‘Cosmetic’ partnerships fail to deliver against global crises

Stronger leadership, fresher thinking and better incentives needed to drive action on sustainability, says Auckland vice-chancellor

June 11, 2024
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Universities must find ways to move beyond “cosmetic” memoranda of understanding (MoUs) and address crises in both leadership and thinking to accelerate their impact on the challenges of sustainability.

The uncompromising message was delivered by Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, during a discussion among higher education leaders at the Global Sustainable Development Congress in Bangkok.

Chairing the panel, John Thwaites, chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and a former deputy premier of Victoria (from 1999 to 2007), set the scene by observing that “from my experience of my time in politics, universities acting alone rarely have as much impact as universities working in collaboration with others. I think the sector is starting to realise that.”

He referenced the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network as an example of global-scale collaboration, and said that mission-oriented and time-bound programmes were also a helpful approach to delivering tangible impact, along with “transformational leadership”.

However, Professor Freshwater responded by arguing that at a time of multiple, interlinked crises, “I question whether we have a leadership crisis – and perhaps a crisis around thinking.

“There seems to me to be less and less space for thinking, and that we are outsourcing some of those skills in higher education.”

She continued: “I also think, when it comes to partnership, that we have to recognise the proliferation of cosmetic MoUs, which have lots of energy when they are signed, but which do not have much delivery. How many of those partnerships – which can be a stunt and a photo opportunity, if I am being a bit provocative – really lead to solutions?”

Also speaking on the panel, Freddy Boey, president of City University of Hong Kong, argued that with issues of sustainability, there were important distinctions to be made between the focus on the global and the local.

“The problem of sustainability is often spoken about in terms of global this and global that, and as far as the ‘why’ is concerned then that makes sense,” he said.

“But when you get down to the ‘how’, global solutions are very limited…While we talk global, we should have [a practical focus on] things happening within a city.

“We know that you need government, industry and universities to make progress, and within a city you have a means to put these three things together and actually make things happen – and that is what’s important.”

Looking at the structures that exist within universities, Professor Boey argued that interdisciplinarity worked when “vertical” structures such as colleges and schools were connected by “horizontal highways, where all professors can move back and forth without anyone’s permission”.

“I always tell professors you have a God-given right to do any research you want anywhere you want,” he added.

The panel discussion concluded with an exchange about the internal incentives and career structures that could affect where scholars focused their energies, and a warning that if the route to securing tenure or professorial promotions was made solely on the basis of journal publication, then that is where academics’ focus would remain.

Responding to a joke from Professor Thwaites that the answer was “to abolish tenure”, Professor Freshwater said: “I don’t think that’s radical enough; I think we should abolish professors.

“The serious point is that the people who need to change things aren’t in the room at this leadership summit. I am talking about students, who are the future leaders. Because if you did have students in the room, they would say, ‘Prof, what have you done for me lately?’”


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