Last week I attended the University of Auckland memorial for the much-loved historian, Judith Binney. It was a sad but wonderful university occasion.

Those attending were a sparkling cross-section of university staff and people from the wider community, including a powerful Tuhoe presence. The speakers were an impressive mix - distinguished staff and former students of the university, and eminent members of the community.

It was the university at its best: a community of scholars, their students and the community, celebrating an outstanding person.

Unfortunately that image - of a scholarly community focused on excellence in teaching, research and service to New Zealand - is at odds with the current university management model.

Inexorably, the idea of a community of scholars is being replaced by a commercial model with a chief executive (still called a vice-chancellor) and his senior management team running the show.

It is a tired, top-down managerial model, owing more to Henry Ford than it does to modern knowledge-based organisations.

This is seen nowhere more clearly than in the current industrial dispute reverberating across the institution. The facts are simple: The CEO wants to remove from the negotiated academic collective agreement some fundamentally important clauses.

These include clauses relating to access to research and study leave, and time spent engaged out of the university in professional matters, promotions and disciplinary procedures.

Management want to incorporate these matters into university policy that is controlled solely by management. A 4 per cent pay increase has been offered in return for the loss of these conditions.

Staff covered by the collective agreement have said firmly that management's position is unacceptable. They believe that these conditions signal the university's commitment to excellence in teaching and research and also help the university to recruit top-class staff in a highly competitive international market.

Moreover, they are deeply unhappy about management's unwillingness to negotiate properly around this proposal. They are incensed to the point that industrial action is now likely.

Why the university management wants to make these changes, and why it wants to make them in such a provocative and disruptive way, is bemusing. It is ironic that we face a dispute over these issues for they are in the collective agreement because, in previous negotiations, management actively supported their inclusion, arguing that it would increase trust between staff and their employer and show a joint commitment to their effective implementation.

Equally ironically, students attending human resource management classes in the university are taught about the needs of knowledge-based enterprises, and the inappropriateness of traditional industrial management models in situations in which trust and engagement are the keys to high performance and creativity. One would hope that the university would practise what it preaches, but the evidence is otherwise.

The CEO has talked of administrative efficiencies and productivity. Because these matters have not been negotiated fully and openly, it is difficult to know what he means. In classical terms, university productivity is shooting ahead as student numbers and completions increase, and research outputs grow. The institution I joined more than 20 years ago has grown from 15,000 to 40,000 students and as student numbers have increased, teaching and administrative loads, and compliance costs, have also grown dramatically.

Staff see in the opacity of the CEO's vision ever longer working days, bigger teaching loads, ever greater demands for research output, spurred on by a "stick-and-carrot" model in which the new-found powers allowed by managerial control of the contested conditions will play a major role.

Stick-and-carrot models are relics of a bygone industrial age and ill-designed to achieve creativity and innovation. If the CEO's story is different, let him tell it openly.

In a recent Herald article, the CEO is quoted as saying: "The reason for wanting to remove the policies is primarily my view that universities, like any organisation, should be able to set their own policies without having them locked into an employment agreement."

This is a telling comment. He appears to want unfettered power to make decisions. When he says "universities", he means university management - not the university as a scholarly community.

There is so much that is old-fashioned and determinedly corporate in that view. And it is also flawed. Many successful organisations are perfectly comfortable with conditions that are jointly agreed by staff and management. In fact, much contemporary management thinking about high-performance institutions promotes "power sharing" as a means to greater trust and improved performance.

This is a dispute that need not happen, should not happen. It baffles me, and I know it baffles people at all levels in the university as to why the CEO has taken this confrontational route. I hope, and so does the university community as a whole, that common sense prevails and we move on to the real challenges facing our university.

Nigel Haworth is professor of human resource development at the University of Auckland. He was president of the Association of University Staff between 2005 and 2007.