Professor Jorg Imberger on hiding to nothing

Opinion | Paul Murray
Jorg Imberger, one of WAs top water experts, at work on the Swan River. Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

Professor Jorg Imberger has clearly bruised a few egos in a 50-year academic career which has been hanging by a thread after the axing of his internationally acclaimed Centre for Water Research at the University of WA.

Professor Imberger can be a blunt instrument and is known for speaking his mind, but that is what universities used to be all about.

And maybe it’s what is really behind the apparent academic lynching of this 72-year-old winner of the world’s biggest award in his field, the Stockholm Water Prize.

Professor Imberger doesn’t suffer fools — or even very smart people acting like fools — lightly.

After three months of secrecy, UWA has started justifying what has appeared to be the case since last October: that it intended to close the centre and as leverage to that process pursue Imberger on historic disciplinary matters not previously raised.

A UWA statement confirming the closure was, in itself, remarkable because everything in it is either contradicted or brought into serious question by CWR’s submission to the review of its functions. It exposed a curious situation in which UWA prefers its academics to sit on Australian government advisory boards rather than conduct the extensive international collaborations which have brought CWR its global reputation.

Similarly, its claim that the centre has only two academic staff when its 2011 policy requires six seems needlessly proscriptive given the nine adjunct teaching and research academics at CWR.

But the university’s claim that the centre has an accumulated operating deficit of $3.22 million and is unsustainable is the most egregious, a selective use of data which would not be acceptable if handed in by an undergraduate.

For example, a small operating deficit last year was more than covered by a $516,000 net return to the administration the previous year. The centre’s review submission showed projected surpluses this year and for every year to 2019 when CWR’s revenue was anticipated to peak at $7 million, against current operating costs of about $2.1 million.

The writing was on the wall at the end of October when UWA administrators stripped the Professor of Environmental Engineering’s students from the centre.

And now they will be able to strip the substantial assets that Professor Imberger has built up since launching CWR in 1982.

Associate Professor Ben Hodges from the University of Texas at Austin was a post-doctoral fellow at CWR from 1997-2000, moving then to Stanford.

“The work of the CWR team is internationally known, internationally respected, and is the first place that other researchers go to develop systemic understanding,” Hodges told the UWA review.

“In contrast to the explosion of ‘publish or perish’ papers that are eminently forgettable across much of the literature, CWR can be proud of its record of publishing important papers.

“As a tenured professor at an internationally known university, I watch with trepidation the financialisation of research and the increasing requirements for professors to act as ‘revenue generating units’ for the university at large.

“This trend is slowly squeezing the life out of creative research, discouraging the best and brightest from research careers, and changing the focus from ‘what science is important for tomorrow?’ to ‘what will pay the bill today?’

“No one asks a literature professor for a cut from a book advance, but there are no qualms about taking an increasingly large share of overhead fees generated by research professors while simultaneously diminishing the real support for what overhead is supposed to cover: equipment, offices, laboratories, support staff and funds for creative research initiation.

“If there is any question as to the financial sustainability of the Centre, then UWA needs to ask itself: what is UWA doing for CWR to earn the overhead money UWA receives?”

Two weeks ago, I asked UWA whether senior deputy vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater, previously in charge of “organisational effectiveness” at the University of Leeds, was recruited specifically at the end of 2013 to drive a similar process here.

“Of course, the position of SDVC role includes senior management responsibilities including the functional review, also line management of deans and some business units,” UWA replied.

Ms Freshwater caught the attention of the London Times higher education supplement in 2012, winning its academic jargon competition for this explanation of organisational effectiveness:

“We can reframe the way we define it, so that it’s not viewed as simply foregrounding cost savings, but instead a much more complex interplay of influences and drivers that facilitate opportunities for enhancing the ways in which we manage movement.”

Frankly, up against that, the centre started by the blunt-speaking Professor Imberger never stood a chance.