The rise and fall of geography and environmental science at Monash University

The last two years have been unpleasant for geography and environmental science at Monash.  What was once a thriving School of Geography and Environmental Science has been wilfully destroyed, reduced to a “Centre” soon to have only four permanent staff. Excellent and committed as these colleagues are, they have been marginalised and will struggle to return GES to its glory days unless the university reinvests in genuine interdisciplinary teaching and research at the nature-society interface.

My move from Monash University to take up a position at the Université of Lausanne happened to come during this period of unprecedented turbulence. This leaves me with mixed emotions. The comments below reflect how I feel about recent events, how I analyse them, and what I think needs to happen to reinvigorate a proud 50 year tradition.

The university’s website (from a link on the main page) still trumpets its ranking for geography as 23rd globally in the 2014 QS World University Rankings by Subject, which put geography among the top eight subjects across Monash University in terms of its performance in this particular ranking. And yet this strength has been squandered through non-replacement of staff, opportunistic departures, and – more troublingly – through disciplinary splitting and the production of such unhappiness that people have resigned. Shame.

Of course, like any institutional entity, GES had its warts. As a relatively small school we struggled with administrative load across two Faculties. Student numbers could have been better. The doctoral program had only recently begun to improve its record for ‘completions’, and the Honours year program was not all that flash. But we were a lively place of interdisciplinary encounters across the nature-society and science-humanities divides (see my Goodbye Monash post).  And if you want evidence of international standing in numbers, in addition to the QS World University Rankings we could boast at being rated first among equivalent units in Australia’s Go8 research universities; and rated 4 out of 5 (‘above world standard’) in the Australian ERA assessments in the fields of human geography, atmospheric science, physical geography and environmental geoscience, and archaeology.

So what happened? Who is to blame? The reasons are many, complex, and – inevitably – contested from different vantage points. The details of the implosion of geography at Monash are not worth rehashing in detail – at least not in public, particularly as it pertains to individual agendas and personalities, the legacies of past management decisions, as well as to the lumpy, unsavoury, and at times brutal process that the unravelling of the School happened to follow.  It suffices here to be a bit more philosophical and mention several general structural factors beyond egos and personal ambitions.

One contributing factor is the difficulty of being interdisciplinary in disciplinary institutions (see my previous blog entitled “a space for interdisciplinarity”).  Where do groups of scholars working on environment-society themes fit in the ever-problematic interstices between the natural science, social sciences, and humanities?  Despite all the rhetoric around interdisciplinary and sustainability, the actual practice remains problematic.  While I enjoyed rubbing shoulders and sharing students with climatologists, palynologists, archaeologists, sustainability theorists, economic and cultural geographers, the university (and some colleagues) found it easier to separate us between Science and Arts.

A second factor is undoubtedly institutional logic, or the fallout of the current managerial ethos and political context that drives short-term numbers-based decision-making, endless manufactured crises, and a culture of ‘constant change’ regardless of the consequences for the quality of education (see related analyses in the Monthly and the Conversation, as well as Simon Batterbury’s article on the paradox of ‘radical’ scholars succeeding in a neoliberal, metric-orientated academy).

These logics had a number of specific consequences that played a role in the unravelling of GES: (1) Our successful suite of masters programs in environment, sustainability, international development, and corporate social responsibility were effectively undermined with reshuffling, re-positioning, and internal competition motivated by bean-counting agendas rather than any visionary leadership; (2) The establishment this year of a new School of Earth, Atmosphere, and Environment, which needed our climate, soils, and GIS staff to succeed, was convenient to administrators to rescue weak departments elsewhere, and was calculated to position the university better in categories used by the Australian government and QS for rankings (well, in categories other than geography, that is); (3) The pressures on pure numbers in teaching have made the overhaul of the undergraduate teaching program (necessitated by the split and collapse of GES) exceedingly heartless and short-sighted. These pressures built further barriers across the Arts/Science divide through tight ‘disciplinary’ majors, and cut out classes with smaller student numbers. Our most successful classes (in terms of learning outcomes) get disparagingly labelled ‘ice cream’ or ’boutique’ units and threatened with disestablishment for being too small (under 50 bums in seats).  Staff are deployed to teach what might, in retort, be called ‘Walmart units’ or to plug short-term teaching holes, not where they are passionate. Students lose out.

So this year certainly marks a sad milestone for Monash geography and environmental studies, which just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.  To briefly review its history, Monash University, which opened its doors to students in 1961, established a Department of Geography in 1964 as part of the Faculty of Arts. The Foundation Professor was Basil Johnston.  Illustrious members of staff over the years have included PhD graduate Ron Johnston, economic geographer Gordon L. Clark, the original ‘non-adjectival’ geographer J. Stuart Duncan, past Monash Vice Chancellor Mal Logan, urban geographer Chris Maher, historically oriented Joe Powell, community economies scholar Kathy Gibson, palaeoecologist Peter Kershaw (and among his many students, cultural environment scholar and Laureate Fellow Lesley Head), environmental geographer Chris Cocklin, urban water specialist Rebekah Brown, and more recent Heads of School Nigel Tapper, David Dunkerley, and Priya Rangan.

In a separate development, the Monash Centre for Environmental Science was founded in 1972 as one of the first stand-alone environmental programs in Australia. Under the long-standing leadership of engineer-turned-environmentalist Frank Fisher, this centre later became focused around a graduate diploma and masters program and was known as the Graduate School of Environmental Science (GSES). This program trained 1000s of environmental managers over three decades. In 1988-9, the GSES merged into the Department of Geography (which was renamed the Department of Geography and Environmental Science and still located within the Arts Faculty), but the GSES still offered its distinctive masters program. This was the first of a series of similar mergers across Australia (Harvey et al. 2002), and reflected an obvious synergy between the ‘old’ discipline of geography and the ‘new’ environmental studies at the interface of nature-society studies. In 1998, the “Department” became a “School”, after the Faculty of Arts underwent an extensive review. In the 2000s, under the rotating leadership of Chris Cocklin and Nigel Tapper, the School renewed itself with a series of hires around human geography, development studies, corporate and urban environmental management, climate, and indigenous archaeology. The 30-year-old GSES masters program was replaced with a new suite of masters programs in 2003-2005 focused on sustainability, development, and corporate environmental responsibility.

The full history of GES awaits the pen of a suitable scribe (Stephen Legg?). More importantly, the future of GES requires the university to make a solid commitment to not just sustain the small but strong core team remaining in the Centre for GES, but also to reinvest in the growth of a truly interdisciplinary entity working at the crucial interfaces of environmental change, social justice, and sustainable development. I do not believe that the events of the past few years are the final chapter in the history of GES, but that instead something strong can rise from the ashes. Monash, this is your responsibility.

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One Response to The rise and fall of geography and environmental science at Monash University

  1. […] some people will naturally ask whether my departure has anything to do with the messy ‘restructuring’ of GES.  The answer is no.  My new job in Switzerland arose independent of this, and I would have gone […]

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