Steven Schwarz must have wondered if he had lost his touch. Twelve months into his job at Macquarie University and barely a headline, a boycott by lecturers or a student revolt.

But Schwarz has begun his second year at Macquarie more characteristically. His disagreement with former Vice-Chancellor Di Yerbury finally made the news on his first anniversary in the job. And if his CV is any guide, we can expect to see more of this combative behaviour: some might even say his management style is more about conflict than consensus.

In his previous post as Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in the UK, Schwarz upset the Association of University Teachers by removing 60 lecturers he described as research “non-active”, a move which sparked strike action, a boycott of assessment activity, and a refusal among staff to cover for absent colleagues.

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Anyone who has tried dealing with university bureaucracy might support Schwarz in attacking a system that protects unproductive staff. Schwarz could argue that once you get past the initial pain of redundancies, the greater efficiencies benefit everyone except those on the receiving end.

Indeed, corporatising universities is Schwarz’s MO. On his announcement as the Macquarie VC, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Schwartz (sic), 51, has become associated with the trend of treating universities as the last bastion of socialism and turning them into University Inc…

[H]aving begun his academic career as a psychologist, he is now a chief executive who seeks to make the university culture more entrepreneurial, with more research, more accountability, more transparency, higher standards, higher salaries, and a higher profile to attract more and better students.

While that approach might ruffle a few feathers among academics, Schwarz attributed it with improving Brunel’s standing among British Universities, telling the SMH:

Brunel moved up from number 30 to be ranked 27 out of 122 institutions in this year’s Guardian league table (in the top 22% of universities)… We achieved this not by turning the university into a business but by being businesslike.

But today Schwarz is not in the news for making Macquarie Uni more businesslike. The dispute over Yerbury’s employment contact has been presented as an issue of accountability, which gave the new VC a golden opportunity to draw a line between the former regime and his own. That Schwarz is unafraid of a fight is not news to anyone, but Crikey understands there is a feeling among staff that using the Yerbury situation to make that point – and so publicly – has been somewhat indiscreet.

Ultimately his time at Macquarie will not be judged on the outcome of the Yerbury affair, with few in the academic fraternity doubting that 2007 will be a defining year for the university … for better or worse.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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