Omnishambles

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0459159/

This page written circa 26 March, 2019.

I have just read Neurotribes, the history of autism and Asperger's syndrome. As I was warned, a lot of the book describes hauntingly familiar things. It would seem that I have grown up with, work with, and feel affinity with the high-functioning fringe of Asperger's tribe. Temple Grandin makes a statement I might almost have made myself: "If science eliminated these genes, maybe the whole world would be taken over by accountants."

(As an aside, I have also been reading Confessions of a Sociopath. I am relieved to discover that I am more neurotribal and less sociopathic than I previously assumed. Hence professor, not CEO. The relief comes from this being an excuse for my being less of a success than my ego might desire, so not entirely without sociopathy.)

There is a paper to which I contributed in January. Part of what is called the "Jumpstart Program", it is designed to run early, offering a brush-up to some students, a chance to get oriented, and for students with anxiety, a place further out on the spectrum, or other issues (one lovely lad has TBI and a serious memory problem, for example), a chance to test the water. Noble aims. What I did not know was that someone had unilaterally adjusted the prerequisites on Electronics in first year so that a B in this Jumpstart paper would fast-track you into it. Nice idea, but pedagogically daft and inappropriate. This option appears with hindsight to have been the main attraction. Sadly one cannot make up for a lost year of physics in a dozen classes, but maths and a bit of hard memorising can propel you past the physics pathway paper. I presume the reverse is true for those weak in math but good with physics, or at least electricity. All of the above is quite understandable, except for the bit where someone fooled with prerequisites without consulting the relevant teachers. Be assured, the accountants are loose.

I have an excellent student, just finishing her masters. She applied for the PhD program in the March round, one of three closing dates per year for candidates seeking to compete for a scholarship. She also submitted her Masters thesis in March. Now that we are required to have at least one external examiner, and the system still requires all theses submitted on paper, it takes months to get a result, but in light of the fact that she has about four peer-reviewed research publications under her belt the result is not really in doubt. I wrote a strong reference pointing out her research accomplishments. What she received was a standard rejection letter, giving no reasons, and strongly pointing out that further correspondence will not be entered into. It turns out, if you enquire, that the Grad Research people removed from their list of applicants anyone whose masters degree had not yet been awarded, "because we require a certain grade". I would not have discovered any of this if I had not chased up an apparent insanity.

I rather expected a response to the effect of "oh dear yes, we realised this might happen but we are so snowed under and this made the process manageable. We can deal with special cases once the processing is done." If you have read my last two Hamiltonians, Decline and Fall and Walk the Line, you will guess that this was not the reply I got. I won't bore you with it, but it said nothing beyond the previous paragraph.

Rejecting, rather than conditionally enrolling, an applicant essentially prevents continuity between a masters degree and a PhD. Students making this particular transition tend to be your best people, so this is particularly detrimental to the research student cohort. Academic staff were not informed, let alone consulted. Most insultingly, students rejected for this technicality were not informed, but just rejected out of hand. Neither were their intended supervisors informed. Would you not want these people to (re)apply at the next cycle? It would make sense to inform them, and better sense to offer to automatically roll over their application, but no "they can reapply", but why would they bother to do that if they are not told the basis for their rejection? A respectful, explanatory response would be simple courtesy. I fancy the VC will not ever realise what UoW is losing.

For some crazy reason I am driven to remember a classic scene between the principles of PR firm Prentiss-McCabe in Absolute Power:
Charles Prentiss: If I want your opinion, Martin, I'll give it to me. No. We took the client. We're not about to ditch the client because things have got a bit eggy.
Martin McCabe: A bit eggy? Charles, they're fucking Nazis.
Charles Prentiss: That's the ultimate PR challenge, isn't it? Decades of terrible press, but what did they actually achieve?
Martin McCabe: Apart from the slaughter of millions of Jews? I can't believe I'm hearing this! You cannot spin the Final Solution.
Charles Prentiss: They gave us Gewurztraminer, Riefenstahl, the Autobahn, the Volkswagen, the iconic use of dark leathers, and they made the sausages run on time.
Martin McCabe: You cannot spin the holocaust!
...
Charles Prentiss: Above all, Martin, think of the money. The money's going to be bloody outrageous.

Neurodiversity is the new call, include everyone. Very noble. The problem might be that at one end there are autistic people who are incapable of communication or independent living and at the other end people who are flatly capable of buggering an entire university and perhaps an entire country. I am comfy in the middle, not something you will often hear from my lips.

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