Learning to answer questions

A University is the most public of places. Largely, but not completely, funded by the taxpayer, the findings its experts make are meant to inform and benefit humanity.

Openness, trust and honesty are also key attributes of a successful university.

Academics are allowed by law to be the critics and conscience of society, and with that comes a responsibility to use that privilege wisely. Such freedom in the quest for knowledge should also rub off on students, other staff and the institution as a whole.

Unfortunately, the realities of running a large organisation, trying to balance the books and attempting to keep all interested parties on side make for a difficult juggling act.

It is quite likely this concatenation of pressures is the cause of the University of Otago’s recent reluctance to engage publicly about the cost of its new sculpture, which has earned the institution a ticking-off from the ombudsman after this newspaper complained last May.

Pou Whenua Tāwhaki is a striking addition to the university precinct in the vicinity of the St David Complex, the Water of Leith and the historic Clocktower building. It is well worth a visit, and features carved at the top the mythological demigod Tāwhaki, who sought celestial knowledge from his gods.

The pou whenua was commissioned in 2019 by the Office of Māori Development to mark the university’s 150th anniversary and indicates a strengthening of culture and diversity at the institution. It cost $112,523.71.

In the grand scheme of things, that is not a huge amount. Considering all the millions of dollars the university routinely spends on its operation, it beggars belief that so much effort went into keeping the cost of the pou whenua hidden from the public, which it should never have been.

The University of Otago’s pou whenua has been visible to passersby on the Dunedin campus since...
The University of Otago’s pou whenua has been visible to passersby on the Dunedin campus since October. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
The statue was also physically hidden from view for more than a year before being unveiled in October.

The following month, while Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier was still investigating the ODT’s complaint, the university released the project’s cost, which included design, materials and the carving work, along with consultancy, landscaping and scaffolding.

It might also have been interesting to know how much time management spent on the project and on the publicity response, along with the cost of any legal advice.

We are pleased Judge Boshier has upheld our objections about the university’s approach and dismissed its suggestions that commercial sensitivity justified withholding the cost.

The notion put forward by the university that future public interest would be jeopardised by supplying information understood to be confidential seemed especially bizarre. The ombudsman agreed, saying financial information was not "inherently confidential".

It is also good for the future transparency to the public of all large organisations that he completed his investigation and announced his findings, even though the university had eventually released some of the information sought.

Judge Boshier says the information should never have been kept secret: "It is commonplace and expected for the public sector to provide information about what it spends public money on." That is inherently common sense.

Such university secrecy has subsequently been criticised by the Taxpayers’ Union. Policy adviser James Ross makes the point that the reluctance to release the cost when asked was disrespectful to the public and the tip of the iceberg when it came to similar problems across government departments.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this shemozzle was the university’s attempt to muzzle questioning by saying it would consider any continuing ODT requests to be vexatious and culturally insensitive.

This was a piece of breathtaking gaslighting, an attempt to scare off journalists. We have to wonder what was behind this approach and how much of a reflection it may have been of other things going on in the background.

In the end, has all the fuss, the secrecy, the aggravation, the rebuke, been worth it? No.

Perhaps if it has done nothing else, it has raised the profile of the pou whenua as something the university, and Dunedin, should be proud to have.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, so they say.