With students having increasingly busy lives, it is not always possible for them to come to campus or have the kind of intellectual life that was traditionally associated with university campuses. That is the reality of the modern university student but is only just becoming the reality of the modern university campus.
Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will.
In its series on the future of the university campus this week, The Conversation visualises the opposite of online learning as some kind of vanishing Hogwarts, illustrated very conventionally: a picture of one of Australia’s faux classical universities with its daft and out-of-place architecture, and its big spreading tree.
The older buildings at the university where I work look like a chain of multi-story carparks, and the new buildings like a particularly shiny technology theme park: corporate acronyms and industry partnerships monumentalised in brushed concrete and steel. And yet in survey after survey, when we’re asked about the three best things about where we are, we all chorus: the physical environment.
It’s true. The campus is something I find myself really missing in this year of time away from work. Walking from modestly ugly building to really ugly building, I’ve been continually startled and impressed by the delicacy and detail of the ground-level planting, the just-rightness of the winding paths, the thoughtful interaction of seating, shade, water and seclusion that creates quiet places to think.
And above it all, the trees. We even have a tree walk, because the trees that provide all this shade (and natural cooling to many of the buildings) are locally appropriate species with little labels at their bases so that we can learn something as we walk about. Because of these trees, we also have birdlife, that birdwatchers come specifically to see. And as we rush from meeting to meeting, most of us will pause to watch a bower bird in the act of adjusting or decorating its bower; impatient and time-hungry drivers late for something or other will slow down as moorhens cross the road from one pond to the next.
This must drive the Vice Chancellor mad. Our green and growing environment, that actively produces all this contemplative dawdling, isn’t going to drive up our international reputation, because you have to be standing here to see it. But in thinking about why we don’t celebrate it more than we do, I wonder if this isn’t part of a larger problem that affects higher education more widely: that our performance metrics and ranking instruments are really bad at recognising indirect contribution.
We don’t promote people who get committee work done, straightforwardly and properly, so that universities operate as efficiently as they can. We don’t give awards to professional audit, governance or IT support teams whose very job it is to keep things ticking over so smoothly that we don’t know they exist. We don’t thank the academic colleagues who listen and ask questions and buy coffee when someone else’s article or grant proposal gets stuck in the delivery canal. And we really disrespect the army of casuals who make research output possible by showing up to teach in place of the hipster research superstars marketed to students on billboards and websites.
In the 1970s, feminist economists and historians argued that the contribution of unwaged women’s work in the home needed to be calculated into GDP. The case is straightforward: for wage earners to be out of the home, other work has to be done in raising families in safety, managing the home itself, and supporting the other institutions in the economy, including education. The pattern of workforce participation has changed since then, so that many of these services are now themselves outsourced to low-waged labour, but this has only reinforced the point: there is this everyday stuff that has to get done so that economic participation can focus on reproducing the future conditions for work.
And this all takes real human time, so it really matters that the undistinguished, uncelebrated domestic service of workforce participation is properly reckoned when we’re congratulating ourselves on productivity.
As it happens, the trees on our beautiful campus are also an indirect contribution from the seventies. They’re the living design and vision of Leon Fuller, a local curator of native species, who came to a “bare, featureless landscape” in 1975 and created what we have now from seeds he gathered himself:
Mr Fuller was appointed landscape supervisor at UOW in 1975, with the task of transforming the campus – a massive brief given the region’s diversity of vegetation. “The overall vegetation of the Illawarra is distinctive and trying to bring it down to one or two plant communities is not easy,” he said. “There’s a number of plant communities; there’s Illawarra grassy woodland, and Illawarra subtropical rainforest on the escarpment.”
As part of his UOW quest, Mr Fuller and his team made countless trips into the Illawarra escarpment bushland, identifying trees and gathering seeds that were propagated and planted on campus. Thousands of trees were planted in the six years he was with the university, a trend that continued after his departure.
Illawarra Mercury, “Field Guide to the Landscape We Love“
Leon Fulller’s thinking ahead, so carefully, about environmental integrity is exactly the kind of invisible work that’s in trouble in Australia at the moment. Our current Prime Minister seems genuinely to believe that logging is a kind of nature conservancy, a way of thinking about trees purely for their potential to become productive timber or to make way for mining or gas interests. And in the same way, the efficiency calculations tearing up our economy—including our public institutions—are making it thinkable that humans defined as unproductive can be pruned and uprooted, as if for their own benefit. Because, you know, dead wood.
But like any large organisation, a university is complex living ecosystem of human care and reflection. Some of this is inefficient by technical standards; because technical standards are very limited in their range. These standards are not yet developed to match the complexity of human interaction: the long term impact that we have on one another’s thinking, the way we sharpen one another’s skills, or even just the way we sustain each other’s confidence to go on. They really can’t see the trees for the timber they might produce.
And as the recruitment culture in universities speeds up because as Gianpiero Petriglieri smartly points out, we currently applaud the career trajectory of leaders who are globally mobile, there’s a risk of failing to understand that local history is what grounds a university in the place where it is, where its seeds were harvested and planted:
Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.
Here’s to you, Leon Fuller.