Chasing Our Chancellor
Christina White speaks to Belinda Hutchinson.
“We are all here because we are deeply committed to the University of Sydney,” proclaims Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson at the front of the Great Hall. Opening last year’s Town Hall meeting to discuss fee deregulation, she reminds the audience of their common ground. They sit quietly as she speaks. Protesters let her finish, waiting for the Vice-Chancellor to air their discontent.
On paper, the role of the Chancellor is akin to the Governor-General; a figurehead, a patron who shakes a lot of hands. They chair the oversight body, the Senate, but the actual administration of the University is left to the Vice-Chancellor. Many people I spoke with reminded me that ‘Ms Hutchinson doesn’t run the University’ and some seemed unsure why I was interested in her at all.
Hutchinson may not run the University, but the way she goes about her role and the principles she espouses reveal the University’s changing values as it settles into the twenty-first century. Her experience is indicative of what USyd thinks it needs, its fondness for business model governance, and the hope that good financial management—lubricated with deregulation—will lead to ‘world-class’ education and research.
In 2013 Hutchinson replaced Marie Bashir, a psychiatrist with a background in youth mental health who focussed on remote and Indigenous communities. Hutchinson’s name travels with acronyms. AM, FCA, FAICD respectively signify her Order of Australia for service to business, Fellow of Chartered Accountants, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Two years on, we sit in her impressive office in the Quadrangle. The ceilings are high, the walls wood-panelled, and I am two metres from the original Grant of Arms from 1857 hanging on the wall. Hutchinson is warm and welcoming, in a managed way. Her office asked for questions in advance and when I ask about divisive issues she stops and starts her sentences, carefully choosing her words.
Hutchinson attended USyd in the 1970s, studying a Bachelor of Economics. “I was a very shy person at University,” she says. Initially her father didn’t want her to enrol and suggested she just get married instead. I ask how this impacted her and Hutchinson smiles ear to ear: “It’s given me a real and burning ambition to actually achieve something in my life.” Her determination is evinced by stories of saving up holiday time to have children and an individualised approach to dealing with sexism. “I just tried to rise above it and ignore it. If it needed to be dealt with I dealt with it myself,” she said, which ties into a personal ethos she mentioned: “Life’s about a bit of luck and a bit of push through.”
Now firmly nestled in the elite of Sydney’s business circles, Hutchinson came to USyd well-regarded by the corporate sector. At the time, she was Chairwoman of QBE Insurance, an ASX 20 company, and was previously head of Macquarie Equity Capital Markets. Her CV includes directorships of AGL Energy, Sydney Water, TAB Limited, Snowy Hydro Trading and others.
Hutchinson’s experience stands in contrast not just to Bashir, but other past Chancellors who have been historically linked to public service and retained ties to tertiary education or research throughout their careers. Ben Veness, who sat on the Senate Committee that chose Hutchinson, said involvement in the education sector was just one of “many things you’d look for in the ideal candidate,” but others see education experience as vital criteria. “The University should be run by people who understand that the proper role of higher education is something beyond providing the skills-training that business needs,” said English academic Nick Reimer.
Her aims for USyd are couched in economic terms. “My priority is about providing the highest quality education and research capacity we have,” she says. While she denies a university should be run like a business, she reminds me that “[the University is] given funding from the external world, so we are accountable to those providers of the funds.”
Fee deregulation has been the defining issue of Hutchinson’s tenure. Her support for the idea wedges her against the University community and invited criticism of her conservative credentials. She is a Liberal Party donor and previous Board Director at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). She justifies these connections in politically neutral language. “[I] am proud of supporting a woman I know and respect who has become my local member,” she says of Gabrielle Upton, the Liberal Member for Vaucluse. CIS have used the slogan “Fighting big government and the nanny state since 1976”, but “It’s nothing to do with being a right wing think tank,” Hutchinson insists, “It’s because I actually believed in their education programs and their support for Indigenous people.”
When I introduce politics she becomes guarded. “I’ve never been a member of any political party in my whole life,” she says. “I did actually march for ‘It’s Time’ down Eastern Ave,” she adds in what feels like a strategic distraction. I ask if she voted for Whitlam, which she ignores, saying “I don’t want to talk about my voting patterns.”
Hutchinson tells me she would support free tertiary education, despite never publically advocating such a policy. Government cuts to date have sent her back to the business world: “I was at a lunch yesterday looking to try and raise money from companies and private individuals to support the University, I do that all the time,” she tells me. “Quite frankly we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing in terms of the new Business School, Charles Perkins, or Australian Institute of Science without them,” she explains.
Her experience in corporate governance was key to her selection. “It is clearly necessary for whoever is Chancellor to be able to understand and contribute to the working of a billion-and-a-half dollar business,” Senate Fellow Alec Brennan told Fairfax on her appointment. Surprisingly, Hutchinson plays down the importance of her corporate experience. “What prepared me for my role was really my not-for-profit work,” she says, contending that she brings principles to the role reminiscent of a “community-based organisation” like the State Library or St. Vincent’s Health Australia, never mentioning her Chairmanship of an ASX 20 company.
The skills developed over decades atop companies and not-for-profits that many hoped would make the Senate run more smoothly have facilitated a glossy façade during turbulent times. It appears that hopes for efficiency have come to fruition. “She runs a tight ship,” said Fellow Professor Chris Murphy. She is “very business-like, a clear communicator, and very intelligent,” former Fellow Jane Spring told me, echoing a widely held view.
That efficiency has shifted more work to the Committees, which do the Senate’s “heavy lifting”. Hutchinson highlights the new Education and Research Committee, which was established last year, because the Fellows “weren’t able to spend enough time” on those issues. There are concerns however, that considerations are getting buried. “Once committees have done their work, because Senate doesn’t have access to all the same information the committee had, that places limitations on its ability to come to a different view,” said Professor Robert Van Krieken, a Fellow from the academic staff.
The Hutchinson-run Senate remains opaque to the rest of the university community. Almost all agenda items are discussed in confidence, not just commercially sensitive issues or discussions about specific individuals. At the time of the Convocation petitions last year, I met with the Chancellor and she said the main reason for confidentiality is to facilitate “robust debate”. Even disclosing the parameters of the debate “would be totally inappropriate,” she said. In her experience, “people wouldn’t feel comfortable.”
Ending that meeting, she gave me a more revealing opinion: “I don’t actually believe in hugely long minutes in the best of times,” she said. “Most of the minutes I’ve been involved in are fairly crisp, I think that’s the way they should be. Don’t need to go below ground as long as you agree on the outcome.” This narrow outcomes focus speaks to her view of difference of opinion on Senate, and perhaps the community at large.
While most Fellows are gagged by confidentiality requirements, Hutchinson speaks for the Senate. “I’m happy to talk about what we’ve agreed,” she says, directing me to articles she writes for the alumni magazine and the staff newsletter. I found little “robust debate” in ‘An Exciting Year Ahead’ or ‘Period of Vibrant Progress’.
Professor Murphy has advocated for more transparency on Senate and proposed an annual meeting with the broader university community. “I don’t see why all the Fellows shouldn’t front up at Wallace or Eastern Avenue and answer questions from the general throng,” says Murphy. It seems opposition to this proposal stems from the fear that Fellows would dissent from the party line.
When I raise issues that might divide the Senate with Hutchinson, she always emphasises their common ground. “We’re all here because we care about this institution, because we want the world to be a better place.” Her optimism seems well-intentioned, but ignores the point at hand: there are real differences of opinion across campus. Even within the Senate there are disagreements. Fellow Catriona Menzies-Pyke’s election platform read, “The current managerialist approach of university management is having a corrosive effect on the university community.”
When I broach this criticism with Hutchinson she offers no opinion. Her answers turn short and terse. On the staff cuts of 2012, “That’s a long way ago.” On the discontent evident in staff surveys, she ignores the question and repeats, “Since I’ve been here we’ve had no staff cuts.” She insists her commercial approach is reserved for support services, but in an hour-long interview Hutchinson never brought up the value of good teachers. On multiple occasions she celebrated the progress of new buildings, but didn’t want to talk about the increasing administrative burden on academics.
On last years’ library changes she tries harder to justify the decision: “It will provide for changes in roles, but the world’s changing,” she explains. “People really don’t like change, it’s very hard for people to understand change. We’ve got to communicate it better.” On communication she emphasises her consultation of students, staff and alumni alike. The Deans of Arts, Law, Business and Nursing attest to her active involvement across the faculties.
However, Hutchinson seems to overstate how thorough this engagement is. She said the University and the NTEU’s relationship was going “really well”, but the sentiment is unrequited. “We don’t have an active relationship,” said President of the University’s NTEU branch Michael Thomson. “The Chancellor like many Fellows of Senate has made no attempt to relate to staff and the NTEU.”
Student leaders were also divided. USU President Tara Waniganayaka tells me that Hutchinson “has always taken the time to offer [her] advice.” However the Presidents of the SRC and SUPRA, Kyol Blakeney and Tim Scriven, say the Chancellor keeps her distance. “The Chancellor has not had much interest in student activism,” said Blakeney. USU Vice-President Bebe D’Souza added “It is hard for student voices to be heard in a meaningful way since the removal of CSU.” It seems when Hutchinson spoke of getting to know students she meant those at the colleges, where she has regular speaking engagements.
Two weeks after the Town Hall meeting, students protested outside the Senate meeting. Hutchinson greeted them and began to shake hands. “She was smiling and friendly, but it felt fake,” said Georgia Carr of the interaction. “There were a few people who didn’t want to shake her hand… and she just beamed and said ‘Well I’m going to shake your hand anyway,’ laughing.” She spoke over students and, ironically, interrupted them with soundbites on the University’s commitment to consultation.
At the Town Hall meeting the Chancellor made a commitment to consultation: “Let me assure you that your views will be taken into account as the University formulates its response [to Pyne’s proposals].” The overwhelming majority of speakers opposed deregulation, but the University’s stance remained unchanged. When I ask if she thinks we need deregulation, she sits across from me and says “Sadly I do”. It seems consultation is still an empty promise.