Talking leadership 48: Duncan Maskell on presiding over disagreement

Melbourne boss explains why knowledge is service, and why unbridled casualisation would displease his dad

November 1, 2022

There are two schools of thought about the fundamental purpose of universities. One is betterment of society, and everything universities do should serve that purpose. The other is pursuit of knowledge, and nothing they do should divert them from that purpose.

To Duncan Maskell, it is all the same. “One of the most obvious things that we do for social benefit is to generate basic knowledge,” says the University of Melbourne’s British-born vice-chancellor. “They’re not different as far as I’m concerned. The generation of knowledge is a service to society. Full stop.”

It is not a universal view. Two ministers from Australia’s now ousted coalition government cited doubts about the benefits of research proposals to justify denying them funding, after independent peer reviewers had deemed them worthy of financial support.

But Maskell says “plenty” of politicians, not to mention the broader public, understand the fundamental precept that knowledge generation is an intrinsic social good. Just look at the counter-argument, he says. “What would our country or any country look like if you were not generating knowledge? If you were just relying on what you had? If you’d been doing that for the last couple of hundred years?

“We are the places where most activity goes on in trying to understand the universe, how people operate, the beautiful things in life. Universities doing that derive a social benefit for civilised societies. Translation is where we think harder about how to help that work become more tangible as a social good. At the end of that spectrum is real translational research, and commercialisation as a small element of translational work. It’s all for social good.”

Recent rumblings at Melbourne and the University of Cambridge, where Maskell spent decades before heading down under in 2018, suggest that politicians are not alone in questioning the ubiquitous benefits of the unbridled generation and exchange of knowledge.

Last year, Melbourne amended its free speech policy to prevent “harmful speech”, following consultations with its transgender and gender-diverse community. It said it was committed to freedom of speech, but not speech that “undermines the capacity of individuals to participate fully in the university”.

“One of our core values is that there must be a genuine and deep culture of respect for everyone at our university,” Melbourne later explained. “This is non-negotiable.”

Proposals to mandate “respect” have caused ructions at Cambridge, where a “mutual respect” policy designed to “prevent inappropriate behaviour in the workplace” has drawn opposition from dozens of senior academics. “Universities are there for the free discussion of ideas; they are not finishing schools for groupthinkers,” one said.

Critics warned that a policy based on a concept as “vague, subjective and restrictive” as respect could be “weaponised” in academic disputes. Maskell concedes that it is “incredibly difficult” to codify and regulate people’s behaviour using such imprecise terminology.

“Most people understand what these terms mean sufficiently well not to go into conflict,” he says. “But there are some occasions where people either wilfully present a particular view on those terms, or genuinely don’t understand those terms in broad ways, and use those concepts in their arguments against others. I think that’s inevitable.”

Nevertheless, he is surprised that the row at Cambridge – which occurred after his departure – reached the “pitch” it did. “My personal view is that it is possible to disagree fundamentally with someone, and not respect their view necessarily, but respect the person. I don’t have to be insulting or chuck metaphorical bricks at you because I don’t agree with you. Let’s have that robust disagreement. But let’s not be disrespectful to each other. It’s as simple as that, basically.”

He says most disciplinary disagreements are cordial. “It’s very sad when [academics are] nasty and unpleasant to each other. I’m not bleeding heart about this. People sometimes really can’t stand each other. That’s fine. We don’t have to like each other. Just don’t be nasty to each other. You don’t need it.”

As a university leader, Maskell says, the “sheer joy of dealing with smart people” is not always easy. But he would be almost disappointed not to find differing views on issues like gender identity. “We manage to have differing views on almost everything, so why not that? I’m somebody who enjoys complexity.”

Playing umpire in such disputes can require the “judgment of Solomon” from those in leadership positions, and sometimes leads to widespread dissatisfaction. “You’ve got to be robust enough to understand that both sides might not like your decision. You might wind up being liked by nobody. But you don’t do the job to be liked. You do the best job you can in leading the institution.”

Presiding over a “live situation” sometimes keeps Maskell up at night. “I wake up thinking about it,” he admits. “If you’re really lucky, you wake up with that magical solution that’s been provided by your subconscious while you’re asleep. But once we’ve made a call, I tend not to fret too much about it. If you fret about every decision you make, that’s all you do for the rest of time. You make the decision, hope it’s the right one [and] move on. If something happens subsequently which [suggests] you made the wrong decision, you’ve also got to be humble enough to think about whether you can revise [it].”

Winding back a decision is “not easy to do in this day and age”, Maskell acknowledges. But he is surprised at society’s readiness to “vilify” politicians for changing their minds. “Any intelligent person should normally keep a situation under review,” he says. “If circumstances change or other evidence comes to light, you should be [prepared] to change your mind.” In his view, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s rhetorical claim to fame – “the lady’s not for turning” – was “a position that’s bereft of intelligence”.

The vice-chancellor is for turning. Arriving at the university that now tops most Australian league tables, a development at least partly credited to the “Melbourne model” implemented by his highly regarded predecessor a decade earlier, he had no qualms about putting Glyn Davis’ innovation under the microscope.

“I said we should have a look under the bonnet,” Maskell says. “That’s not a challenge. It’s exciting. It’s great to be able to come in and build on a change like that.”

The Melbourne model, which the university prefers to call the “Melbourne curriculum”, is one of the few significant deviations from type in Australia’s notoriously homogenous university system. Borrowing from US approaches, it features largely generalist undergraduate degrees with career-oriented specialisation occurring at postgraduate level.

“There are probably still people in the system and in the city who would like to go back to what we did before,” Maskell says. “Personally, I think the way we do things is great. All we’re doing now is evolving it over time, as things change.”

The Melbourne curriculum reflects a mindset that people’s careers flow from the education and experiences they absorb at university, not the other way around. “One of the things I noticed coming to Australia was a view that there’s a much tighter link between your degree and the job you’re going to get.

“Obviously, going to university should help people get a job, but it’s not an apprenticeship model. If you’ve done a degree in history, it doesn’t mean that you're going to be a historian. Arts degrees are very popular and common amongst very senior leadership in business.”

Maskell’s own career has diverted from well-trodden paths. When he returned to his alma mater Cambridge in 1996 as “the youngest professor in the university at the time”, he established a research group studying infectious diseases. It was situated in Cambridge’s veterinary school, whose head of department left a few years later. Maskell was asked to assume the role. “I said, ‘what are you talking about? I’m not a veterinarian.’ But they insisted.”

He says that in the Cambridge system, academics in leadership roles are expected to maintain their research responsibilities. “There’s not a clear-cut jump from being a research scientist to being a university administrator. You’re still a full-on academic and expected to produce the goods to a high standard. I was in charge of a pretty large research group, studying infectious diseases of animals including humans.”

Maskell is not sure whether such lofty expectations are “realistic”, but says he managed. “By that time my research group was big enough that there were some other really senior people running sections of it. So I was able to carry both burdens, as it were.”

He ran the vet school for nine years before becoming head of the school of biological sciences, and then senior pro-vice-chancellor. This gave him planning and resources responsibility for an institution with an annual turnover of around £2 billion. The shift to Australia put him in charge of a university with revenue of some A$2.7 billion (£1.5 billion) at the time, and substantially more since.

The move brought its own burdens. “Walking into a job in a new country, even one that’s as familiar to me as Australia was; that’s always a challenge.” Getting to know the processes and funding system was difficult enough; “the nuances of differences in culture” even more so. For example, most British students attend universities in different cities, while most Melbourne students commute across town.

“I’m a great believer that universities are communities. It’s a bit of a challenge to get that community feel on campus in the evening if all students are going off to jobs or home. In the UK, students are away from home. They’ve got nothing better to do than meet up in the evening to go to the pub and get to know each other.”

And while Cambridge is the defining institution of the city around it, Melbourne is only the third biggest university in the city that bears its name. Even so, staff and students combined add up to a population approaching that of Bendigo, Victoria’s fourth biggest city. “It is a big, big organisation with a lot of complexity. But it’s been fantastic to join this community. It’s just great to come to a top university and be in the top leadership role.”

Casualisation has been a “particularly difficult” challenge for Maskell. “I don’t like the idea of a very large casual workforce,” he says. “I’ve always believed – this was instilled in my dad, as a plumber – you should get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. To find that my institution in the past has been not behaving quite properly in that regard was very personally difficult for me. We’re working very hard to rectify that. But it’s a big and complex problem. It’s going to take time to get it right.”

Maskell has no illusions about how such sentiments would be received in his Bendigo-sized community. “Some people will be cynical about it; others would say ‘what a good bloke’; others would say, ‘that’s all very well – get on and do something about it’.

“With a big organisation, we’re not going to get to a place where everybody’s happy. But my objective is that we get to a place where the vast majority of people are happy with the outcomes. It’s going to take time. We’re trying to go as fast as we can in terms of rectifying the past underpayments. As for rebuilding the system, which is effectively what it is, I’m very keen to get that done quickly. But it is complicated.”

Like many other universities, Melbourne finds itself righting longstanding wrongs just as it tries to rebuild from Covid’s carnage. “Problems never do come alone, do they?” Maskell observes.

“I don’t know what the best time would be to be facing this. There’s always going to be other stuff going on in the background. It doesn’t matter what else is happening. This is an issue that we need to rectify. We need to get it right. And we need to do it quickly. So there it is.”


Quick facts

Born: Barnet, Hertfordshire, 1961

Academic qualifications: honours degree in natural sciences and a PhD on “natural resistance and immunity to typhoid fever”, both from Cambridge

Lives with: His wife Sarah, also a microbiologist with a doctorate

Academic hero: Carlos Hormaeche, a Uruguayan professor who fled from the generals during the 1970s and wound up in Cambridge. “He was my PhD supervisor and later my very good friend, who very sadly died in a flying accident quite a few years ago. He taught me the importance of deep expertise, absolute rigour, and total intellectual honesty, but always in the context of having fun, and living life with a big smile on your face.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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Reader's comments (2)

Thank you Duncan Maskell (from the N hemisphere)! I totally agree with your considered comments, viz. “it is possible to disagree fundamentally with someone, and not respect their view necessarily, but respect the person...let’s not be disrespectful to each other. It’s as simple as that, basically.” Isn't that what we say to students - that a higher education course is enabling them and us (staff) to argue using evidence? My forebear - the beatified John Henry Newman - wrote on what a university should be; and - in line with Maskell - argfued that they should be a community of collaborative students and scholars. But that being so, reward should follow this precept. As a 'take' on the sermon on the mount, blessed are the teachers (and not just the researchers)! Happy Christmas from grey, wet, overcast rural Gloucestershire, SW England :)
The VC has had to manage widespread panic about lost revenues during the pandemic, but this actually allowed for changes in orientation and university structure that were clearly in the works before 2020. This is a really rich university with masses of real estate, not of of which we need to keep. After putting building projects on hold, Melbourne still went on with job losses in 2020. We do not know the precise role in the 2020 restructures and job losses of individuals, and it is not revealed above. The pandemic reset culminated in [we think] around 500 redundancies or early retirements and changed professional staff roles: and several adverse restructures, one close to home and another that was announced three weeks ago [the closure and merger of the Faculty of Vet and Ag]. The tendency has been to streamline - and staff views on this, which have been solicited by the Uni on anonymous web pages, have not counted for too much in changing the course of events. Our economists did Youtube videos and press on how shortsighted or unnecessary the pandemic cutbacks were, financially. But decisions made by senior management and the University Council seem to have increasing power since 2020. So the VC's tolerance of disagreement conceals the pursuance of an agenda - streamlining, perhaps with an echo back to the much smaller University of Cambridge? The latest Faculty restructure was announced as a 'done deal', catching the Union and staff by surprise. That is no way to run a university of bright minds who have a lot to contribute. Lastly I did suggest online once, that VC salaries across Australia should be capped at about A$350,000. Strangely there has been little takeup of that, except in Tasmania.


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