More than 70 Massey professors have made a rare and direct appeal to the university’s chancellor over a controversial science shake-up that could cost dozens of jobs.
The move – which came shortly before the university this month finalised a wide-ranging overhaul of its science offerings – is believed to be unprecedented in New Zealand.
The letter to chancellor Michael Ahie was signed by 71 professors and represented about half of those employed full-time at Massey, and outside its senior leadership team.
Among the signatories were three professors emeriti – and more than 20 based outside the College of Sciences, working in business, health, humanities and social sciences.
The Herald has chosen not to name any of them.
The letter was in response to a recent discussion document that indicated more than a third of Massey science academics could go – equivalent to about 100 scientists across most disciplines – as part of restructures.
The university has since opted to slash its science course offerings by nearly half – although few students are expected to be directly affected – and will review any staffing changes next year.
The letter stated that, after 90 years of “iconic science and innovation leadership”, the core strengths that made Massey a leading university would be removed with the proposed cuts.
The professors argued research-led teaching would no longer be possible in core disciplines, and staff remaining to teach service courses would be in “no position to deliver the innovation needed to drive New Zealand forward”.
“The proposed changes will greatly weaken Massey University, impact its international ranking, and the revenue and sustainability of the institution.”
The professors said there had been no “meeting of the minds” between senior leadership and academic staff, and argued the situation could lead to “bright flight”.
They were worried over the speed, scale and process of the changes, which were having “severe negative impacts” on staff wellbeing, and were “divisive and counter to” university strategy.
“We see that instead of working for a common good, campuses and disciplines have been pitted against each other.”
The professors recommended that redundancies be deferred, that disruption to teaching and research be minimised, and that their concerns be relayed to Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas and the senior leadership team.
In his response, also provided to the Herald, Ahie said Thomas had been asked to “give due consideration” to specific concerns raised when making decisions around the college’s portfolio.
Massey professors have also shared their anger over the restructure confidentially with the Herald, with some questioning the need for it, and criticising the way it had been overseen.
One went as far as suggesting Thomas should resign.
Tertiary Education Union organiser Heather Warren, who has been co-ordinating a response to the latest plans, said the letter “directly reflects the mood of every union meeting we’ve had”.
“[The letter] shows there are a whole pile of people at a senior level who are willing to put their head above the parapet.”
NZ Association of Scientists president Professor Troy Baisden said the letter also echoed similar points shared in a separate appeal to ministers by representatives from several scientific societies.
“It’s disappointing,” he said.
“It appears the university is acting in a way that is not acceptable under the legislative definition – and international expectations – of universities.”
A Massey spokesperson said the university was confident the changes would set the college on a “successful pathway” to the future.
“We do not believe the changes, which affect just 0.7 per cent of incoming students to the university, will pose any adverse impact to revenue, global ranking or sustainability,” they said.
“Massey University and the College of Sciences remain very much committed to continue to teach and research across a wide range of fundamental and applied science subjects.”
The spokesperson said it was recognised many staff had been affected by the uncertainty presented by the process, and the impact of other events this year.
“We are working with the university’s director health, safety and wellbeing, to ensure we do everything possible to consider the wellbeing of our staff, and will continue this during the three-year process outlined in the road map.”
When Massey scientists learned of proposed restructures at the start of the year, the university signalled a need to cut spending by $18.1m a year – including slashing staff costs in the college by $11.7m – and the position had worsened since then.
The planned course changes include some offerings being cut, merged, tweaked, taught only from one campus or none, or parked until there was more demand for them.
Some of the most affected included Master of Sciences (MsC) in mathematics, nanoscience, geography and computer science – all to be closed – while chemistry would no longer be taught from Auckland.
In a 29-page document setting out the changes, the college’s pro vice-chancellor Professor Ray Geor said the reshaped college would refocus the curriculum to meet student demand for skills in science, alongside a “shift to more flexible learning”.
“Although it will take time to fully implement, once this is achieved we will have reduced the number of course offerings by approximately 46 per cent when compared to the current state,” he said.
“This reshaped academic portfolio will have a substantial impact on our future financial sustainability and free up our capacity to deliver excellent learning and research in our core focus areas.”
Geor said the areas being discontinued were those where there’d been “limited interest” from students in studying, affecting about 3 per cent of new students – or fewer than 100 per year – who previously would’ve enrolled in them.