Challenge for UNE Council: calm a storm or trigger a tempest

A meeting of University of New England staff and graduates Friday called on Chancellor James Harris to resign and for the university’s Council to appoint a successor, “through an open and consultative process, including with strong staff representation”

What happened: The proposal was adopted by a meeting of the university’s Convocation,  (CMM November 30) attended by just shy of 500 people eligible to vote.

It was called by Interim VC Simon Evans , after months of controversy over Mr Harris’ support for former vice chancellor Brigid Heywood’s Future Fit restructure plan and a belief among UNE staff that Council was slow to distance the university from Professor Heywood following police charging her with assault. Professor Heywood has pleaded innocent and will face court in the new year.

Other motions at Convocation included a call for “renewal” of Council and establishing a university ombudsman, to “provide a genuinely independent means of investigating complaints relating to process and procedures followed.”

The meeting also called on Council to establish a standing convocation committee with elected representatives of convocation constituencies, “including strong staff representation,” meeting at least twice a year.

And why: UNE has been in what appears to some a permanent state of restructure for years and successive managements have failed to win staff support.

While the university is not publicly announcing the vote on motions that the event occurred at all is a major victory for the university branch of the National Tertiary Education Union which has campaigned long and hard against what it argues are badly designed structural changes. It is also an achievement for the university’s professoriate which has consistently called for management to engage with the university community. “ We hope that this will make UNE a less hierarchical and more collaborative university, better able to meet the significant challenges we face,” professoriate president Thomas Fudge says

What’s next: Council is not obliged to do anything about Convocation’s recommendations, which would be an excellent way to divide the university community into warring camps. Convocation was summoned to calm storms of dissension, ignoring its recommendations will trigger tempest.

As for a standing committee of Convocation, Council cannot win. If it accepts such it creates a loyal opposition at  UNE. If it rejects the idea, critics will claim Council is out of touch with the state the university is in.

CMM asked the university for comment Friday and received, a 31 word no-comment. “UNE is committed to listening to the views of staff and alumni in a forum that will contribute to and enrich the communication between the UNE community and the UNE Council.”