Category Archives: Rethinking the University

Media representation and our relationship with LU

In December 2018 the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University (LU) presented a joint partnership proposal to the Minister of Education for consideration[1] having already signed a joint MOU in August to allow UC and LU to ‘explore partnership and merger options’ about which former VC Rod Carr commented “any new partnership or arrangement must bring additional benefits to both universities”.[2] Speculation by one media outlet reported that LU ‘could be governed’ by UC: “Lincoln University is likely to keep its name, degrees, assets and academic staff – but answer to University of Canterbury (UC) bosses under a yet-to-be-confirmed “partnership” proposal.”[3]

So which is it to be – ‘partnership’ or ‘merger’, or neither?

At the time that the UC/LU partnership proposal was being formulated Lincoln and AgResearch were also progressing a proposed $206 million joint facility “considered central to Lincoln’s future and financial sustainability” which was subsequently scrapped: “[Lincoln] university is heading back to the drawing board because AgResearch, its partner in the beleaguered project, will build its own facility”.[4]

Both UC and LU are awaiting advice from the Minister Chris Hipkins about the December 2018 partnership proposal, but the scrapping of the LU/AgResearch joint venture may change the entire partnership game plan and give UC a convenient ‘exit strategy’ from a proposal that may not now ‘bring additional benefits’ after all. With the LU/AgResearch joint facility now sunk the 200 million dollar questions for UC are:

  1. What are the ‘additional benefits’ to UC from any type of partnership arrangement?
  2. Will potential benefits outweigh both the costs and the risks?
  3. How will we, as a university community, answer these?

As a general staff member and student of UC I’m most interested in question 3. The partnership proposal was formulated by selected governance members and senior managers from both institutions and then presented to each university council for approval. It was considered in public excluded session by the UC council without being socialised within the wider university community, although it was discussed by Academic Board. If the minister accepts the proposal, or even indicates the likelihood of considering a subsequent version of the proposal, a sequence of processes could be set in motion that could potentially change the University of Canterbury in its entirety – constitutionally at governance level, senior management level, and operationally at every level of the university, administrative and academic.

Given that LU had been reported to be ‘underperforming’ and that “it would fail to survive another event like the global financial crisis of 2007-08” any kind of partnership arrangement should be viewed with a high degree of caution, but most worryingly according to a media report from 2017 former LU Chancellor Steve Smith was quoted: “if the Lincoln Hub is successful then the university will be successful”.[5] With the LU/AgResearch joint facility scrapped the potential for success of the

Lincoln Hub has to be re-assessed, and with that a re-assessment for UC about any possible future partnership with LU.

In March a new UC academic strategic planning process was initiated – E Tū, Kia ora.[6] Described as “an exciting opportunity for staff to help set the future academic direction of UC” and asking “What kind of university do we want to be when we turn 150 years in 2023?” If the UC/LU partnership proposal submitted in December is accepted by the minister, or approved for further development, then the ‘kind of university’ UC will be by 2023 may largely be defined by its relationship with LU.

Malcolm Scott

1 VC’s report to UC Council, Feb2019, 2.3 Partnership Proposal with Lincoln University; https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/media/documents/governance/VC-Report-to-Council-February-2019-.pdf

2 Lincoln and Canterbury universities sign MOU; https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/lincoln-and-canterbury-universities-sign-mou-.html

3 26 Oct 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/108028341/lincoln-university-could-be-governed-by-canterbury-university-under-potential-partnership-plan

4 13 Feb 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/110536541/agresearch-to-build-own-research-facility-at-lincoln-uni-after-joint-facility-plans-scrapped

5 21 Nov 2017; https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/99051401/underperforming-lincoln-university-needs-teaching-overhaul–report

6 29 March 2019; https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/intercom/category/e-tu-kia-ora/

2018 an eventful year for freedom of expression

The rights of the public to freedom of expression, and the privileges and responsibilities of academic freedom have been put to the test in 2018 by several high-profile events that attracted national media attention. First there was Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s decision in July to ban Canadian far-right speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from council owned venues.1 Goff was criticised by Don Brash for infringing the public right to free speech in a legal motion by the Free Speech Coalition that aimed to “force Mr Goff to recognise he is in breach of the Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Act”.2 For a short while Don Brash became the ‘public face’ of the Free Speech Coalition, and then in an ironic twist of events found himself the subject of a ‘speaking ban’ when in August Massey Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas ordered his visit to the Massey Manawatū campus be cancelled “over fears the event could lead to violence”.3 While it could appear the decision by Jan Thomas crossed a line between the public’s right to freedom of expression and the rights of university students and academics to academic freedom (since Brash had been invited by a student society) this is not necessarily the case since Massey had “no obligation to provide infrastructure for Brash to espouse his views”.4 However, public condemnation of Thomas’ decision was wide-ranging and included commentary by at least one senior Massey academic who viewed it as “unequivocally wrong”.5
Then in September e-mails obtained under the Official Information Act revealed that Thomas had “misled the public” by claiming her decision to ban Brash was for ‘security reasons’ which led to calls for her resignation.6 Thomas’ decision to ban Brash, and attempt to justify it for security reasons, set a worrying precedent firstly as a possible infringement on the rights of students and academics to academic freedom as defined by the Education Act (1989)7, and secondly to conflate subject matter that may be controversial with public safety inferring that any controversial topic of discussion ‘could lead to violence’.
In October an entirely different sequence of events unfolded concerning public freedom of expression, and the responsibilities of academics to the privilege of academic freedom. On 2 October RNZ (Radio New Zealand) reported on an Auckland billboard that had been up for one day and then removed by the billboard operator following a stream of complaints. The billboard featured a poster by a public advocacy group called WAVESnz8 depicting a man holding a young baby with the caption: If you knew the ingredients in a vaccine, would you RISK it? The poster was professionally produced and contained no offensive or defamatory images or information, yet attracted more than 140 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority in a single day. A spokesperson for the billboard operator Ad-Vantage Media said “[he] did not fully understand the controversy that a billboard questioning the efficacy of vaccines would cause”, and presumably ordered removal of the poster for commercial or reputational reasons as there was no legal compulsion to do so. In this case the decision to infringe upon the right to freedom of expression of WAVESnz was made by a commercial operator exercising ownership of the billboard under (or in breach of) whatever terms and conditions the advertising contract with WAVESnz allowed. Later that day a line was crossed concerning academic freedom when John Fraser of the University of Auckland was interviewed by RNZ. Dr Fraser claimed the billboard was “underhanded and deceitful” and “almost organised terrorism”.9 How something can be ‘almost’ terrorism is in itself a bit perplexing (either it is, or it is not), but what was really concerning was the use, or abuse, of academic freedom to characterise a group or organisation as ‘terrorist’. There is wide-ranging controversy concerning vaccine safety, it’s a controversial subject, but that doesn’t give academics the right to defend their expertise or opinion by attacking opponents with allegations of terrorism. This was not the first time Dr Fraser had characterised an activity or group as ‘terrorist’. In May 2017 RNZ reported on the film Vaxxed, an investigative documentary concerning the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) where officials allegedly ordered vaccine research evidence destroyed. The film was touring New Zealand, an activity Dr Fraser described as “the same as terrorism”.10 These comments characterised the film and its tour organisers as terrorists in an incredibly divisive and dehumanising way. When questioned about this University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon stated in an e-mail “[he] is a world-leading expert in infectious diseases and I would back his opinion on these matters any day of the week.”11
The issue here was not a question of Dr Fraser’s academic expertise but rather of his extreme use of divisive, and possibly defamatory, language toward an advocacy group which McCutcheon failed to address. The use of terrorism, where it is deliberately implied as a tool to supress freedom of speech has been condemned by the United Nations12 and should not be tolerated by the wider academic community.
Critic and Conscience Responsibility
The privilege of academic freedom comes with a responsibly to act respectfully towards the views and positions of others. The right to ‘state controversial or unpopular opinions’ (to which the public also have a right) does not imply that slander, defamation, or outright verbal abuse is ever acceptable. Thomas’ decision to ‘ban’ Don Brash might be seen as an infringement on the academic rights of students and staff at Massey, and McCutcheon’s unwillingness to admonish Dr Fraser’s extremist language is at the very least disappointing. Vice-Chancellor Thomas could be said to have failed in her duty under the Act “for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards” (s161, 3 (a), Education Act, 1989). However, in the situation concerning Dr Fraser it is up to individual academics to moderate themselves in their exercise of academic freedom.
In September this year the University of Canterbury reviewed and revised its policy on academic freedom, renaming it Critic & Conscience of Society and Academic Freedom Principles and Policy.13 The policy confirms and protects all of the rights of academic freedom under the Act, but goes much further by providing guidance to all members of the university engaged in scholarly activities (and as a guide to university management) and explicitly states it does not allow a member to “defame others, intimidate or discriminate against those who hold dissenting or non-conforming views or opinions, either within or beyond the University”. The policy only applies to members of the University of Canterbury, but in the cases outlined here, and for the wider academic communities of New Zealand, this policy sets a standard by which we as scholars, and the public at large, can all benefit.

Commentary by Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.

 

1 RNZ, 6 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361220/far-right-pair-banned-from-speaking-at-auckland-council-venues-phil-goff
2 RNZ, 11 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361535/auckland-council-to-be-taken-to-court-over-ban-on-right-wing-speakers
3 RNZ, 7 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/363534/don-brash-s-talk-to-massey-students-canned
4 Univoice, 21 September 2018, https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2018/09/21/brash-is-not-a-victim-but-thinking-so-could-harm-academic-freedom/
5 RNZ, 11 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/363686/the-decision-to-cancel-don-brash-s-speaking-event-is-unequivocally-wrong
6 RNZ, 20 September 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/366920/massey-uni-vice-chancellor-has-no-intention-of-resigning
7 s161, Education Act (1989), http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0080/latest/DLM183665.html
8 WAVESnz – Warnings About Vaccine Expectations, https://wavesnz.org.nz/
9 RNZ, 2 October 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018665071/immunologist-slams-anti-vaccine-billboard-as-almost-organised-terrorism
10 RNZ, 25 May 2017, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201845189/nz-immunologist-likens-anti-vaccination-movement-to-terrorism
11 E-mail from Stuart McCutcheon, 27 May 2017.
12 UN News, 2 January 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/01/640852-un-experts-decry-saudi-arabias-use-anti-terror-laws-against-peaceful-activists
13 https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/about/governance/ucpolicy/general/critic-&-conscience-of-society-academic-freedom-principles-and-policy/

2019 PBRF Review

The government has signalled that the PBRF will be reviewed commencing in mid 2019. The ToR have been published http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Further-education/Policies-and-strategies/Performance-based-research-fund/Terms-of-Reference-for-the-2019-Review-of-the-Performance-Based-Research-Fund.pdfbut the membership of the review committee has yet to be finalised.

The foci of the 2019 review include:

• Revisiting the 4 primary objectives and 3 secondary objectives of the PBRF to determine if they are fit for purpose or require modification.
• To date the individual researcher has been the unit of assessment in terms of the “quality” parameter of the PBRF assessment framework. The review will investigate the merits of individual vs group based quality assessment. The underlying driver here is to boost collaboration between researchers and between researchers and the end-users of the research.
• Investigation of options to maximise the impact of PBRF funded research to stakeholders, including mechanisms to measure impact.
• Engaging in the PBRF process comes with both transactional and opportunity costs. There is a desire to minimise these PBRF related costs and options to achieve this outcome will be investigated. For example, the periodicity of assessment rounds could be lenghtened from the current 6 yearly cycle to a 10 or 12 yearly cycle.
• Investigation to ensure that the PBRF assessment framework is equitable across all types of research.
• Investigate if the PBRF assessment framework is delivering a highly-skilled, sustainable and diverse research capable workforce.

Professor Jonathan Boston, VUW, has narrated a video on the history of the PBRF, he was an advisor to the group that developed the PBRF framework, it can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TasZd0QzKfI

Ray Kirk.

 

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http://canterbury.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9H1B0nkWW9dllbL

Making a difference…?

It sometimes seems strange to be part of a university that proudly proclaims its mantra of “people prepared to make a difference’ when, if academic staff seek to make a difference they are so often rebuffed, discounted, and sidelined.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the ending of faculties with decision-making powers, replaced by college meetings, which have at best an advisory role for management. Too often discussions at such meetings are already framed by decisions made prior to the meeting, making them at best, a ritual for signalling participation and endorsement, and at worst mere charade.

This is not to say that faculties were perfect; in many ways they were increasingly hamstrung by the overarching College structure whereby any difference academics sought to make had to be within overarching College expectations, demands, and management.

Likewise, we often hear calls for a different way of operating, calls for a more multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach; yet the division of our university into competing departments, schools, and colleges all jealously seeking to both retain and gain student numbers (EFTS) means that ‘being prepared to make a difference’ meets the inertia and self-interest of siloization.

Yet I believe that not only do most academic staff want to make a difference, but that many in management would like to facilitate the making of a difference. The trouble is that our structures create a system for the maintenance of the status quo.

In may ways it is like something I teach on, the issue of societal inequality.  We know there is structural inequality, we know that different possibilities could be undertaken but these require structural change and so we resort to the maintenance of the status quo.  This means the difference thought, the difference undertaken, the difference deemed permissible, are framed by the structures we seek to maintain, explicitly and implicitly, either by direct action or by inertia and apathy.

To make a difference, I think we have to be open to rethinking our university, our management, our academic departments, our colleges, our participation, and our responsibilities.  What we do not want is a post-quake university that increasingly resembles post-quake Christchurch (something else I teach on). Christchurch is basically rebuilding a 20th century city in the second decade of the 21st century. Our university is in danger of doing the same thing in university terms.

Christchurch was, post-quake, briefly on the Magnet Cities list of progressive, forward thinking, socially and economically successful cities. But it was soon taken off the list due to the failure to enact real change, to facilitate the innovative 21st century urban living we need. In short, being prepared to make a difference to how urban life can be thought and lived was an opportunity squandered.

My fear is that UC too often and too easily replicates the structures, the siloed units, the thinking, and the ‘achievable’ managed expectations that have made Christchurch a national and international symbol of how not to rebuild a city.

Or perhaps, that is actually the problem, because ’to make difference’ involves transformation rather than rebuilding.  Sadly, Christchurch has been rebuilt to replicate the status quo of a divided city riven by structural inequalities. It is a city that offers few meaningful, well-paid jobs for most of our graduates. A situation that means, as a university, we hopefully ‘add value for export’ to cities elsewhere.

Yet I believe a difference can be made and Uni-Voice is central to this possibility. UC still has the chance to be all that Christchurch has failed to be: a symbol of new thinking, new participation, and new possibilities. UC should be prepared to make a difference to the ways universities operate, to be a 21st century leader, not a passé 2Oth century byword for the status quo.

Mike Grimshaw

Facilitating Greater Interdisciplinary Collaboration?

I think our institution has a vital function to play in the 21st century. This is a time that presents complex challenges that exceed the expertise of any one disciplinary domain. The existential threat of climate change is one urgent example, forcing us to understand what is happening as a result of our industrial civilization, and what we can do about it. Multi-faceted problems require multiple tools, utilised in a coordinated way. In the university, this translates as conversation between and collaboration across disciplines.

Historically, I don’t think we have been very good at this at UC. However, I am hopeful that we may now be ready to respond to the interdisciplinary imperative our troubled times present. Let me demonstrate with a story of an opportunity squandered and a story of an opportunity we may yet sieze.

The earthquakes presented UC with immense fiscal and logistical challenges, yet even as we struggled on with our disrupted lives and our disrupted campus, our predicament stimulated exciting opportunities. Our Vice Chancellor gave the green-light to various initiatives from different parts of the university. Support was given to strengthen earthquake engineering and to establish the digital humanities earthquake archive CEISMIC- all good things that could make us proud of a university not only recovering from the earthquakes but also responding productively to them. Something else was instituted though, which you may not remember- the Centre for Risk, Renewal, and Resilience.

I first heard about this while on a cross-college working group of academics considering an endorsement in resilience and sustainability for the Bachelor of Science degree. Many of us were either teaching about resilience to disaster or had begun to do so. However, upon hearing about this new centre, we all wondered why it seemed to be none of our business. It sounded like it could be a space for interdisciplinary activity, a space where we could put perspectives from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences into conversation. I was immediately put in mind of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which seeks to address the ecological challenges of our global civilization by facilitating collaboration across disciplines and with society at large. Perhaps something similar was intended, focussing on the challenge of remaking Christchurch. Sadly, it seemed there was no such vision, just a cynical, short-term aspiration to sell courses to the engineers that some thought would be flocking to Christchurch for the rebuild.

This was a chance to create an interactive space beyond the silo-ed units of the university, free of the zero-sum game that pits them against each other in a futile competition that produces structural disincentives for cross-college cooperation. It was a chance to promote joined-up thinking on the multi-faceted problem of disaster recovery by drawing on the diversity of expertise here at UC. It could have helped us develop a global reputation for an integrated approach to disaster recovery (not just scattered expertise in its particular aspects). But it was not to be.

However, with the recent announcement of the Kia Topu initiative; a concerted focus on food, sustainability, and the future, it seems like we have been gifted a new opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration- for different kinds of scholars and scientists to learn from and work with each other. What we make of it remains to be seen, but I surely hope the university realizes that the question of meeting our needs in a world beset by increasing social and ecological disruption will require collaboration across the disciplinary divides that our current institutional structures entrench.

Piers Locke