Critic and conscience

16 December 2015
Professor Jane Kelsey
Professor Jane Kelsey

Whether or not you agree with Professor Jane Kelsey, you will always know what she thinks because she takes her critic and conscience responsibilities very seriously, and she punches well above her weight.

The role of public intellectual is incredibly privileged but it comes with obligations, the forthright academic says. “We are funded by the taxpayer and there is what I consider to be a constitutional role of universities, just as there is for the media as the fourth estate. It has been hard fought for by my forerunners in New Zealand and it needs to be defended and used with integrity.

“We need to fight that fight internally as well as externally because the conditions under which people can speak out and take risks are different now from when I started – then it was the Muldoon issues and the Business Roundtable and so on.

“Many of the pressures now are structural pressures - things like research funding, PBRF and promotion criteria and it’s become a matter of whether people are brave enough to put their heads up.”

The veteran campaigner is philosophical about the quite nasty attacks that can come with speaking out, but says it’s not so easy for those who are junior or mid-career.

“It’s part of our job as ‘old crusties’ to keep the space open, mentor, and provide precedents that show this is actually what academics are meant to do,” she says.

“And if we don’t do that, then the role of the public intellectual will be at serious risk. We need to people to challenge the current orthodoxy so that when paradigms change there are some foundations that we can build on.

“We have to give real meaning to those almost unique words in our own Education Act, which make it is a statutory responsibility for universities to protect and exercise academic freedom, and it is our responsibility to be the critic and conscience of society.

“Yet we are in a context where there is increasing Government control over universities - whether it’s through changes to the Council, or the increasing direction over fees subsidies – and this is seeking to erode that hard won space. It’s not just what we do in our own disciplines that is important, but how we defend the place of the University itself.”

Jane is thinking about our legacy to next generations and how we make space for them to do the kinds of things we did in a way that is appropriate to them, so that they can perform their roles according to whatever the new challenges are going to be.

“I have been doing this for long enough. I am robust enough to speak truth to power and cope with the consequences. My concern now is with ensuring that others can continue to do that.”

Jane, who is a great believer in three to five year plans, observed her father retiring at 60 and dying at 68 after being a public servant all his life. “So he had eight years, which is not nearly long enough.”

She turned 60 this year and she intends to retire at 65 so she’s got five years to do the things that she considers important. And if you think that means stepping back or toning down. Forget it.

She is selling the big, old house she has lived in since she started at the University in 1979, and she’s going to buy an apartment in central Auckland so she can spend time with her 98-year-old Mum. She’s bought some land and is building a home at Algies Bay where “the best views in the house are from the office”.

“I will be doing what I’m doing now without the hassles of elements of the University that I have had enough of,” she says.

And the three to five year plan? She wants to do some intensive mentoring and she will use her $600,000 Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grant to work on “some of the embryonic stuff about countries that are seeking to exit from international agreements – their options and strategies for doing that”.

She alludes to some other “mega deals” that she’ll be working on because that’s where her technical and tactical expertise is, and she’ll be following-up on issues arising from her recently published book “The Fire Economy”.

“The book presents a work agenda in terms of setting-up project groups on different areas of policy that we need to think about if we are talking about transforming the model that we’re in now.”

Her advice to those following in her footsteps is to focus on the issues, not the person. “For me, it’s a matter of taking the higher ground,” she says. “I try not to indulge in slanging matches but to present a counter argument. I think that’s the best way to deal with it because if you buy into their game, they win. You’re diverting your time and energy into something that’s not productive and you’re not going to change their mind. By focusing on the issues, you can change the minds of others.”