On Us: Reflections on Mark Scott

Can you judge a man by their book?

In 1967, Roland Barthes proposed the controversial notion of the death of the author. In so doing, he aspired to liberate reading and criticism from a sort of interpretive tyranny, unavoidably linked to the author’s identity and intentions. However, the very purpose of Hachette Australia’s ‘On’ Series appears to consciously circumvent the essence of Barthes’ proposal, bringing forth some of Australia’s “most important authority voices” to muse over subjects that are of value to readers. Embracing the assumption that a book facilitates a glance into the inner-mind of the writer, I turned to On Us by Mark Scott in an attempt to get an insight into the world of our new Vice Chancellor — a snapshot of his life beyond the ivy-strewn sandstone walls of the University of Sydney.

For those unfamiliar with the man that we now call ‘Professor Scott’, he has a distinguished record in the public service, media and education. His Wikipedia page, wherein he is affectionately identified as Mark Scott (businessman), tells you as much, listing countless achievements as ABC’s managing director and Secretary of the New South Wales Department of Education. But things haven’t always been rosy… With the ABC suffering from considerable funding cuts, Scott manned the troops – axing programs and firing staff to keep the national broadcaster afloat. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic caused seismic shifts within the NSW education system, revealing a burgeoning gap in access to resources from school to school, and student to student. But if there’s one thing that On Us makes clear, it’s that Mark Scott is no stranger to change. In fact, he appears to relish it.

Launching into the depths of despair with a tone that can only be described as hopeful, Scott contemplates the losses and gains offered by a new age of technology. He mourns the death of print newspapers, whilst celebrating the fact that he has all the news in the world at his fingertips. He considers how we willingly hand over our information to juggernauts like Facebook, whilst laughing at ‘the great lie’ that is agreeing that we read terms and conditions. But in my mind, what these paradoxes reveal most clearly is the character description used time and time again in the book: that Mark Scott is a man “hard-wired for hope”.

It could quite easily be argued that Scott’s pervasive sense of hope is fashioned from a foundation of privilege and opportunities bestowed upon him from a young age. I mean, not everyone grew up attending a prestigious private school on Sydney’s North Shore, or had the chance to pursue further study at Harvard University. But captured in a quote from Peter Singer that forms the epigraph of On Us, is a sense of proactive ambition that I hope bleeds into Scott’s position as Vice Chancellor.

I don’t think there’s much point in bemoaning the state of the world unless there’s some way you can think of to improve it. Otherwise, don’t bother writing a book; go and find a tropical island and lie in the sun.”

When I started at the University of Sydney, I was a high-school graduate, donning large rose-tinted glasses. The University was my stepping stone to a world of opportunity, learning and enterprise — a bastion of intellectual rigour and vibrant student culture. But over the years, the stellar façade of the sandstone buildings have crumbled under the weight of scandal — cuts to faculties that myself and other students hold dear, the loss of familiar tutors and lecturers as staff were sent packing, buildings turned from centres for learning to neglected spaces, empty of inquiry.

As someone that has dedicated a large portion of their life to the media, Scott is well acquainted with the value of telling stories. But in a world that has been swallowed whole by social media echo chambers, we so often cling to a version of the world that is our own, that we forget about the shared version of the world around us. In On Us, Scott speaks of his despair that Tim Winton’s much loved Australian novel Cloudstreet could never be broadcast on a free-to-air channel due to a licensing agreement with Foxtel — that this story ‘of us’ was not really ‘ours’. For so long, the neoliberal University has been telling the stories of countless others, and neglecting those of their staff and students. As Professor Scott begins to pen the next chapter of his life, let’s hope that his story considers a vital character, us.