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A new letter from the Director of The Centre for International Security Studies

6 July, 2013

James Der Derian, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies, reflects on the month of June in this new Director's Letter.

It is a sign of busy times that the first quiet interlude to write the latest Director’s Letter comes once again somewhere over the Pacific at 30,000 feet. I’m en route to the US, with a tin cup to rattle for potential funders, a documentary on The Art of Peace to finish and several loose ends from the move to tie up.

June was front-loaded with fun stuff. As a co-sponsor of the Sydney Film Festival, the University called upon four professors to make presentations at the Festival’s Short Cuts, billed as ‘Quick Talks by Film Experts.’ I decided to use the opportunity to make the case for a Global Media Network, with Sydney as one of several university hubs that would develop the research, production, and distribution capacity to make documentary films on pressing global issues. The room was packed, there was a lively Q & A, and the discussion spilled over into the Town Hall pop-up bar. There was even a photo-op with a famous director (credit to media manager and event organizer Kate Mayor).

Perks came with the duties, starting with an opening night red carpet gala for ‘Mystery Road’ by Ivan Sen, an Australian director, writer, cinematographer, composer (and probably first gaffer), who made an Aussie Western in which the ‘natives’ get to be the good guys. (Incidentally, is it a national requirement that Hugo Weaving be in every Australian film?) I was also able to duck out from University duties for several great docos. (Aussies endearingly – sometimes maddeningly - shorten every word possible, as I learned most recently when I went to the ‘rego’ office after my ‘brekkie.) Alex Gibney’s film, ‘We Steal Secrets’, screening as the PRISM leak broke, looks to be the definitive version on Wikileaks and Australia’s prodigal son, Julian Assange. Sebastian Junger’s ‘Which Way is the Front Line from Here?’ is a fair-minded yet heart-wrenching tribute to his colleague, Tim Hetherington, the remarkable photojournalist and humanitarian killed in Libya.

Seeing the two docos back-to-back called into question recent efforts by pundits and politicos seeking to draw sharp distinctions between the whistle-blowing ‘activists’ who have broken important stories at great personal risk, and the ‘journalists’ who then milk the same stories to the newspaper’s benefit. This is one more reason why universities should play an active part in the media game, not only as content providers, but as a critical filter for boosting the knowledge signal over all the informational noise.

The rest of June was dedicated to making good on our new strategy for the reorganization, expansion and revitalization of CISS.  Transitions are hard for any institution, something I witnessed at my previous roost, which went through multiple changes (including five directors) in several years. I’d like to believe I learned a few lessons from the experience. At the top would be the importance of the four ‘P’s: people, pluralism, process, and participation. The ground was already prepared for the first two, with a young, talented and energetic staff in situ, ready and able to pursue non-traditional approaches to security studies. Moreover, CISS was back-stopped by administrators who share a critical, pluralist worldview and were willing to provide the necessary start-up funds. 

That left process and participation. There are many models, structures and approaches for a centre dedicated not just to understanding but having an impact in the world. One size clearly does not fit all. From personal disposition and professional experience, I believe dissensus is necessary for innovation, consensus for production. The trick is to keep both in a workable balance, especially as CISS expands to include security experts from the Department of Government and International Relations, along with distinguished scholars from other disciplines. The top-down model that might have worked for a relatively small centre was less appropriate for a larger, more diverse one. And I believe the newly expanded CISS might benefit from a discussion about who decides what, how and when. To paraphrase Gandhi, why not at least try to be the change we would wish for?

So governance moved to the top of our agenda as a processive and participatory  dialogue about the norms, dispositions and expectations that would form the habitus of CISS. A rather lofty question launched our discussion:

What form of governance will produce the best practices and optimal outcomes, that will help us not just fulfill the CISS mission but also promote values with which we would like to associate, including academic excellence, cultural diversity, intellectual pluralism, mutual respect and shared responsibilities?

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Egyptian protesters aim lasers at army helicopters to distract the pilots

We broke governance down into four key elements and questions: decision-making (should it be consultative, consensual, or, if by ballot, open or closed?); budget-making (how do we ensure a fair allocation of resources?); accountability (to which external and internal parties?); and effectiveness (how do we make timely yet deliberative decisions?). Meeting formally and informally, in hallways and online, we came up with a set of proposals and agreed to a consensus model of decision-making on all matters, including budgetary. Failing consensus, decisions would be reached by majority vote with full voting rights for all members of CISS. Voting would be open and Chatham House rule would not be invoked at any private or public meetings (in the belief that the accountability arising from transparency trumps the candor supposedly coming from secrecy).

With one eye on the headlines coming out of Egypt, we’ll keep you posted on how the CISS experiment in participatory democracy works out.

James Der Derian, Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies

Contact:Raelene Loong
Phone: 61 2 9036 9529 (Mon - Wed)

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