Stuart McCutcheon: Attack on university donor projects unwarranted

as students choose which subjects they wish to study, so donors choose which areas they wish to support. Photo / Dean Purcell
as students choose which subjects they wish to study, so donors choose which areas they wish to support. Photo / Dean Purcell

As Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland I have no problem with being criticised by a professor - that's an occupational hazard - but I do draw the line at unwarranted complaints about our generous donors and their philanthropic support of the University's students, teaching and research.

Professor Tim Hazledine yesterday asserted that the University's $300 million "For all our futures" philanthropic campaign cuts across principles of academic freedom. That is simply not correct.

The academic freedom to which he refers is the statutory right of academics to teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning, to engage in research, and to advance controversial or unpopular opinions. All that is supported by funding the university receives from government, student fees and research grants. But just as students choose which subjects they wish to study, so donors choose which areas they wish to support.

As a result, the key questions adopted for the campaign come not, as Professor Hazledine suggests, from my dictating "half-baked topics" for academics to research, but rather from conversations with deans about areas where their faculty has particular expertise, and with donors about the advances they would like to help us accelerate.

Unsurprisingly, then, those questions are about issues that most of us would deem important.

To cite just a few: Can we have the best schooling system in the world? Stop wasting the talent of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds? Build a modern, robust economy? Earthquake-proof New Zealand? Restore our unique natural environment? Dramatically improve cancer survival rates?

The one-hour strike to which Professor Hazledine refers was supposedly carried out because I have "refused to negotiate" with the union. Were that true, I would be in breach of the Employment Relations Act and the union would be able to take me to the Employment Relations Authority, which it has not done.

In fact, following the guidance of the Employment Court, I have offered an identical across-the-board increase each year to union members (through the union) and to staff on individual employment agreements.

A similar sum (about $7 million annually) has been delivered as performance pay. I have then offered to negotiate further increases with the union, but pointed out that in order to achieve such increases they would need to identify further savings that could be put into the increased salaries. That has never happened.

Finally, we come to Professor Hazledine's claims of mass discontent at the university. Of the 5475 staff on the relevant employment agreements, 1145 are union members and 726 went on strike.

I regret that some staff were upset by the accurate and factual email advising them of this, but unsurprisingly we do not pay staff who are refusing to work (for example by cancelling classes) while the vast majority do.

- NZ Herald

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