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Nov 2, 2009

Was Melbourne Model stoush behind the Law dean’s departure?

A damning series of internal documents obtained by Crikey reveals widespread anger from within Melbourne Uni's law faculty over changes that would have seen professional staff sacked and replaced with senior bureaucrats.

Andrew Crook — Former <em>Crikey</em> Senior Journalist

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

The departing dean of the University of Melbourne’s Law School, Professor James Hathaway, was at the centre of an ugly stoush over the implementation of the university’s controversial Melbourne Model just weeks before his resignation last Wednesday.

A damning series of internal documents, obtained by Crikey, reveals widespread anger from within the elite faculty over changes that would have seen up to four professional staff sacked and replaced with three senior bureaucrats, leading to a budget blowout and a “pyramid-like professional staff structure”.

After serving as dean for just 18 months, Professor Hathaway announced his resignation last week, ostensibly to pursue refugee advocacy work. However, in the weeks preceding his resignation, an 80-strong staff led law faculty “deliberative group” was in active revolt over “the most significant changes experienced by a faculty in at least the last 20 years”.

In the 19-page, 39-recommendation salvo, aggrieved staff blast the consultation process, following the announcement of the cuts on 17 September, as “manifestly inadequate”.

“The proposal to dismantle the existing professional staff structure, and to replace it with a quite different one, raises questions that have not yet been properly addressed in any process involving staff,” it reads.

“We have serious concerns about exposing the faculty to substantial and ongoing financial liabilities, before a full consultation and evaluation of possible wider restructure of the faculty’s administration.”

The controversy stems from a restructure proposal put to staff by Professor Hathaway and the Executive Director of the Law School, Marian Schoen. Staff were provided with one week to formulate a response, however after significant angst, an extra week’s extension was allowed.

The group said the changes, which involved employing a new layer of senior management to insulate Professor Hathaway, would lead to a $500,000 blow-out in the faculty’s bottom line.

The submission was followed by an emailed back-flip from Ms Schoen on behalf of Professor Hathaway, that “apologised for any distress caused” and junked the proposed changes to the faculty’s finance and resources, information technology and business services sections. The changes to the faculty’s human resources department were upheld.

It is believed the tensions, reported a day before his resignation in student newspaper Farrago, became too much for Professor Hathaway, a respected scholar on refugee issues, who under the university’s “responsible division management” process, had been forced to operate an internal fiefdom in the manner of a small business.

Earlier, according to the faculty’s confidential business plan, the genial 54-year-old Canadian had “acceded” to unpopular plans to increase the size of the Melbourne Juris Doctor (the two-year post-graduate law course) by 60 students to paper over a funding shortfall, a substantial increase in staff-student ratios. Some tutorials would increase to 60 students, from a current maximum of 30, under the plan.

Last week, Professor Hathaway revealed that his mother, at the height of the furore, had asked him to “quit being a bureaucrat and start doing good things for the world again”.

The resignation statement from the University, released late last Wednesday, made no mention of the internal chaos engulfing the faculty, instead emphasising the dean’s commitment to refugee issues.

“Professor Hathaway wishes to re-engage all of his energies to find answers to what is clearly a moment of crisis in the international protection regime”, it read.

This morning, the University backed its original explanation for Proffessor Hathaway’s departure. A spokeswoman said:

“Jim Hathaway has resigned to return to full-time academic life as he wishes to make a significant contribution to the important issue of refugee and asylum seeker law. Prof Hathaway acted appropriately and considerately in responding to concerns raised by his staff.”

But National Tertiary Education Union branch president Ted Clark told Crikey that the brawl with staff had tipped the dean over the edge: “I think there was definitely an interpretation that the job was too burdensome. It was a big job and it was made even more difficult by the university’s responsible division management [RDM] process”.

RDM, a core component of the controversial Melbourne Model, was implemented at the beginning of this year, under a directive from the university’s governing council. It devolves bureaucratic work to the the faculties, who are expected to take responsibility for the budget and staffing arrangements and pay “rent” to the central administration.

Law faculty staff have gone to ground following Professor Hathaway’s departure. He is believed to be well-regarded, with the blame over the restructure sheeted back to Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis, who has staked his reputation on the university’s rationalisation.

In July, 220 staff cuts were announced at the university after the global financial crisis laid waste to internal finances. Crikey understands the response to the offer of 100 voluntary redundancies has been overwhelming, with up to 190 staff submitting applications to the university’s human resources unit, according to the NTEU.

4 comments

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4 thoughts on “Was Melbourne Model stoush behind the Law dean’s departure?

  1. Elizabeth Redman

    Mothers do seem to be quite the influential figures in these cases. Former Dean of Arts at Melbourne Uni, Belinda Probert, resigned from that position after less than two years to spend more time caring for her elderly mother.

    Of course, she’s now Deputy Vice-Chancellor at La Trobe.

  2. Rod Beecham

    One of the many damning aspects of this affair is the attempt – which I have no doubt will be successful – to introduce a(nother) highly expensive layer of senior management to the Law School. Since the Dawkins White Paper of 1989 there has been an explosion in highly paid senior management positions across the entire Australian tertiary sector, while teaching positions continue to be casualized. I will be publishing an op-ed piece on this in The Australian Financial Review shortly – probably on 16 November. The view of education at every level – early learning, primary, secondary, tertiary – reflected in Australian public policy, state and federal, seems to be that the people who actually work with students should be a hired labour-force serving the interests of an enormous, expensive and largely redundant bureaucracy.

  3. perspective

    While Deans have always had a difficult role to play, it is being made almost impossible under Glyn Davis. Deans are traditionally promoted from academic staff, and are likely to retain at least some trace of humanity, collegiality and sense that the university is about teaching/learning and research. What they are told from above is to get rid of good staff purely for ideological policies aimed at improving the budgets in order to pay the high salaries of the extra layers of administration. Other policies, not as widely known, also contribute to the targeting and elimination of good staff. Melbourne University has a policy to attain the top research status in Australia, in every department, and to achieve this they tell the Deans and the Deans press the department heads to eliminate staff that are not working on the ‘research strengths’ of the department. Obviously, the research strengths are going to be chosen by the heads of departments, and will include their own, and their close friends. They then target researchers who they don’t like, or who are not part of what they perceive as the department research strength. For example, staff who do research in a field that is equal in quality to any other in Australia are targeted – purely because they cannot be regarded as ‘better’ than the rest. What you end up, collectively, is a much smaller breadth of research fields (and expertise) across the campus, while at the same time many world leading researchers being forced out and heading overseas. The motto is ‘research narrow, teach broad’, i.e. the research fields are much narrower but the retained staff are expected to teach across a wide breadth of their particular discipline. Doesn’t make any sense really but only the department heads and above need to think about this, while contemplating their staff lists for the next victim. So, I applaud Professor Hathaway for having the humanity and the guts to get out. I hope he does well for the world.

  4. rodbeecham

    I agree with you absolutely, Perspective. I would add what I’m sure you already know: that “world-class” anything is not going to be achieved in such circumstances, and that the commercial logic of funding what is already in demand means that nothing new will ever be attempted.

    Now there’s an approach that has led to all the epoch-making breakthroughs of history!

    http://www.rodbeecham.com.au.