The entire Academic Senate at the University of Wollongong (UOW) has been dismissed to make way for a new governance model, which critics say will lead to “greater dominance by management”.
UOW’s University Council (the University’s governing authority) dismissed the Academic Senate (UOW’s peak academic body) at a meeting on 9 April, after an internal review found “a need to alter Academic Senate membership”.
However, members of the Academic Senate say they were never consulted on the latest model, and that the “complicated” provisions tip the balance of power away from elected Senators.
Senators have confirmed to Honi that they have secured the numbers to convene an extraordinary meeting of the Academic Senate.
A UOW spokesperson said the changes were made after “extensive consultation” and would “increase student representation, improve gender balance and enable more diverse staff representation.”
Dylon Tomasi, the Wollongong Undergraduate Student Association’s Education Officer, said “the dissolution of the Senate has been done to crush opposition to the incoming attacks being levelled at staff and students. Management has already pushed through a two year pay freeze, staff department restructures and almost 200 redundancies, but more is on the cards.”
“A breach of trust”
Changes to the Senate were first floated in late 2020 by a Working Group led by Professor Joe Chicharo, UOW’s Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor.
The Working Group’s first proposed model was rejected by a majority of Senators at a meeting on 3 March 2021.
While minutes are not yet publicly available for that meeting, Honi understands that the Senate passed a motion calling for the consultation period to be extended to May, to include UOW’s incoming Vice-Chancellor Patricia Davidson.
However, the Working Group instead proposed an updated model to University Council with “important refinements,” which Senators said were even more drastic than the first model. The updated model was the one passed by Council in April, without consulting the Senate.
“We [Academic Senators] asked to have representatives at the [University Council] meeting and in further consultation, but we were denied,” says elected Senator Marcelo Svirsky, who labelled the Council’s move “a breach of trust” and “a slap in the face to elected Senate members.”
At its April meeting, the University Council also summarily dissolved the Academic Senate, meaning that sitting members had their terms terminated early. Senators’ two-year terms were to end on 30 June 2021.
As such, questions remain about whether the Senate’s dismissal was legitimate. The Electoral Rules were also amended on 9 April.
Staff and students have criticised the lack of consultation as a broader symptom of how the University Council viewed the Academic Senate as merely one of its “subcommittees.” This is in contrast to Universities Australia’s designation of Academic Senates as “peak bodies.”
Professor Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, Acting President of the NTEU’s UOW branch, said that the model “will need remedial work for months afterwards. This is a problem with taking a non-consultative approach as a leader.”
“It makes sense that Paul Wellings [the outgoing Vice-Chancellor] has done this in his lame duck period,” said Alec Hall, an elected student Senator. “Wellings has consistently been whittling down democratic elements the entire time he’s been at UOW.”
Heads of School classified as ‘elected members’
Under the new model, the Academic Senate will be reduced from 83 active members to 46, and will contain less Senators elected by all staff or students.
Currently, there are 46 elected Senators who are elected by Faculty staff, 31 unelected ex officio members, and 6 student Senators.
The new model will see the proportion of ex officio members, as defined by the University, decrease. However, four Heads of School and three Associate Deans are now included as ‘elected members’, even though they would be ‘elected’ by internal committees, and that there would only be one eligible candidate.
Taking this into account, 20 out of 46 Senators would not be elected by staff or students, which is an increase in unelected Senators.
This goes against the findings of the Winchester Review, a 2017 independent review of UOW’s governance, which recommended that there be more elected Senators.
Critics are concerned that the new model will shift power “away from academic representation to greater dominance by university management.” “The Academic Senate will not have voices that make the supervision of academic quality a high-quality process.” said Svirsky.
Unlike the previous model, certain Faculty spots on the Senate are also reserved for high-level academics, which Svirsky said could further favour individuals in senior positions at UOW.
With current Senators’ positions now in doubt, the new Electoral Rules have been slammed as a “hurried and poorly considered plan,” even as fresh elections loom in May.
According to an online petition started by Senators, “key roles are missing” and “membership is unclear and inconsistent.”
Svirsky said that staff viewed the new model as “complicated, convoluted and totally impractical,” with Probyn-Rapsey stating that “it is not even clear how the voting for key positions can be administered given the level of impracticality that has been introduced.”