University reset required

The Otago University Students' Association has disaffiliated with the Elohim Bible Academy. Photo...
Photo: ODT files
The past few years at the University of Otago have been difficult, and staff morale has been lower than in living memory.

On the surface, all seems good. Student numbers have held up, increasing substantially this year. Research output seems steady, and several staff members have been prominent in the fight against Covid-19. The university’s international ranking has been holding up.

Around much of the Dunedin campus, however, morale is poor. Support and administration staff were buffeted by the drawn-out restructuring, academic staff were disillusioned and frustrated and observers of Dunedin’s powerhouse institution have been worried.

Because the university is fundamental to Dunedin and the South its health should matter to everyone. Staff disillusionment — beneath the spin and public utterances — means quality recruitment has become harder and turnover has increased, notably in support areas. As an example, staff turnover in the “client services team” supporting the Division of Health Sciences was more than a third between March 2019 and December 2020. That alone causes myriad problems.

It might have been hoped that matters settled down after the support services restructure, and staff would be feeling more positive. Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case.

As summed up in an Otago Daily Times article in March last year, many academics felt the university had developed a negative, top-down, management culture that undermined trust, productivity and mental health. Academics felt the weight of a bureaucracy that tied them up in extra tasks, filling out forms, asking permission for minor matters and all for little gain at best. Their job satisfaction has been disappearing along with their goodwill and willingness to go beyond their basic tasks.

They have had to deal with the faceless, centralised “Ask Otago” system when support was needed. Meanwhile, “Ask Otago” has been plagued by poor morale and high turnover, a recipe for inaction and inefficiency.

It could well be that major change was required because support costs at Otago were said to be considerably higher than elsewhere. And restructuring of academic areas in a place as big as the university should be reasonably regular.

Indeed, every restructuring brings pain and disgruntlement, and academics are by nature questioning. There must also be a certain level of accountability on the likes of expenses, travel, holidays.

But there has to be a balance where quick decisions can be made at as low a level as possible, subject to some review and checking.

The occasional mistake or abuse does not warrant the overbearing controls sought after by risk-averse senior administrators.

What then is to be done? The timing for a reset and a fresh start has arrived. Vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne, who did not shy away from difficult decisions, has left. She, like other New Zealand vice-chancellors, has also battled long-term “underfunding”.

Her timing was smart, as the end of her second five-year appointment was due this year. She and her senior team have been receiving blame for what many saw as the damaging culture for staff.

The University Council is in the process of selecting a replacement. She or he will have a tough task in one sense. But there is also the opportunity to create a new style and a new atmosphere from a low base.

Older staff members will remember Graeme Fogelberg’s era. As vice-chancellor, he was behind the building of the superb library and is said to have been strong on finances.

But the end of his time was mired in upset over plans for a grand university entrance and the demolition of the historic and beautiful Leith footbridge. He lost staff confidence. Replacement David Skegg immediately stopped the project and started on the right foot. Morale turned around overnight.

The university desperately needs a reset of at least that magnitude.

Comments

Describing Skegg as turning round morale gives him far too much credit — he just shifted it to different parts of the university.

Meantime nobody talks about the fact that the highest point of the University is only about 12 metres above sea level and that there are quite large investments happening around the University at levels far below 12 metres.

I'm not sure a new VC will change much, unless they encourage humility, listening and transformational leadership qualities in middle management of professional staff structures.
To do this well will involve doing away with many incompetent managers, and introducing structural change. Perhaps the way it should have been done from the outset.
It is no mistake that the review, started many years ago with a public cry of too many support staff, has no public update of how many staff are now in place. I'd guess more, most of which are middle management and HR.

"support costs at Otago were said to be considerably higher than elsewhere". This was patently untrue but used as an excuse for the exercise. With the departure of Hayne the university now has a chance to turn things around but it will also need to clear out the higher echelons of the HR department first. A vast amount of corporate knowledge has been lost and it will take years to regain trust in senior management.

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