the mergers — it is about something far more important.
He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
— Sandy Burgham
This article first appeared in The Hobson Magazine June 2018