Oration delivered by Professor Dominic Fenech, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, on behalf of the College of Deans during the handover ceremony installing Professor Alfred Vella as new University of Malta Rector, Valletta, on 30 June 2016.
The chance conjunction of this ritual of transition with the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death has got me feeling, standing here before you all wrapped in togas, a little bit like Anthony, making a pitch for his assembly’s ears. Not that we’re here to grieve, of course, or much less to incite; while words of praise might yet escape our lips.
In fact it’s quite the suitable occasion here to qualify Shakespearean reputation theory. The evil that men do—he says—lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. And elsewhere altogether, unrepentantly: Men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.
While that may have held true for Tudor England, it totally contrasts with our own method of assessment of folks before and after their departure. For we will fault a man for all he’s worth when he’s around, but when he leaves we generously pronounce, miskin kien raġel sew.
But first things first: that we are here at all is emblematic of the uniqueness of this rectorial transition, which as good luck would have it—though luck we know helps mostly those who help themselves—is something of a breakthrough in the manner it took place. It was not a foregone conclusion, that’s for sure.
It has too long been commonly assumed, especially by such as cannot tell a university that serves from one that’s servile, that legal points and rhetoric aside, the choice of rector in the final count must always be the government’s, in line with a well-worn reductive reasoning that he who pays the piper picks the piper.
Wary of falling prey to self-fulfilling prophesies, it was this deterministic view of history that deans met to discuss one afternoon last January. Fully absorbed in the discussion we were having, no one was checking on their smartphones for new mail, or we’d have known before returning to our desktops that the Prime Minister would be coming to Tal-Qroqq to gather views on what a rector should look like, the sort of invitation bound to make eyes roll as if to say, what were we thinking!
Yet looking back with so much benefit of hindsight, the government may have had no plans to intervene, or if it had, it changed its mind, maybe, because it found it had no reason to. They say sometimes the wish can be a father to the thought. That’s as may be; however, in the event, through a dynamic born of wishing and intent, involving speculation and the trusty rumour mill, thinking aloud in corridors and canteen, strategic leaks and other common methods of filtration, a dialogic process took care of the shortlisting, and in the end produced a mostly democratic outcome.
Which brings me to the subject of autonomy, the elusive state of grace we must like Sisyphus eternally keep striving for. Speaking as a survivor of six rectors, I somehow feel, all things considered, we’ve won ourselves much more of it than actually meets the eye. Hard-earned and hard-defended every inch, it’s to be sure an onerous autonomy, framed in the imperative to act responsibly and with transparency, through wise self-regulation and alertness, to what the country and its people need. It would be an affront to present and past rectors if we did not acknowledge this to be so.
While there is lots of ground yet to be covered, proof of the pudding is each time that the Exchequer responds to growth led by the university itself on grounds of needs it mostly itself identifies. Much progress also has been made in these last years, to recognize its titles over property. Deeds, you’ll excuse the pun, speak louder than do words.
The surest sign that some autonomy we have is when we feel we’re not natural darlings sometimes of politicians, more often public servants. But really there’s no point in grumbling when we feel they’re more in love with others than with us. I would say that, on balance, there is more comfort than distress to find that we are not locked in their tight embrace.
I hasten to explain this is no grouse against a State that deep down understands it wants the university as much as vice-versa. I’m actually inclined to think, now that we’re at it, that the Prime Minister’s visit to Tal-Qroqq had less to do with rector-spotting than with contemporary discussions about new higher education players; to impress, that is to say, on all of us, that when all’s said and done, the UOM remained in government’s eyes a foremost national asset, Barts and all, and that the entry of other Richmonds in the field should not be taken as a portent of neglect. Amen to that, if my assessment is correct, and may we add, with Samuel Johnson, a fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.
Autonomy was but one notion mentioned much as the discourse got underway. Outreach, rankings, research and such all claimed their place along the way, not always with enough distinction made between what is, what should be, and what can. Until the thought gained ground that rectors must be supermen, and superpersons were in fact seen flying through the narrows between the Old Humanities and Temi Zammit Hall, seemingly unaware of the main library wall approaching fast. Which was not trying to suggest, one must presume, the labyrinthine campus was designed for blithe heroics.
The University is neither corporation nor a fiefdom. The much-discussed autonomy—that word again—is not to do with just relations with the State. It’s also about how the pyramid’s top relates to the component blocks on which it rests, and between cells within those blocks themselves. To a degree, departments enjoy freedom inside faculties, and faculties within the university. No finer paragon exists elsewhere of democratic subsidiarity. I venture to suggest that if it weren’t like that we wouldn’t give two cents for this condition called autonomy we hanker so much after.
As one best operating by consensus, the University wants a rector with ideas; and one who listens to the ideas of others—which makes us optimistic Alfred, (fingers crossed) we may have got in you the rector that we wanted.
And we’ll have added reason to be pleased, if you should take a leaf from your great forbear, the humanist and chemist Humphrey Davy, who valued Coleridge as much as he did Chlorine.
Outreach: another thought we heard so much about, a nice word bar the implication that we’re hidden in some ivory tower out of reach. Some faculties today have far more students than the whole university had when it was Royal. We break a leg to attract students and boost intake. We give a second chance to mature students who do not hold the full qualifications. We open lecture rooms to members of the public inviting them to audit our classes. We’re even working on a lecture-capture policy. Our campus teems with working people in the evenings so that we’ve started to run short of lecture space. Colleagues are to be found in most strategic public bodies, the ministerial cabinet included, and never absent from opinion-forming fora. No one’s suggesting that we rest upon our laurels—for there’s still much to do, such as cut pathways with other public higher education bodies, in the interest of students and the public purse. Just saying, let’s take note, as we shift gears to overdrive, that we’re already riding in high gear.
Then there were rankings: the last time I checked we stood in the top 5 per cent worldwide. That’s roughly on a par with London Metropolitan and Napier and a few heads in front of Sorbonne Paris IV and Glasgow Caledonian. Dozens of others with familiar names trail in our wake. Never enough of course, but let’s keep some perspective here, and not forget it’s not so long ago, as most of us are able to recall, that we could fit a whole year’s graduate vintage—with guests—into a single graduation hall.
And rank, besides, is not dependent just on value, but on such measurable norms as research funding levels. Beyond what we rake in from European money, our funding remains scarce, and neither business nor private bequests come forward in their numbers to supplement our budgets the way they do almost everywhere else. Postgraduate scholarship schemes, and now postdoctoral, encourage a sound flow of young researchers. But otherwise we have to scrape, and you know what? We still research and publish, and measure up to better-endowed universities in our league. How else would academics network internationally as they do, or, when applying for promotion impress outside assessors?
We run a fit and cost-effective outfit. We should be fools to want to change that and find ourselves compelled to shed our fat the way that fatter universities do whenever times get lean. We get on well and maybe even better. External examiners rate our standards as their own. And our graduates feel more than prepared when they proceed to further studies overseas, in top world universities often enough.
And let’s not underrate our social capital. Why did the great Barts bother, if not because of our renown in medical education? And why do foreign universities that set up business here run after our staff to teach their classes, instead of flying out their own, assuming they have any to fly out?
It’s with a mixture of humility and pride that I speak on behalf of the Deans’ College, mere agents and mediators that we are. The fact we’ve been invited, one concludes, must be a signal of the bond that both outgoing rector and incoming one wish to uphold, which goes to show how far we’ve travelled. I’ll explain. Ten years ago, as I for one can vouch, Juanito was in two minds about his deans, for they held office at the pleasure of their peers, and might, like mutinous republicans, be hiding virtual daggers in their gowns.
I’ve not met many people as alert, so he’ll not mind if I suggest that he did not at first suspect the learning curve would be so steep. A hefty slab of the achievements touched above, and many others we have not outlined, are undeniable fruit of his hard work. But maybe bigger still was his success in mastery-of-self, by grasping that the way to get the best out of his crew was to embrace those selfsame democratic norms that give the Alma Mater its collegial stamp.
Alfred, you said during last Senate’s meeting, Juanito’s act won’t be an easy one to follow. That cannot be gainsaid, but then in compensation he’s handing you a strong resilient ship set on a straight and energetic course.
When he took up his job ten years ago Juanito was the youngest we recall to hold that post. It was a time when youth in public office was in vogue. Alfred can’t claim the same precociousness, and yet he too has history on his side, for meanwhile the age cycle turned again and the wisdom of grey hair is back in trend. Although the analogy may be slightly stretched, seventy-year olds are as we speak competing for the title of top dog of the so-called free world. Pablo Picasso’s words ring true once more: it’s at the age of sixty, that you start getting young.
And so we say farewell to a departing rector and wish the best of luck to his successor. The one that’s leaving tells us he’ll stay on as just another regular professor. Though we have doubts his restlessness will let him, we all I’m sure would like him to remain.
As for you Alfred, I am certain that I speak for all those present when I say that—without prejudice of course to what we think of templates, PPRs and paper trails—we mainly have a sense that one of us has been elected, and yet a stronger one that once elected you do not cease to be one of our number. Pray stay like that and let a covenant between us all develop, last and flourish.