Senior Massey academics have aired their anger over a controversial science restructure straight to the university’s heads in an open forum today.
The cash-strapped university this month aims to finalise a sweeping shake-up that could see more than 100 roles axed and slash staff numbers in the schools of Natural Sciences and Food and Advanced Technology by around 60 per cent.
The proposed overhaul - which is aimed at saving some $12m and would have an especially large impact on Massey’s Albany-based sciences - has already drawn vehement opposition, with students calling for vice-chancellor Jan Thomas’ resignation in a tense confrontation last month.
In an open forum held before the university council’s Zoom-hosted meeting today, several academics shared their frustrations directly with Thomas and university chancellor Michael Ahie.
Professor James Dale, a zoologist in the School of Natural Sciences, told the session that what was a “very cost-focused restructure” could come with plenty of its own costs – both financial and reputational.
“We’ll lose a lot of investment we’ve already made into buildings and restructuring our portfolios; we’ll have the cost of decommissioning labs that have been set up, and are ready to go, and are currently being used.”
Dale pointed out a “major opportunity cost”, with the Albany campus being located in the fastest-growing region in New Zealand, with large colleges nearby.
“My question... is, why hasn’t there been a deep exploration and an analysis of the potential in this area, and the opportunity costs that will be lost, if we follow through with this restructuring?”
Another Albany-based scientist, professor of microbiology Tim Cooper, said the College of Science’s last re-set had cost the university expertise, was disruptive and had “failed”.
“Expenditure was reduced, but not as much as enrolments declined. We are here again.”
Cooper described the current proposal – which the university first put out for consultation early last month – as being bigger, but not better.
“The proposal contains no realistic consideration of the effect of the reset of cutting research capacity and student opportunity; on the university’s academic ranking, its research contribution; its quality of teaching; or of the likelihood that enrolment declines will only accelerate,” he said.
“In fact, the so-called reset is not a reset at all, because it does not diagnose, let alone address, the college’s real underlying problems.”
Professor of biological sciences Peter Lockhart told the council how the proposed cuts would put a stop to important work, such as herbarium training empowering hapu to look after native plant collections, and research on plant species susceptible to invasive myrtle rust.
“Most of the young plant scientists in New Zealand have been trained in fundamental sciences at Massey - that ends with this proposal.”
Lockart said it would also end a contract with the Health Research Council for work with Pacific Island researchers to find new antibiotics – and mean that Palmerston North Hospital would no longer have ready access to microscopy resources necessary for diagnostic work.
“It means that Massey won’t be able to provide DNA sequencing services in New Zealand’s response to disease outbreaks, such as the case with the recent cryptosporidium outbreak in Queenstown.”
Lockart said the university’s “historically strong” reputation in fundamental sciences had already been eroded by recent cuts – and the proposed changes would make the discipline “impossible to maintain” at Massey.
Staff who did survive the restructure would be left with “unrealistic workloads” and he called on the university to abandon it.
“What is proposed will not put the university in a position of financial stability, will only reduce the university’s capability and further weaken its reputation.”
Professor Dianne Brunton said academics still had unanswered questions about the financial numbers behind the proposal, which they’ve challenged as being biased against Albany-based staff and courses.
Ahie thanked the scientists for their messages, which he said would form part of the council’s ongoing discussions.
Last month, the college’s pro-vice chancellor Professor Ray Geor told the Herald that no decisions would be made until the proposal had been “carefully and thoroughly considered” by the college, its staff and students and the wider university community.
He said the need to reduce costs and generate income to ensure financial sustainability was “urgent” for this year and remained so for the next three years.
Jamie Morton is a specialist in science and environmental reporting. He joined the Herald in 2011 and writes about everything from conservation and climate change to natural hazards and new technology.