University apologises for distressing email

Enjoying the sun in their Dundas St flat bubble yesterday are students (from left) Dylan McEntyre...
Enjoying the sun in their Dundas St flat bubble yesterday are students (from left) Dylan McEntyre, Georgia Pope, Jorja Jones, Hannah Fox, and Matt Silvey (all 20). PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
The University of Otago has apologised after some students were told those who headed home at the start of lockdown had gambled with their academic futures.

In an email sent to first-year health science students on Friday, a department staff member said, "I understand that those of you who chose not to take a gamble on your academic future and remained in Dunedin in case we were moving back to Alert Levels 1 or 2 will be extremely frustrated".

"Some of you took the risk of missing out on work required for terms and left against advice from health sciences first year (HSFY) to do so.

"As HSFY is a very competitive course that is required for entry into professional programmes; it follows different policies and recommendations."

She then advised students to "ponder this from Margaret Thatcher: ‘You might have to fight a battle more than once to win it’."

The next day Associate Prof Jo Kirman, on behalf of staff, emailed students to apologise for the earlier communication.

"We understand that this was a highly pressured situation, and that there was conflicting messaging, which meant that students made a range of decisions based on the information available and their circumstances.

"We are very sorry for any distress this comment has caused. As we proceed with the academic year we will be taking all students’ circumstances into account," Prof Kirman said.

A health science student said he was shocked by the lack of understanding shown to students.

"Some of my friends are immunocompromised and had to go home for medical and mental health reasons, so to say that we are gambling with our future is unfair."

Otago University Students Association president Michaela Waite-Harvey said she was aware of the email, and other similar communication from university departments that had caused stress for students trying to decided whether to stay or go at the start of lockdown.

Students had been in contact with her on the final day before the travel window closed, asking what they should do.

There was conflicting information.

For example, Ministry of Education guidelines advised students to go home, but emails from their departments said something different.

It was good the university acknowledged the problem and apologised to students, she said.

A university spokeswoman said the email was sent to students studying a particular paper.

"This was not an official University of Otago communication and is not supported by the university.

"Once we were made aware of it, we apologised to the students in a follow-up email."

A group of students flatting in Dundas St said yesterday they were happy with how both the University and Otago Polytechnic had engaged with them.

Polytechnic architecture student Jorja Jones considered going home to Christchurch, but her parents suggested that she stay in Dunedin in her bubble and try to keep studying.

Her flatmates, who were from Dunedin, said they went home during last year’s lockdown but decided to stay in their flat this year.



The first email was simply stating the obvious and Kirman should not have muddied the waters. If you're that 'immunocompromised', then heading away from a covid-free zone to return to a covid hellhole doesn't seem that sensible. And you'd have to wonder if medicine is actually the right career for you (since it involves being around sick people...)

Very typical, and poor response from the University powers that be. Never own or admit an error, or express any learning from the scenario. Always find someone to throw under the bus and distance the organisation from the problem:
"This was not an official University of Otago communication and is not supported by the university.
"Once we were made aware of it, we apologised to the students in a follow-up email."
If you are an official student in a course, and your teaching academic is officially employed to teach you, then yes, it is an "official University of Otago communication"
Apologising to the students is the right priority and start, but don't distance the organisation from the message. Own the problem. How about:
"We regret that this communication went out and acknowledge that our internal communication to, and support of teaching staff, relaying messages to their students needs to improve."
Sigh. Same old, same old.



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