Thursday, July 03, 2003

Ruth Dunkin’s PhD

Back in early February I blogged on what I thought was a scoop, apropos of an article that had then just appeared on This story was never picked up by the mainstream media – so leaving me holding a rather premature baby, as it were.

Crikey have now had another go at the Ruth Dunkin PhD story. A fair bit of it is (literally) recycled from the February article, but there is enough new information to justify a re-run cum update. The gist - Ruth Dunkin’s supervisor, Professor Amanda Sinclair resigned from supervision before her charge’s thesis was submitted, apparently regarding the thesis to not to be of Melbourne University PhD standard.

Which in another day and age would undoubtedly be, by itself, a significant aspersion. In the modern Australian university, however, Professor Sinclair’s petulance is a just-as-feasible alternative explanation of the bare facts we know. I don’t necessarily mean to discredit the Crikey interpretation (nor certainly to discredit Professor Sinclair) in saying this – the point I’m making is that today’s universities are just rolling stones; the only ethics they practise are those that fit within their short-term institutional exigencies.

The above is a statement that Dr Ruth Dunkin – a PhD in “change management”, no less – could well agree with, although in its general application only, mind you. This irony underscores just what tricky ground Crikey are on with their Dunkin allegations.

To their credit, Crikey try to unpick the formal research bona fides of the Dunkin PhD – “credit” because such is the safest angle from which to attack. Personally however, I have qualms about such an angle, as (I’m guessing) scores of PhDs minted in the last decade or so, particularly in the humanities, would be equally deserving of being blowtorched for inadequate research methodology. The crux of the problem for Crikey, is that, by writing on “change management”, Dr Dunkin is delving into a field more esoteric (or, in common parlance, “wanky”) than any possible humanities doctorate topic (not that its practitioners would agree here, I dare say).

“Change management” should long ago have gone the way of “ideologically sound” – that is, being consciously parodied by its proponents into insignificance, and then (optionally) resurrected under a slightly-different wording, but wholly-pejorative new meaning (as the left’s “ideologically sound” became the right’s “politically correct” in the late 80s). As things stand, “change management” has somehow kept itself, and its 80s relic-ness* under the radar; so resisting re-invention, cultural appropriation, and (most importantly for Crikey) robust external challenge.

Dr Dunkin’s epistemological genius then, was to specialise in a topic that auto-released an oil slick on to the road of all who followed in her path – or who simply sought to get up close and find out what it/she was all about. Not that I myself have an antidote for this oil slick, either – but, when dealt a weak hand in things journalistic, it is usually better to “pass” than to go for a knee-jerk bid of misere.

Crikey’s sillier secondary evidence includes: that Dunkin occupied “various middle management positions at RMIT since 1989 (she was Deputy Vice Chancellor (Resources) from this date, apparently until taking on the top job in 2000); and that “Dunkin's never been an academic, taught or researched” (sort of true, but her Harvard University MPA (1986, during which time Dunkin was a public servant) surely deserves mentioning in this context.) Most dubious of all, though, is this line from Crikey:

Interestingly, there was no denial from RMIT of Crikey's earlier revelations about the Dunkin thesis.

Now I’m not above a bit of winging-it-and-waiting investigative journalism myself (on a research budget of nil, there is often no middle-ground between killing the story totally and winging-it on high), but here Crikey have committed the unforgivable sin – using “interestingly” when the deafening official silence from RMIT and Dunkin is, and was utterly predictable. Maddening so, yes – but still, utterly predictable.

* Google the phrase if you don’t believe me – from a quick squiz, it appears that Enron etc have never happened.

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