Melbourne v-c: ‘narrow thinking’ risks post-pandemic recovery

Universities’ breadth of viewpoints more important than ever in this ‘dark period of history’, says Melbourne v-c

July 16, 2020
Duncan Maskell

Diversity of viewpoints and the “respectful yet robust exchange of ideas” will prove more vital than ever in the aftermath of Covid-19, according to University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell.

“Life after the pandemic is going to be difficult, in a host of obvious and not-so-obvious ways,” Professor Maskell told his university community, in an annual address delivered this year via Zoom. “One of the big difficulties will lie with how we are going to think in relation to living in a world with this new disease.”

He said that universities’ contributions risked being derailed by contemporary challenges including “the continuing abasement of respectful reasoning and persuasion, in favour of the appeal to force, emotion, anger and fear”.

“One thing that especially disturbs me is the preponderance of narrow thinking in so many debates and discussions,” he said.

Earlier this week, University of Edinburgh vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson warned that universities’ diverse viewpoints could undermine them in the public eye. Professor Mathieson told a virtual forum hosted by Arizona State University that robust debate within universities could be misinterpreted as “disunity or lack of clarity”.

He said that UK media had characterised academic exchanges as “‘one expert says this, and one expert says something else’. That sends potentially quite a confusing message to the public. Are experts able to come to a view or not?”

But Professor Maskell lauded the strength in “things we do instinctively as university people, but don’t always reflect on deeply”.

“Universities like ours help people – our students, our colleagues, those with whom we work – to think through problems from multiple points of view,” he said.

“It’s a feature born of a rigorous approach to knowledge, and the multidisciplinary reality of living and working in a university community. This is something the world needs now, as it contemplates post-pandemic life.”

Professor Maskell said people in every sector of Australia’s economy had lost their jobs. “There is fear abroad. This may contribute to worse things to come, in international relations and in other economic and social challenges down the track. In this dark period of history as we deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, our community must be a beacon,” he said.

This entailed more than medical science, he stressed. “Experts in all the other disciplines, especially including the arts and humanities, will now be needed more than ever to help people outside our university community to think better and reason more thoughtfully about how they go about rebuilding their lives and our shared world,” he said.

“The world is already moving out of the phase where medical science alone needs to take the lead in fighting the pandemic, and into the phase where the social sciences and humanities have a central role to play.”

Professor Maskell said that the pandemic posed an existential threat to his institution as well as the broader community. Every time universities missed their six-monthly intake of international students, the hit to the economy would be comparable to the A$5 billion (£2.8 billion) shutdown of Australia’s car manufacturing industry.

“The current situation, if unchecked, would certainly be a threat to our existence,” Professor Maskell said.

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