Opinion: Toxic atmosphere at Otago Uni risks becoming 'chronic'

The University of Otago clock tower  is  an  icon for civic  tourism and  pride. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The University of Otago clock tower is an icon for civic tourism and pride. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The  atmosphere at the University of Otago has been described by some as toxic.  Kevin Clements and Peter Matheson believe radical reform is needed to reverse the effects of change management.

Culturally, socially and economically, Dunedin and Otago University have been inseparable since 1869. This year town and gown are enjoying the imaginative celebrations for 150 years of life together.

The university clock tower is an icon for civic tourism and pride. The campus has never looked so attractive, and has won accolades on the international scene.

And quite apart from our respect for its cutting-edge research and innovative teaching, the university contributes more than a billion dollars to Dunedin's economy each year. When students are around, the place really comes alive. Otago University - we love you!

But here's the thing: Although everything looks healthy on the outside, it feels very unhealthy on the inside.

Right now, the university is very sick. And unless radical action is taken, that sickness threatens to become chronic. This will be to the detriment of the university and the community.

The furore about marine sciences, facing "management of change'' (the fashionable euphemism for downsizing and redundancies) and the rumours that maths and statistics will be subject to the same fate are the latest symptoms of a widespread pathology.

Ask any senior academic in science, medicine, the humanities and the chances are that they will tell you that morale is at an all-time low. Many feel alienated, angry and sick at heart. The current atmosphere is often described by insiders as toxic. Leading professors, lecturers and support staff right across the disciplines feel betrayed by the institution that they work for and to which (in many cases) they have dedicated their careers. It is all desperately sad and unnecessary.

Recognising that all is not well, the university has commissioned a firm, April Strategy. It has launched a "Shaping our Cultures'' project, "He Waka Kotuia'', to improve relationships, and ensure that academic and support staff have "a better day at work''.

It is one thing, however, to talk of promoting a culture of inclusiveness and acceptance as "Shaping our Cultures'' does and quite another to actually make it happen. Many academic and support staff have declined to be part of the process because the actual actions of management have forfeited their trust.

The frequent promises of consultation are not believed or are viewed as mere window-dressing. Those who have participated in consultations often feel that their opinions and concerns have been ignored and come away feeling not empowered but disempowered.

When the vice-chancellor tells us that the "shift phase'' of restructuring has been completed and we now need to move into the "lift phase'' (to fix processes that were broken in the shift phase) there is a collective groan from the faculty.

When we learn, further, that the "Enabling Excellence Project team'' is expected to complete its work by 2021 (!), those of us at the coal face have no confidence that the decisions of the past three years were worth the pain. When the vice-chancellor asks "all staff [to] choose to "put their paddles in the water'' and participate in this project [enabling excellence] to create a "positive community for all'', desperation sets in.

Faculty and staff feel completely dispirited by these sorts of statements. The confusion, inefficiencies and chaos that we are grappling with are a result of the decisions made by those who are now urging us to jump into the Otago Waka and paddle in a direction that few of us feel comfortable with.

Pep talks and consultants paid to boost faculty morale are largely beside the point.

At the core of the disenchantment of academic and support staff has been the ways in which the restructuring of support staff and the "management of change'' has been conducted.

Departments have been reorganised into new ill-assorted schools. Decision-making power has floated from the head of department to the heads of schools, who have the same power as a former HOD. The heads of divisions and the vice-chancellor have more power than ever before but have lost the trust and confidence of the faculty underneath them. Positions have been lost, and others downgraded.

The assurance that all would be well once the reforms settled down has proved chimerical. The assumption that support staff could be shifted around at will from one area to another has led to the personal disillusionment of some of the university's best servants and to gross systemic inefficiency. We can no longer go to someone in the department to order something, get something done - multiple layers lead to delays and tasks dropping out.

Institutional memory has been one of the many casualties of an insensitive process.

The drive towards centralisation, moreover, has led to decision-making which so far has not served the interests of academics, support staff or students. Power has been transferred from a more democratic departmental base to an anonymous centre.

Teachers and researchers who love their subject and are committed to their students are no longer confident that their input is being taken with any seriousness. They are no longer prepared to go the extra mile. Some are now just hanging on till retirement.

Support staff have little sense of being valued for themselves.

For students, too, the human dimension is in danger of being lost in the push for efficiency.

It is nauseating to be told that the low morale, workplace stresses and strains, burnout and early retirements are a consequence of faculty not pulling their weight and not being sensitive to each other's needs.

April Strategy asks faculty to explain what makes for a good or a bad day, and to focus on our immediate work environments rather than the culture of the university as a whole. The culture of the whole is set by the university leadership, faculty and staff agreeing on fundamental values, and designing decision-making processes that treat faculty with respect and as adults rather than infants.

This has not occurred.

Any major institution has to be open to innovation and reorganisation. That is not in dispute. At the heart of the pathology, however, is a managerial inflexibility, and an unwillingness to take positive criticism seriously. There is considerable anecdotal evidence of dialogue being shut down, of fists being thumped on tables and of critics being marginalised. There is a worrying perception that from the top down, management is impatient of the dissenting voice. Grave decisions with long-term consequences for departments, but also for the wider community, are made on the basis of statistics about which courses 18-year-olds decide to enrol in. Marine science is a case in point.

This is no way to run a university. The case of Otago is, of course, by no means alone. Across the world market-driven ideologies and the commercialisation of the academy are hampering creativity and undermining collegiality.

Nor is the picture in Otago universally negative. Far from it. But the much-vaunted motto of the place - "Sapere aude'' - needs to be taken seriously. Universities are human institutions. They work best in an atmosphere of mutual respect, where ideology is at a discount, and attentive listening is the norm. At present this is not the case.

Our much-loved university is sick, and the prognosis is not good unless those at the helm cut out the fine words and address the real problems.

If management feels that these comments are idiosyncratic or a minority perspective,

they should put them to the test. These are testable propositions and the way to test them is via anonymised surveys of staff opinion.

Let them administer such surveys to the relevant staff (with questions phrased so as to elicit people's real opinions, not engineered so as to produce a positive result). Then let them publicise the results.

If we are wrong and we only represent a minority view, then that's still a significant problem.

But if we are right, then something really radical needs to be done.

Prof Kevin Clements is chairman and foundation director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. The Rev Dr Peter Matheson is a historian and theologian and an honorary fellow in the University of Otago's department of theology and religious studies.


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Morale is at an "all-time low" in "science, medicine, (and) the humanities" — does OU not have a business school? Or is it just that its morale has always been so low that it hasn't been able to get any lower?

Hit the nail on the head. Also a great point that one of the biggest issues here is the movement of power away from department HoDs and towards anonymous figures.

My experience mirrors all that Prof Clements states. Much of this somehow has been kept from the general public and students, yet all will suffer if this continues. University staff do best for students and research if there is trust and respect. My view is that the upper levels of adminstration have betrayed that trust and goodwill. It will take much longer to rectify this than it has taken to lose it.

As a Uni staff member - I happen to agree. Everywhere we turn there are half-hearted attempts to shift the blame onto the staff for the problems that the SSR created.
I joined the staff during the early stages of the big managerial shift and all I could describe it as, is watching someone build a house without any blueprints, and then blame the tenants for it not going according to plan.
I thoroughly enjoy my department, but the University overall has about a decade of building before they earn the trust of their staff once more.

"Do More With Less." Dis-establish the Vice Chancellor!

You've got to wonder about the management when they hold a sustainability workshop at the same time as they are cutting back the marine science department.

I totally agree with this opinion piece. As a former staff member I have witnessed the "leadership team" systematically destroy good will and the culture of collegiality.
I suspect that hiring external consultants to fix a problem created by management that blames staff members for their poor attitude will not help. This is victim blaming. In my experience, the management fundamentally does not respect or value its staff. Until it does, moral will continue to decline, as will the institution as a whole.
Demanding that every department return a profit is sort term thinking. Shutting down or crippling departments because they aren’t good money makers will leave us with a University devoid of diversity and restricted in its ability to think, research, and teach in a true cross disciplinary fashion.
In my view the leadership (VC and COO) of the University need to take responsibility for the current situation - it is largely a result of their actions and their stunning inability to predict what was an entirely predictable outcome.

At the start of the review, it was all about too many support staff workers. FTE's were touted as being to high. I wonder what that looks like now? It's no surprise it's kept secret.

It would be interesting to know how many employees(FTE's), including fixed term, HR, middle management, contractors, they had then, compared to now. The number of people working at a point in time, the same time, in the middle of each semester for every year since the announcement 5 years ago was it? or 6? Regardless of how those heads are contracted to work at the University, simply all numbers working who are not Academics. Oh, and turnover for each year between the last point in time.

If that was the reason for the project, then surely it is how you measure the success or otherwise of the project after the fact? If that wasn't the reason, what was and how has it gone? Accountability of the use of public funds wouldn't go amiss, surely.

In complete agreement. This was a happy place five years ago - the unfortunate thing was that we did not know how positive and collegial it was. I never thought I would find myself hanging out for retirement now, from an academic career I really used to love. The University has got this change entirely wrong and it would be helpful if our very senior staff on the Academic Admin side were to at least for one second publicly admit there is a problem due to the change, and not put up an insulting smokescreen that it as our fault, through the Shaping Our Cultures process.

I'm glad they wrote this!!! I hope the uni (any by the uni I don't mean the wonderful students, fantastic academic and administrative staff or amazing infrastructural employees I mean the 'management' who have driven the staff to levels of stress, dysfunction and despondency I could not have ever imagined) take up the challenge and ask us what we actually THINK (not filling our mouths but listening) and what we actually NEED (not telling us what we need but actually meeting OUR needs) to function and thrive. Many of us have stopped recruiting for the uni in embarrassment and shame. The precariousness, threat, dysfunction and diabolical gaslighting is why our 'culture' is what it is. You can't remove the viscera of the uni (what connects the 'work' of learning to the 'world' of learning) and expect it to function, to be 'the' 21st century learning hub of the south. Student suicides at all time high and staff despair palpable...150 years later...is the uni broken?

Ivory tower academics and their departments bleed money because most departments provide degrees that have little value in the real, private world. This is a worldwide problem that keeps getting bigger as students can borrow heaps of $$ to do 'fluffy' courses supplemented by educational institutions getting central funding. Tax payers should get more for their endless support of students and institutions, especially with the Medical School scandal making us question what is this all for?

ok boomer...uni isn't an ivory tower anymore...its a living, breathing, income generating machine for cities, communities and students. The cost is not a reflection of the 100,000 plus dollars most academics spend for the privilege of teaching and applying for grants and researching and publishing their research (with zero compensation) to increase the cultural and social dividend of humanity. Dunedin, without this 'ivory tower' would be a ghost town in a decade. 1. Universities are economic engines, 2. Universities change the face of a city, 3. Universities attract global talent, 4. Universities build international connections, 5. Universities help address societal challenges, 6. Universities foster creativity and open debate, and 7. Higher education improves lives (http://theconversation.com/seven-ways-universities-benefit-society-81072) and none of that happens without profs, and students that ALSO live in your 'private world' whatever that is. My colleagues children fill your schools, my colleagues support the economic and cultural life of this city and my colleagues contribute 24/7 to what you term valueless degrees. In knowledge economies all subjects matter.

For the layman, which includes myself, one has to ask, where did those in managerial power get their education? Who hired them based on their education and ideologies? And why, with their performance, do they remain? This decline in morale has continued for some period of time, who is responible for allowing it to continue for so long?
Dunedin's greatest asset is our people, it's second greatest asset is our people within the University. Positive change needs to be made in very short order. Our acedemics hold the key's for the future of our students, the support staff glue it all together. Dunedin is a University City, 150 years, and this is what it all comes to?

True. Otago Business School has those same issues. Culture is one of mistrust, control, and punishment. Applying for funding and taking on empty service roles are the only things that are noticed in this bloated bureaucracy.

This is what our youngsters are learning when it comes from the top, no wonder they think like they do.

Managerialism, beginning to be recognised as an ideology. Quoting: Managerialism says that the fundamental social units are not individuals, as capitalism would declare, but rather that the fundamental social units are organizations. Ultimately, managerialism specifically denies that the fundamental nature of society is an aggregation of individuals. (Source: Wikipedia)
As soon as individuals are not treated and respected as individuals but can be ‘sacrificed’ for the ‘collective good’, the institution involved loses people’s trust and loyalty and becomes just a large number of unhappy people.

Because of this I just resigned: I was so happy to return from overseas to take up my academic career at U Otago, my alma mater. I loved my students & my research & and the community (it was the departmental whānau that brought me back). But this community is now destroyed & the new system requires me to compromise my values & standard of practice in how I engage with students and research and colleagues. At the tender age of 48, with a well-payed tenured/confirmed position, and not intending to leave Dunedin, nor having a new job to step into, I have resigned from what could have been my dream job at my once-beloved U Otago. I know I am not alone in taking this course of action, and I know there are others considering the same. And it feels absolutely that no one in the institution is listening to any of us.

Sad to see this happening at Otago Uni. I went through a similar process beginning about a decade ago. The answer is to foster democratic decision making as much as possible, & consider a University to be a community of scholars rather than an "agile business". Also respect all those who contribute to the University, not just academics.

New Zealand has a remarkable number of exceptional universities for its population, & this is no accident. Our higher education system was developed by ensuring:

1) Democratic processes
2) Reasonable job security
3) Relatively accessible research funding
4) A decent working environment
5) Competitive remuneration
6) Strong linkages with universities overseas.

This attracted high quality academics from all over the world because these are the things they look for in order to contribute effectively to society.

When ambitious managers threaten these things in the name of efficiency they contribute to the decline of our Universities' reputations. Examples include overly competitive and under-resourced research funding processes, aggressive "change management", centralisation of control, open-plan offices, and lack of trust in employees.

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