March 06, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

A.N.U. – Australia’s Nastiest University?

Almost by accident, I discovered I had been underpaid as a tutor last semester in the business faculty. When I heard about an overseas tutor with a PhD complaining about this and being told ‘it is not our policy to pay at the PhD level’, I immediately dug up my HR log in and checked. Sure enough, the extra $60 odd weekly in salary had not been paid.
There was little incentive to check before that, because a) the pay was so pathetic I’d already decided it was not worth leaving the house for and b) the admin woman who told me she had already taken care of the time sheets was the same person who had made up my office label saying ‘Dr…’ when I had lectured there recently.
Problem number 1: I had trusted in the integrity of university administration. Not its competence, as that often leaves one gagging. But, in what remains of my somewhat tatty but still lofty ivory tower I had assumed that being screwed out of that amount of money would have been beneath their dignity.
Asking for it was certainly beneath mine. But I didn’t just ask, I went ballistic, and demanded both an explanation and full payment. I did get the extra money, but not without an insulting process that I can only describe as degrading. No explanation, no apology, not even an admission that I had been underpaid. Just a begrudging payment, to both me and presumably the overseas tutor.
I decided several years ago that dealing with scummy people is not how I will be spending my remaining work years.
The union, when informed of this incident, was not surprised. They have seen it before. ‘And did they try to say her PhD wasn’t in a relevant area?’ was their query, as obviously this ploy has also been used.
Now there are some who shrug off such incidents, while of course recognising that I was fully entitled to be paid at the rate listed in the Enterprise Agreement for tutors who hold a PhD. But some people start to waver over the issue of ethics. Was it a breech of ethics not to inform me when I signed the contract that I would not be paid according to the Enterprise Agreement rates? Was there a duty of care to me, or just to the more senior administrator who had made up the ‘policy’ and was probably just trying to save a few pennies, and who probably doesn’t care of highly qualified people walk away from the place.
However, one lecturer brought up the issue of reputation. What image does such behaviour give abroad about the ANU, and about Australians? In my PhD thesis, which was about the role of technology in democratic policy processes, I had a section called ‘the globalised individual’, which is the smallest level of behaviour at which choice exists. When people have a clear choice, and choose to screw, or withhold information from, others who have done them no harm, the rot sets in.
I believe that such behaviour radiates both upwards and downwards. It’s about complex systems, critical mass, and small actions reflecting values. If this is too abstruse, consider Kenya.
A documentary the other week (on SBS?) about corruption in Kenya showed how at every step of everyday life, someone is there to take a cut. Because the rule of law is almost non-existent, the Tragedy of the Commons is the dominant paradigm. Everyone takes as much as they can, without regard to the impacts on others. This creates a vicious circle in which people have to become more ruthless to preserve their spot in the pecking order. As with an animal under stress, it becomes a war of all against all.
In the doco, the owner of a shack was afraid that it would be knocked down while he was at work, because he couldn’t afford the extra bribes. Lining up for possible daily work, the multiple bribes would take up most of the wages. Even children were sent home from school on days when they couldn’t offer the teacher the requested bribe. The narrator, himself from Liberia, said that by the time he was a prefect he was also taking bribes, as he knew no other way of operating.
Now I have read that in Uganda, just publishing the school budget cut down corruption, because it created at least one level of transparency. Perhaps in Kenya, a white board that can’t be erased could be used in a public place to tally how much individuals are getting. Once people can see and openly discuss how much is being skimmed off, while they starve, perhaps change could occur. Shame is a powerful tool for social animals like us.
The point is, like at the ANU, when people act in ways that they know are unkind, or worse, destructive of their society (like keeping kids out of school), then no amount of foreign aid can assist. Perhaps there is a message there for our own underprivileged communities.
A more relevant point for Australia is that if the university that is supposed the best we have to offer really should be above treating employees with disdain. Sadly, many other universities fall into this category. Like Africans, we have become aclimatised to unethical behaviour. My integrity is my proudest attribute (now that my looks have faded), but please tell me if you think I am just being precious. Meanwhile I’m thinking of sending a few administrators information about professional ethics courses they might be interested in.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 12:39 pm | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Ethics


  1. Ronda
    Let’s be frank – university administrations are sheltered workshops, the last surviving bastions of incompetence.

    Comment by Ross Kelso — March 7, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  2. It is still possible to distinguish between unethical and incompetent.

    Comment by ronda jambe — March 7, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  3. What an outrageous comparison! You missed out on $60 per pay (which you didn’t even notice until someone else pointed it out to you), and you think that is comparable to the unethical practice bribing poor people in Africa?!?
    And surely you realise that it would not have been the administrators decision to short pay you. These decisions are made by Dean’s and Director’s, not low-level administrators.
    In short – yes, I believe you are just being precious.

    Comment by Sara Birk — February 11, 2011 @ 1:25 am

  4. Wow! Ronda, you are a dumb idiot. Get over yourself and f*ck off. You suck.

    Comment by Anne — September 9, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  5. Ronda and Ross – what a couple of ignorant, stuck-up morons you both are. Believe me, most administrators I know are better people than you could ever hope to be. You keep banging on about your dignity, but I think the fact that you wrote this ridiculous drivel shows that you have none. Please go back to wherever you came from and stop critising something you know nothing about.

    Comment by Craig — April 12, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.