'Hard work, thought, effort' in change management process

Like all successful institutions, the University of Otago has to be able to adapt. Photo: ODT files
Like all successful institutions, the University of Otago has to be able to adapt. Photo: ODT files
Prof Tony Ballantyne responds to claims this week reform at the University of Otago has created a toxic culture.

In their recent opinion piece on the University of Otago, Prof Kevin Clements and Dr Peter Matheson note that large institutions have to be ''open to innovation and reorganisation''.

At the same time, they lament a number of recent changes at the university and are critical of its culture in a moment when it is going through a number of very significant transformations. Those changes have been required for the university to be flexible, connected, and viable in our contemporary environment.

They suggest dialogue has been ''shut down'' in the university and they criticise the recently implemented structure in the Division of Humanities, a change that I led.

The new structure for the Division was produced out of extensive dialogue and that process reflected a very different reality than that suggested by Prof Clements and Dr Matheson's piece. It took shape out of a sequence of meetings and workshops with deans, heads of departments, associate deans and staff from across the Division in addition to discussions with OUSA office-holders, the TEU and some external stakeholders.

After five months of consultation, the heads of departments, deans, associate deans and I agreed on a possible way forward. A proposed new structure was explained in a Divisional Assembly and in a discussion document that was circulated to all staff in the Division.

Fifty-three submissions were made on the proposal; two-to-one in favour of the new model and the proposal went through the University Senate - which includes substantial representation from the Humanities - with only one vote against.

Was dialogue shut down in this process? No, conversation and argument was its foundation and the new model was developed through wide-spread engagement: this was no ''mere window-dressing''.

Through discussion, a range of possible models were evaluated and refined. Programmes could select where they sat in the new structure. Unfortunately, Prof Clements and Dr Matheson ignore the hard work, thought and effort that their colleagues from across the Division invested in developing a new model best suited for the Division's future.

As you would expect in a large and complex institution, there are a small number of staff who have reservations about the change, but the overwhelming feedback from staff and students about the changes to Humanities has been positive.

I am always very happy to meet Prof Clements, or any other member of the Division, to discuss any constructive suggestions about how we refine the operation of the Division or how to enhance its culture.

Like all successful institutions, the university has to be able to adapt. It needs to be able to support new ways of teaching, innovative lines of research, and the changing needs of our students. It also needs to be able to respond to external factors, including how the New Zealand economy is performing, the priorities of successive governments, the impact of new technologies, and shifting patterns of student interest.

Over the past 150 years the university has been reshaped by changes large and small. A willingness to change has enabled the university's growth, underpinned the growing influence of its teaching and research, and facilitated its gradual transformation away from its colonial origins into an institution that is committed to supporting the academic success of its Maori and Pasifika students.

Having led a number of significant changes, I know from working closely with staff that change can be unsettling.

For some it is really difficult or painful. Others feel more at ease with new things and working with new colleagues, or can see significant new opportunities. An excellent example of such opportunities is the reshaping of Music and Theatre into a School of Performing Arts (including dance) and the construction of a state-of-the-art recording studio and teaching facilities for that school.

In the wake of change, we are making real progress in our Division. We are working more closely with schools and external stakeholders and a number of our programmes have been revising their teaching offerings. We have consolidated the physical location of academic units within the Division, creating a more cohesive environment for both staff and students.

Our student enrolments have increased for the last two years and a range of data show that we are continuing to improve our already excellent teaching. Our researchers continue to be highly productive; they are grappling with a wide range of pressing issues, are sharing more of their knowledge with the public and securing more and larger research grants. I deeply appreciate the outstanding work done every day with our students by the fine teachers in the Division and by our excellent professional staff.

What does all of this mean? The Division of Humanities is doing its core business very well and the trajectory of our Division is now a positive one. As we work through changes in the Division and the university, there is no doubt that things are not perfect and we have things to work on.

Making those improvements are collective enterprises that involve collaboration, conversation, and a genuine commitment to working together. At the same time, any balanced assessment of the Division of Humanities or the university should recognise our strengths, where we are making progress, and the opportunities that come with change. It also requires a positive commitment to making our institution a better workplace.

Passionate polemics might win likes on Facebook or make good copy for newspapers, but they don't do justice to the more complex realities that they recast into a simple black and white story. In this case, they also overlook the real excellence within our Division and its very positive trajectory. Those are developments that make me very confident about the future of Humanities at Otago as we face a rapidly changing world.

-Prof Tony Ballantyne is pro-vice-chancellor of humanities at the University of Otago.

Comments

There is little doubt that the University needed to change - all modern organisations need to adapt. There is also little doubt that the people at the top are under enormous pressure perhaps even having to do things they know are not in the best interests of staff or the University. But while I am sure his actions are well intentioned, Professor Tony is ignoring reality - the majority of Uni staff are scared and disillusioned. One cannot institute values, nor earn respect by demanding it at the top of an ivory tower. My friends in the University have shared stories about the "mis"management of change that range from funny to frightening. Rather than denying reality Professor Tony (and the other leaders) should truly listen to staff (not hire consultants who are going to cost thousands to deliver a set of values which are really corporate compliance guidelines that will be used to monitor and discipline staff. The University Management has a small window to backtrack otherwise the U of Otago may not have another 150 years and that will be a tragedy and bad for the rest of us citizens in Dunedin. Please Professor Tony and other Uni leaders listen while there is still time.

Hmmm...I must say...there is a lot of gesturing from Professor Ballantyne in this response to look left instead of right. He, like the rest of the uni mana-bureacra-city of the Hayne-regime desperately want us to pay attention to the roses they planted (after years of high-level consultation) and not the rubbish pile just over the road. The roses don't erase the rot.

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