University Senate commences first confidential external fellow selection process

The University's most powerful body is getting new members

Chancellor Belinda Hutchison is an influential figure on Senate. Chancellor Belinda Hutchison is an influential figure on Senate.

The University has begun a confidential appointment process for new external Senate fellows, discarding for the first time the open election process previously used for alumni candidates. The new process will select five fellows, who will hold significant voting power over the policy direction of the entire University.

The process seems to be designed to ensure the incoming fellows have sufficient corporate and financial experience to meet new statutory experience requirements.

The Senate is the peak governing body of the University and oversees its policy direction at the broadest level. It appoints the Vice-Chancellor, reviews management performance and monitors academic activities.

This process takes its lead from amendments to the University of Sydney Act 1989 (the legislation that governs the University). In 2016, then Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli issued an order giving effect to a Senate resolution from 2015 that restructured and resized the Senate.

The new Senate structure includes “5 Senate Appointed Members” in addition to other elected, ministerially appointed and “official” members (the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and Chair of the Academic Board).

Out of all of those members,
according to the recent amendments, “at least 2 must have financial
expertise (as demonstrated by relevant qualifications and by experience in financial management at a senior level in the public or private sector)” and at least one must have “commercial expertise”, defined in similar terms.  However, the Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson (as the current non-executive director of AGL Energy and previous Chair of QBE Insurance Group) would already have expertise in both categories.

When asked why this format is being used for applications, a University spokesperson said, “Senate is seeking the widest possible pool of candidates in order to achieve the right mix of skills and attributes on Senate to guide the University.” They further cited the commercial and financial criteria.

The departure is a clear nod to more efficient, corporate board-style management over participatory democracy. In 2013, a group heavy in media personalities was elected by a ballot of approximately 12,000 alumni (from 280,000 worldwide).

Current member Andrew West has been one of the more oppositional members over the course of 2016, speaking against the proposed changes to the Sydney College of the Arts and the restructuring of the Senate itself.

While it is likely the new process will ensure fellows have management experience, it indicates a shift away from the shared alumni-driven vision of the University’s direction. Since they can no longer vote for external fellows, alumni who want to influence policy will largely be restricted to individual lobbying or tying policy to donations.

In the past, student fellow elections have been marred with controversy —  one had to be re-held, and the last two have seen accusations of breaches of privacy as campaigners solicit votes from students with laptops in hand. However, while the administrative burden of the postal alumni ballot is large, it tends to run more smoothly and fairly than the electronic student ballot.

When asked what kind of criteria would be used in selecting each new fellow, Honi was directed to the “Senate Fellows Role Statement” which essentially lists favourable personality traits alongside corporate directors’ duties. The key attributes are “Commitment”, “Relationship Management”, “Networking”, “Interpersonal”, “Integrity” and “Contributes to Diversity”.

Political diversity is not listed as an attribute, so it is unclear whether it will be taken into account in the application process. In 2016, a Senate spokesperson indicated that political characteristics were not taken into account when selecting a candidate to fill a casual vacancy for the position of Postgraduate fellow.

Since this is the first time this process has been undertaken, there is no available data or information on diversity or skills of the appointed fellows. However, the fact that the role is unremunerated does restrict the cross-section of possible applicants. As the University has written, being a Senate fellow “requires a significant donation of time and energy to the University.” Applicants must have an extremely stable income to realistically commit to the position.

The University has declined to disclose the number of applicants or their identities, saying, “The successful applicants will be announced once appointments are finalised in August.” It is unclear why the vetting process is so extensive that it requires more than six months.

In the absence of unsuccessful candidates identifying themselves, it will be very difficult to determine the kind of applicant the Senate is seeking.

The appointed fellows’ terms will begin on December 1.

The next opportunity to join the Senate as an external fellow will open in 2019.