Crisis after crisis: The ‘toxic’ managerial culture in the Faculty of Medicine and Health

How student and staff trust has been eroded in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Art by Claire Ollivain

Three and a half years ago, I picked a medical science degree, like many confused seventeen-years-olds before me, because I’d always loved biology in high school but couldn’t quite close the deal on undergraduate medicine. I quickly found a genuine love for medical science. While it is true that its students are occasionally awkward and often competitive, I have never met a more earnest group of people in my life. One of my first university memories is of a lecture introducing diabetes where a lecturer wore a shirt extolling the virtues of the pancreas. I am also deeply fond of the Anderson Stuart Building, a building that despite Honi’s postulation that it was haunted in my first week on campus, has since become my second home. 

In noting these things, I would be remiss to ignore the very public crises of management that have coloured my years here. In the first semester of 2019, on my way to anatomy and histology classes, I would walk through corridors where flyers and posters begged for Anderson Stuart to be saved. The building’s staff were being threatened at the time with eviction, and I tried to show solidarity in whatever small ways were possible. 

In 2020, against the backdrop of a pandemic that ought to have strengthened the imperative for basic science teaching, staff in my own major of physiology were threatened with losing their jobs. I rallied with them, fought police repression and even participated in a historic occupation of the F23 building to try and protect their jobs. This year I watched as several of my friends who had gone on to start their honours years were threatened with eviction from the Medical Foundation Building, once again under the auspices of safety concerns and an allegedly ‘toxic’ workplace culture. Over the past few weeks, I resolved to speak with staff, unionists and student activists to try to understand exactly why the Faculty of Medicine and Health (FMH) has generated these yearly crises.

Jamie*, a former FMH staff member who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, describes a once drastically different workplace culture and attributes recent changes to the appointment of the inaugural Dean, Professor Robyn Ward, in July 2018. Before that time, they said that while management was not perfect, staff felt that their opinions were valued by Heads of School and that they collaborated freely and extensively. 

Ward was appointed three years ago to oversee the centralisation of what were once seven separately administered schools — Medical Sciences, Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health and Health Sciences — into a single “mega-faculty.” Jamie says that staff in the School of Medical Sciences (SoMS) perceived themselves as particularly targeted, and that their trust in faculty leaders has been most especially eroded by a “lack of collegiality or consultation” over the last two years.

Jamie believes that the targeting of staff in SoMS began in late 2018 when staff who worked in wet laboratories (those that use biological material or liquids) in the Anderson Stuart Building were told that they would be evicted on the grounds that their laboratories did not adhere to safety standards. Initially, Ward argued that the workplace health and safety risks were so intolerably severe that they could not be remedied by usual procedures, and mandated full relocation to other facilities by, at the latest, mid-2019. Staff say they were confused by this sudden development on two accounts. First, many staff reported that immediately before this proposal, their labs were found to meet Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) standards or had received minor, rectifiable recommendations. Additionally, management were extremely reticent to provide any detailed WHS reports on which the claim that the laboratories were unsafe was based.  

Rob Boncardo, a member of USyd’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch committee, says that these actions on management’s behalf led staff to seek NTEU involvement to wage a dispute with the Faculty on their behalf. Boncardo argued that given the lack of WHS evidence, management’s initial actions were a breach of the University’s enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) as they did not engage in a formal change process, in which consultation and discussion would be required to move staff from the Anderson Stuart Building. This motivated the NTEU to challenge the decision “with the Provost, the Vice Chancellor and ultimately arbitration by the Fair Work Commission.” In October 2019, the Fair Work Commission ruled in favour of staff in the Anderson Stuart Building and declared that the University should have entered into genuine bargaining through a formal change process.

Both Jamie and Rob tell me that there was a noticeable shift in the narrative of management during the dispute. After it became clear that FMH had insufficient evidence to support evictions on WHS grounds, they began to prosecute an argument that the staff deserved better facilities and so ought to be moved out of their presently suboptimal spaces in the Anderson Stuart Building. 

Jamie says that staff were sceptical of this narrative as they had seen “management promises of new buildings and facilities fail to materialise” in the past and ultimately felt that the move was done to specifically demoralise and separate staff who had previously become accustomed to close collaboration. Campbell Watson, a fourth-year student in the Faculty and long-time activist, tells me that this was the first time that students became aware of what he described as a longer term ‘culture war’ between management and SoMS staff. Watson also recalls the high levels of staff militancy and the horror of many students when they discovered how their teachers were being treated.

In 2020, Watson was a key organiser in the campaign to Defend Medical Science Education, an involvement he says was motivated by his belief that the staff who were to be made redundant were “some of the best people” who had ever taught him. In late 2020, Professor Sarah Young, the current Head of the School of Medical Sciences, put forward a Draft Change Proposal that made redundant positions in the disciplines of Physiology and Pathology. Jamie was one of the many staff members whose job was ultimately made redundant under the proposal, and notes that several attempts to be genuinely consulted on the proposal were rebuffed and that directly negotiating with management was difficult.

The justification for the proposal was argued on two grounds: a) an attempt to further centralise teaching and b) to address what was argued to be overstaffing of the Physiology and Pathology disciplines. Physiology staff reported to management that the data being used to calculate the full time equivalent (FTE) value of their work was incorrect and did not take into account its full scope. In one other incident, management was especially combative, insisting staff were not being paid for a bioengineering class that staff knew they were being paid to teach.

Undergraduate and higher degree by research (HDR) student attempts at consultation were also rebuffed. Watson recalls a meeting with Sarah Young after the Revised Change Proposal was released, in which he and other students demanded that they be given the opportunity to make submissions and be consulted in the negotiating process. Watson describes Young’s approach in the meeting as “completely retaliatory” as she referred to technical descriptions showing that students did not need to be consulted on matters of staff employment.

Everyone I spoke to noted that after the Anderson Stuart incident, management appeared to now be weaponising the terms of the enterprise bargaining agreement to their benefit, particularly against concerned students. Jamie notes that while the EBA required the Faculty to demonstrate that it was consulting staff, they were not obliged to make concessions to anyone, and appeared unwilling to do so throughout the process. In one survey conducted by the Defend Medical Science Education campaign in 2020, 69.17% of the 132 SoMS staff they surveyed reported feeling bullied by the actions of senior management.

Despite a large-scale campaign of resistance involving two disputes issued by the NTEU and a mobilisation of both staff and students, SoMS ultimately proceeded with the majority of the planned staff redundancies. Kelton Muir de Moore, a casual staff member in Physiology and member of the NTEU, remembers the campaign as a moment of unprecedented staff mobilisation, describing the campaign as “the best level of colleagueship I’ve seen in my time in Physiology.” Although relationships between staff had become tense, Muir de Moore says that the “struggle against the brutal management of staff gave staff a commonality that nurtured friendships and desires to fight the mismanagement of the University.”

This year, in a sequel befitting of a scripted drama, honours students were threatened with eviction from the Medical Foundation Building (MFB) and asked to change their supervisors on short notice. The eviction was initially justified on safety grounds by the fact that an unknown white powder and broken glass were found underneath a poster criticising management. Many of the same staff and postgraduate students that were evicted from Anderson Stuart in 2019 were relocated to MFB, and the culture of the building has been described by staff to be particularly sceptical of senior management. Subsequently, the eviction of honours students was justified on the basis of a supposedly “toxic” workplace culture within the building.

Boncardo explains that the NTEU closely engaged with the affected students in the MFB as losing honours students can “significantly impact staff workload provisions” and make them appear as if they were not performing their job adequately. Initially, Boncardo says, FMH management did not respond to NTEU appeals for mediation and proceeded to contact students informing them of an intent to evict regardless. The NTEU subsequently used a right of entry protocol to audit the evidence for the toxic workplace culture. The evidence, Boncardo says, was found to have been sourced from only six Faculty members, all of whom were members of the senior management team, and only one of whom worked in the building. At this point, Boncardo recalls, staff began to suspect that the phrase “toxic workplace culture” was management’s way of describing the strong union culture in the building. 

Students, helped by the NTEU and the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), attempted to bargain with the Faculty and wrote individually and collectively in order to stay in the building and continue their original projects. The Faculty eventually reneged on good faith negotiations with the NTEU and the students were told that they would be moved out of the building at the end of the week. Subsequently, a meeting was held between management and students in which Boncardo attended in his capacity as a representative of the NTEU and the interests of students. Despite the students’ wish for Boncardo to remain in the meeting, management asked him to leave. Boncardo describes these actions as a “breach of the University’s enterprise bargaining agreement” and a “transparent effort” at union busting. Eventually, after two weeks of negotiations, the Faculty decided to allow the honours students to remain in their building. 

An honours student affected by the incident, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, described the personal toll of the two weeks on their education. The student said that they “lost weeks of work and what feels like years off my life [and] I really cannot emphasise enough the mental and emotional toll. Several students expressed to me that they were finding it impossible to sleep and eat properly as they were feeling too hyped up by the adrenaline, stress and uncertainty around the decision and our meetings with management.” 

The student further described dealings with management as “devoid of empathy.” Several honours students affected by the project have reportedly lost their trust in the Faculty and have strongly reconsidered their intentions to undertake further studies. 

The SRC President, Swapnik Sanagavarapu, who was heavily involved in assisting students as a representative during the incident, confirmed that management were particularly hostile during meetings and did not seem to want a resolution. When asked to speak generally about accusations of a toxic culture in the faculty, Sanagavarapu said that in his experiences advocating for students, he felt that there was no faculty that “has had so many instances back to back of people being treated so poorly (by management).” 

The NTEU has since conducted an audit into the workplace culture of the Medical Foundation Building and found that there was “no evidence of a toxic or urgently unsafe workplace in the area.” Overwhelmingly, respondents to the NTEU’s audit said that the space was safe and had a positive culture among colleagues. 69% of respondents, however, felt that the senior management of the Faculty negatively impacted the culture of the building. On 27 May, the NTEU recommended that further consultative processes with staff should be taken by senior management in order to best meet their needs. As Boncardo surmises, “while this process began with management cruelly accusing staff of cultivating a “toxic workplace culture”, it has ended with a rigorous and wide-ranging audit showing that it is in fact management themselves who have a lot of work to do to improve their relations with staff and students.”

Senior management may well have had an important (even good) idea when they set out to establish this mega-faculty. Change of this scale, however, requires a well articulated vision, clear communication, regular trustworthy consultation and authenticity where actions match a shared vision. The narrative so far seems sadly lacking in all of these attributes. Staff, students and unionists all appear to agree on one thing: FMH management have, for multiple years now, been engaging in a campaign of obfuscation, bullying and managerialism. If a toxic culture exists in the Faculty of Medicine and Health it is surely not one that exists amongst its students and teachers. Instead, it is one created by senior managers who have, thus far, unsuccessfully tried to divide and conquer them.