By Associate Professor James Oliver
I acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners and Elders of the Kulin Nation on whose land I live and work. I acknowledge my slionneadh, dùthchas and ceilidh, within my community. This is how knowledge is gathered, shared, reimagined.
“Nothing endures but change” – Heraclitus of Ephesus
“Some people are afraid to change; they try so desperately to silence us” – Greta Thunberg
As academics, artists and designers we are likely familiar with Karl Marx’s famous critique, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” – for some this is may be a point of academic and political debate, nevertheless, it is boldly inscribed and re-contextualised in the main entrance of Humboldt University in Berlin.  In recent times there have been many critiques of the business models and metrics that govern and shape the contemporary university; these are models and metrics that also frequently produce and reproduce modalities of change and instability. So can universities meaningfully engage with practices of change?
What is change?
Change is a multiplicity of things, processual, structural, material and ideological. It can both inform and be informed by our taken-for-granted or critical understandings of ways of doing, knowing and being in the world. It is epistemological and ontological as much as it is methodological. This short commentary on change, as intransigent or progressive, follows on from my previous article for NiTRO by engaging in a critical reflection and provocation on power and privilege. In particular, on the relationality, conditions and situations of progressing our academic and artistic freedom, where “ceding power is crucial to seeding possibility”.
Business as usual?
Institutional processes of change, incremental over time, and other more acute processes of change management, are something we will all have encountered and experienced in our professional lives. They are presented as inevitable, linear challenges – challenges that are part of everyday life and culture – although the scale, scope and situation of change will differ. Nevertheless, change by definition is relational not linear and we find that bigger challenges of complexity and contradiction emerge, and counter-actions are encountered, or even required.
One of the hierarchical and utilitarian assumptions made about change – whether internal or external; environmental, institutional or social – is that it is something that can be managed, and with a “business as usual” orientation and mind-set. Maybe this works in some measure, or for some people in some situations. It is an approach founded on perceptions of power and progress that are maintained within a teleological, linear paradigm that thrives on a utilitarian hierarchy. One might call it elitist. Inequalities and exclusions remain prevalent. This also exposes the contradiction of our collective reluctance to change ourselves within the context of other emergent changes. Therefore, we are prone to live with an existential crisis, and a structure-agency dilemma as individuals and institutions, that hinges on our reluctance to cede perceived power. A power frequently articulated and measured as necessary for maintaining an investment in conceptions of progress, an ontology of progress. And so, “bottom lines” indicating growth in “participation/consumers” and “income/profit” become other indicators of change and progress, but do not tell a wholly adequate story. The question remains, whose story of change and progress?
Is progress just a metaphor?
Whilst we are fully aware that as a “public good” universities have also become entangled within an education-industrial complex – and at worst as an extractive industry – our measure and understanding of progress needs to be more than rhetoric or hyperbole for “business as usual”. To be critical of the idea of progress as an ontology, or ideology, is not to be negative and negate progress as such; it is not to be confused as critiquing concepts and practices of being progressive, dynamic and open to change. To critique progress is to question its formations and use as a commodity, to be measured and competed over in an economy and hierarchy of practices of knowing and doing. Change therefore needs to be about being progressive, not regressive or punitive, and it needs to be about genuine engagement with our publics – to reach out, not up. One of the first things I learnt in my undergraduate degree was that “facts do not speak for themselves” – an effective, reverse metaphor. Facts are brought into being, operationalised, by other controlling variables or structuring factors, other agencies and stories, not always audible, visible or sensible. Indeed, sometimes apparent facts are rendered obsolete by an explicit intervening politics, practice or method, scientific or otherwise.
So, from which or whose perspective and experience are we to encounter and engage with progressive change?
Counter-actions as Progressive Change.
I finish this commentary with a reflectional on what I will term counter-colonial relationality. Earlier this year I visited OCAD University in Toronto, on an Indigenous Practice Research collaboration with colleagues from Monash University and OCAD University. Significantly, OCAD University has implemented what I understand is a world-first in their current institutional Academic Plan (2017-2022), where Principle One of this Academic Plan is “Decolonization”. This is an explicit practice that is being engaged with, and as well as a process of Indigenising curriculums there is the crucial cluster-hiring of Indigenous faculty. As Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang have highlighted, decolonisation is not a metaphor; neither is it a competition, it is a practice. It is progressive and it is a counter-action. It is often misapprehended as being about difference, but it is actually about what Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes as “cultural density”.
Neo-colonial ontologies of progress, whether in people or in structures, on societies on environments, are not progressive, they are “business as usual”. They are aggressive, competitive and evolving, laying claim to a dangerous logic of progress as an ontological technology for governing lives, to flatten and conform. Ultimately it’s a violence on culture, knowing, being, and on the density of possibility.
Change is iterative, multiple, complex and contradictory. It can therefore emerge as counter-action in the face of normative hierarchical progress. Progressive change respects relationality and reciprocity through cultural density, which in turn will require social and institutional change that is counter-colonial.
 Carr, E. H. (2018 ) What is History? Penguin Modern Classics: London
 This initial collaboration between the Indigenous Visual Culture program at OCAD University and Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab at Monash University was aided by a ‘Networks of Excellence’ grant, Monash University.
 Tuck, E and Wayne Yang, K. (2012) ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor,’ in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-40.
 Aileen Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015) The White Possessive Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, p. xvi.
James Oliver is an Associate Professor of Design at RMIT University, and a transdisciplinary academic with more than 20-yrs of research, teaching and engagement practice. He has extensive experience in supervising research projects and research training, particularly practice-based research. An important aspect of James’ work is in the area of Indigenous Practice Research, in international context and collaboration with artists and educators across Australia and Canada. James is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University where he is a member of Wominjeka Djeembana.