Management should pay for their mistakes

The Australian, February 29, 2012. Read the original here.

A COUPLE of weeks ago, the University of Sydney asked 100 of my colleagues – the equivalent of three large departments – to show cause why they should not be sacked. Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, said the savings would be spent on essential maintenance work and the $385 million Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease.

Academics were considered for redundancy if they failed to meet a retrospective performance test – four or more publications since 2009 – that was substantially higher than any previous output requirement. Regardless of one’s record in teaching, administration or anything else, output in research, defined in the enterprise bargaining agreement as constituting just 40 per cent of an academic’s responsibilities, was all that counted.

This decision has caused unprecedented outrage. Many staff have expressed their loss of confidence in management and repeatedly called for the job cuts to be abandoned. It has escaped nobody except, apparently, the VC and upper management, that the only clearly underperforming area of the university in the past three years has been the administration itself, whose spectacular negligence in prudent financial stewardship has triggered the current crisis.

Faced with an unanticipated budgetary situation, it is shocking that management has chosen to sacrifice academics for buildings. Equally inexplicable is its refusal to call for volunteers for redundancy to ensure that the cuts proceed with minimal individual and institutional trauma. Instead, it has targeted academics in the middle of their careers, whose lives and dependants will be thrown into turmoil. This arbitrary cruelty will be devastating, and not just on its immediate victims. Staff who survive the purge will feel degraded, treated with contempt, and will wonder who the axe will fall on next.

The least commented on but perhaps most noteworthy aspect of the crisis has been the dismaying double standard it reveals at the heart of university administration. Take the opinion piece by Dr Spence published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008, in which he declared that quantitative measures of research performance were “only poor proxies for quality”. In administration, “the core value has to be accountable self-government” and he affirmed his commitment to “education in its broadest, in its moral sense”.

Judging by the current purge, these statements of principle were not intended literally. The university has decided that buildings matter more than retaining experienced academics; that teaching can be further entrusted to inexperienced casuals; that a ludicrous retrospective quantification of research activity is the main criterion of academic worth; and that accountability means sacking teaching staff who have not violated any performance expectation while managers enjoy impunity.

If university managers cannot respect the most basic norms of equity and rationality towards their staff, they are in no position to proclaim, as Sydney does on its website, a commitment to finding “new ways to be accountable to the public good”. The only viable alternative is for them to make way for those who might do better.


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