University appears set to give academics more say

Photo: ODT files
Academics could get more say over how the University of Otago is run. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The University of Otago appears set to bow to pressure from a group of more than 120 professors by giving academics more say over how the institution is run.

The Otago Daily Times understands the university will establish two advisory groups of professors in response to their concerns, one group of which will be permanent.

Terms of reference for each group have been distributed, the ODT has been told.

It comes after more than 120 professors signed a letter to the chancellor and acting vice-chancellor expressing their concern about the restructuring processes going through the university.

Several contacts said the concerns stemmed from the university taking what many professors believed was a "managerialism" approach to its financial situation, at the expense of the university’s role as a critic and conscience of society.

It is understood the university had initially intended to announce the new groups last week, but could make the announcement at the acting vice-chancellor’s forum later this week.

Protect Otago Action Group spokesman Dr Olivier Jutel said he was "encouraged" by the idea such groups could be in the works.

"It is a real challenge to do our job and retain quality research and teaching in this environment, which is definitely constrained," Dr Jutel said.

There were also challenges associated with the incoming government, he said.

"The incoming government has basically signalled to universities to go find more international students, but the academic scaffolding is not always there for them," Dr Jutel said.

"Encouraging more international students can be a real labour-intensive process for teaching staff, particularly as these students would be paying full rates, and there would be pressure to ensure these students succeed."

He was pleased many professors had been working in the background to address some of the concerns, Dr Jutel said.

"They clearly care about our reputation as an institution."

The university was approached for comment on the formation of the groups.

The university would speak with staff "in good faith" before making decisions and announcing them publicly, a spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, the university yesterday declined to release the professors’ letter under the Official Information Act.

In declining to release the letter it cited the need "to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions between staff" and "to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence, and where making it available would be likely to prejudice the supply of similar information that is in the public interest; or damage the public interest in some other way".

The university wants to find $60 million in savings to its operating budget, and has already cut more than 120 jobs over the past year through voluntary redundancies and restructuring, with further departmental reviews to occur.

Departments already affected include the school of languages, science communication, peace and conflict studies, geology and the school of computing.

Vice-chancellor Prof David Murdoch stepped down in June, Prof Helen Nicholson taking over as acting vice-chancellor.

The university has embarked on an international hunt for a new vice-chancellor.