An interview with the Vice Chancellor is always a special occasion. In front of you is the authority on million-dollar decisions and you have to be the one to ask her the hard questions. Jan Thomas may not have been around long (she joined Massey University as VC earlier this year) but she certainly knows what she’s doing. Thomas proved no easy task to interview, however, Massive Magazine’s Adam Pearse and Nikki Papatsoumas put on their best garb and had their dictaphones at the ready for what was a conversation that was both surprising and enlightening. What lies below is the topics Massive covered with the fresh-faced VC in what was an arduous journey for all parties involved. All are matters of strong relevance to the university and we hope we did them justice.
Budget woes may cause job losses: Vice Chancellor
Massey University Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas says she is not ruling out job cuts in the future as the university looks to improve its poor financial position.
“I can’t and won’t rule out job cuts at Massey because it is normal to evolve organisations,” she says.
“There are at times and I have over many years gone through phases where we shed staff and I don’t apologise for that because actually I’m spending your tax and I need to make sure it’s spent as wisely as I can.”
Thomas says she is aware she has a responsibility to the students paying for an education that every staff member deserves to be there.
“I’m really conscious of the fact that you’ve given me some money to spend and I want to make sure it’s spent as wisely as possible and that requires people to be the very best they can be, to be the right fit for the organisation.”
Massey’s budget woes stem from the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) requirement that universities must operate at a 3 per cent operating surplus. As of 2016, Massey is operating at a 1.4 per cent surplus.
Thomas admits that hitting that threshold has been an issue for Massey for many years and it needs to change.
“We are not achieving our TEC operating surplus targets, we haven’t for several years but we have readjusted this year’s budget to have a half-way step towards achieving the TEC targets and we plan to set the 2018 budget to hit the TEC targets.”
Part of the reason, Thomas says, is that certain sections of the university, such as the College of Sciences, have been living beyond their means and will need to make immediate savings.
“The College of Sciences has been undergoing a significant review around its financial sustainability. It’s living beyond its means.”
“Making sure that it’s on a financially stable platform is going to be really important to maintain the quality of product we’ve got going forward. They will certainly need to save money going forward. Possibly [millions].”
Thomas aims to have Massey operating at a 1.8 per cent surplus by end of the year and by 2018, reaching the target of a 3 per cent operating surplus.
She declares that millions of dollars will need to be saved but does not believe it is unreasonable for an organisation of this size to do so.
“Millions of dollars that are not spent on the organisation will go into the surplus which will then be spent on the organisation in different strategic ways,” she says.
“It’s not unreasonable for an organisation of this size to have a three per cent operating surplus.
“I’ve been used to running organisations a bit smaller with a much bigger operating surplus, it is doable.”
VC admits “under-performance” problem at Massey
Speaking of budget cuts and job losses, Thomas has acknowledged a significant issue of “chronic under-performance” within Massey’s academic staff and vows to stamp it out.
Thomas indicates that in the past, Massey has had issues with under-performing staff but says this trend will not continue on her watch, signalling that those who aren’t performing could lose their jobs.
“In other institutions, there may be greater tolerance for people who chronically under-perform over years and there may be greater tolerance for people who behave badly but where I’m Vice Chancellor there isn’t a tolerance for that.”
“What I don’t want and what I have no tolerance for is under-performance and I have no tolerance for bad workplace behaviours, none whatsoever, it has no place at Massey.”
For Thomas, this extends across the entirety of the university as she wants to make sure that every salary paid for is one that returns excellence.
“I want to make sure that every single salary I spend money on is delivering a good outcome for the university and that might be a fabulous gardener doing a great job or it might be a distinguished professor doing outstanding research, don’t really care where it falls I want to reward excellence and make sure we have no tolerance for chronic under-performance.”
Thomas admits that those who are proven to under-perform will be cut loose from the university in an attempt to raise productivity and ratify excellence.
“There will be staff who have been chronic under-performers who we will lose from the university because I want to be able to spend the dollars I have as wisely as I can.”
A Massey staff member that wishes to remain anonymous echoes Vice Chancellors Jan Thomas’ claim.
The staff member says there are under performers at Massey that need to go and identifies those that disregard their teaching and research duties as the culprits.
“In the university, we’ve got quite a large cohort of professors that do no teaching.
“The core business of a university is teaching undergraduates. We’ve got people in research-privileged positions that are not doing that much research.”
This staff member says research intensity across the university is not even.
“The culture of research is not even across Massey by any means.
“If you don’t have a passion for research and your position is a standard academic appointment with nominally 30 per cent time allocation to research, you shouldn’t be in the university; go find a polytech,” the staff member says.
Students slam ‘big Massey’
Students have spoke of frustration with Massey’s senior administration, and these feelings of ire were put to Thomas during her interview with Massive Magazine.
Massey Students have criticised the university’s administration, dubbed ‘Big Massey’, saying those in Massey’s highest positions don’t care about students.
Sustainability Club President Tonicha Alves says she feels the people that run Massey only care about business.
Alves says she has experienced a clear difference in how students are dealt with by people that are based on campus, compared to those that manage from afar.
“I’ve found that if you want something from Massey, just walk in and do it because you can email people and they don’t want to do anything, they’ll ignore you,” she says.
“Not even as a club, just as a student, there is no way to get your point heard unless you go straight to the person on the ground.”
She says students don’t know who truly runs our university which to her, is a great cause of confusion and stress.
“When we say Massey, we don’t actually know who we are talking about. I have no idea who these people are because they don’t connect with us, they don’t email us back, you never see their faces on campus, you don’t know who these people are and it’s just so confusing.”
Massey University Students’ Association President, Nikita Skipper, says she agrees with Alves.
Skipper says there is a very clear disconnect within Massey management and she experiences this in her role as president.
“When I think of Massey, I think of three to four different layers. The disconnect through that, when it comes to the basic level stuff of just trying to get in touch with heads of schools, even in my role, it’s very brushed under the carpet.”
Skipper says the soul of Massey is its students and she is disappointed management officials needed to remind themselves of this sometimes.
“There is no university without the students and I think Massey needs to remind themselves that and be very aware of it.”
In response, Thomas says she has regular meetings with student representatives and this issue has not been raised with her.
“I meet regularly with the student reps across the campuses and they can raise any issue they like with me in that environment,” she says.
“I have not heard that concern before and she has not raised it with me to the best of my recollection.”
In an earlier interview with Massive Magazine Thomas says she doesn’t measure success in her role by the number of people who recognise her as Vice Chancellor.
“I expect that I will have a public profile and people will recognise me, in fact they are now even away from campus, people will recognise me.
“But it’s not how I would measure success. How I would measure success is in the outcomes for the university and how Massey is viewed by its students, its graduates, by employers, by research partners and so on. That matters to me.”
“Toxic” bullying rife in Massey staff, survey says
Thomas says she is disappointed with shocking results of a recent survey outlining some staff discontent.
Results from the 2015 VOICE Survey, conducted by Massey University on its staff, revealed some alarming trends of bullying within the university.
Out of 2119 respondents, the majority felt bullying was not being prevented at Massey while the majority of female respondents felt Massey did not resolve complaints of bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination.
The survey also found that just 48 per cent of female respondents were confident that Massey resolves complaints about inappropriate behaviour, including bullying, sexual and other forms of harassment, and discrimination.
As well as this, only 44 per cent of female respondents felt there was equal opportunity for all staff at Massey.
Thomas, is disheartened by the results and knows work needs to be done in order to improve.
“I’m disappointed in it. I think we’ve got a long way to go before I’m satisfied with it. This is something I don’t underestimate the level of involvement but I do intend to work very hard to lift these results. I’ve never shied away from this, never will.”
Thomas says that bullying at Massey has often taken place in the form of verbally attacking people instead of critically analysing ideas and plans. She feels this has become the norm and it has to change.
“Swearing at each other and attacking the person not the idea or the concept or the plan or whatever it might be. I can tell you it’s happened quite a lot in the feedback I’ve received and if they’re talking to me like that, imagine what they’re talking to other people like.”
“In some quarters, there’s been a normalisation of behaviours that I don’t find acceptable so we do have to work on that”
One Massey staff member who wishes to remain anonymous says the amount of bullying that occurs in some parts of Massey has created a hostile environment for staff.
“There is unethical behaviour that occurs. It’s a toxic situation.”
They recall in the past how issues were raised about bullying to senior management.
“I raised the issue that the culture of stopping bullying needs to be endemic throughout the whole university from the very top down.”
Thomas says she has identified those who are exhibiting these negative behaviours and is making sure it won’t happen again.
“I’m working through a whole range of people who I know have been behaving badly in the workplace and are taking them to task on that. None of it is acceptable.”
Meanwhile, staff at Massey’s Manawatu campus also have concerns surrounding proposed cuts to session times and classrooms that lie empty with little explanation.
Laboratory session cuts enrage staff
A lack of consultation over a proposal to reduce the number of laboratory sessions in 100-level Bachelor of Science papers left Massey science staff aggrieved.
Evolutionary Ecology Professor, Steve Trewick claims that prior to the initiatives announcement, academic staff were given no opportunity to discuss with management about the reduction which left many in a state of shock.
“There was no invitation for responses, it was a bold statement; ‘That’s what’s going to happen’.”
Documents obtained by Massive show that an email was sent to academic staff from College of Sciences Pro-Vice Chancellor, Raymond Geor on July 6, outlining the reasons for a reduction in laboratory times from 12 down to six sessions per semester.
The proposal was to be implemented in semester two of 2018.
Trewick says the stated reasons for the initiative, some of which were to decrease workload for students and ease timetabling pressure, did not justify hurried implementation.
He says other universities have employed similar measures and applauded Massey on its insistence on giving students more contact time.
“Other universities have cut times back and they regret it,” he says.
“Academics in Auckland say it’s really disappointing and their impression was that the great thing about places like Massey is they still do all of that contact time.”
The proposal has since been postponed until 2019.
Another email sent from Geor on August 2 says he had been advised it is not possible to achieve this “in an assured and equitable manner across all the courses”.
Thomas questions whether there was no consultation over the matter and notes that consultation takes on an interesting dimension in universities.
“Consultation is an interesting concept in universities, there can be opportunities for consultation which people don’t take up for example.”
She says that people can let their priorities and firm-held beliefs interfere with consultation which effects the communication process.
“People find that their priorities lie elsewhere and don’t engage in consultation until it’s too late, or the other option that also occurs is that sometimes you do consultation and people don’t agree with what is happening and they feel they haven’t been consulted if they don’t actually get what they wanted.”
‘Building X’ decommission leaves classrooms empty
Massey’s decommission of a planned addition to the business studies complex has left many teaching spaces and offices empty and unable for use.
Massive understands that in expectation of the construction of an east wing to the business studies complex, business studies central teaching rooms 1.02, 2.04, 2.06, 3.04, and 3.05 along with offices 1.04, 1.06, 2.09, and 3.02 were cleared out and are no longer in use.
Vice-president of the Massey branch of the Tertiary Education Union, Harvey Jones, says that this east wing or ‘Building X’ was in the planning stage until the appointment of Thomas, who would eventually terminate plans due to budget restrictions but not before teaching spaces and offices were emptied.
“They stripped the teaching rooms and all of that was done before the Vice Chancellor arrived or in the process of her arriving. When she found out about it, she pulled the idea of Building X, saying ‘No, we can’t afford that’. So, Building X is off the table.”
Jones says Massey is left in a bad position with these classrooms being unusable resources.
“Now we’ve got the worst of both worlds, we’ve got empty teaching rooms and they can’t use them.”
He says the wasted money used to clear out these spaces has been raised with Thomas in one of the Tertiary Education Union’s regularly scheduled meetings to understand why money was spent emptying rooms that are no longer usable.
“There was a lot of money wasted because we raised it with the Vice Chancellor saying; ‘Why did this happen?’, it’s the cost of emptying the rooms out and then there’s a non-availability of the rooms that have been locked up ever since.”
Associate Professor and occupant of the business studies complex, Paul Toulson says it will give staff a feeling of insecurity showing them that resources will stay useless if the university deems them financially unimportant.
“I wouldn’t say [staff feel] aggrieved but probably threatened. There is a feeling amongst a lot of teaching staff that we are becoming much more of an assembly line with this stuff.”
Vice Chancellor, Jan Thomas has confirmed to Massive she authorised the decommission of ‘Building X’ due to budget constraints.
“I have put a stop to Building X at the moment, because we just don’t have the capital investment to put a new building on the Manawatu campus. We are over committed in terms of our capital spend at the university so there are a whole range of things that I have put under a spotlight.”
Thomas admits she is unaware of any effect this has had on staff or the availability of teaching spaces across the university.
“De-prioritising Building X was a decision I made, how all of those knock on affects around the different impacts on different areas is something that I would have other staff doing and I don’t know the detail of them.”
Massey University’s Communications Director James Gardiner says the devaluation of assets in the 2016 annual report was a result of a re-valuation of part of the Wellington campus.
“In terms of ‘Building X’, we regularly review our space and infrastructure requirements on all campuses; our current view is that we will have sufficient space for staff and students at Manawatu based on the current building development programmes without the need for this building,” he says.
“Teaching in the business studies buildings has been moved into better teaching spaces in buildings, such as the recently renovated and upgraded Sir Geoffrey Peren and geography buildings to ensure student numbers/learning needs are accommodated in the best spaces possible.”
Gardiner says the now vacant teaching space is earmarked for staff work space and Massey is currently in the process of discussing concept designs and layouts with staff from the various schools within Massey Business School who will use these areas.
NOTE: It has come to Massive’s attention an earlier version of this story was unclear. The quote, “If you don’t have a passion for research and your position is a standard academic appointment with nominally 30 per cent time allocation to research, you shouldn’t be in the university; go find a polytech,” was made by a Massey staff member. Massive apologises for any confusion.