Young and the Restless: The Year That Was

Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young has stamped his distinctly managerial style of authority on our University and come out on top at the end of a tumultuous year for student organisations and the Chancelry. Despite only taking over former Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb’s mantle in March 2011, Professor Young now stands as one of the longest serving members in the University’s current executive administration.

This year alone, our eleventh Vice-Chancellor has overseen the exodus of Dr Brok Glenn, Executive Director (Administration and Planning), Professor Liz Deane, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning, Teaching and Students), Professor Mandy Thomas, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Research Training) and Professor Lawrence Cram, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) from the ANU leadership team. Registrar Tim Beckett has also left the University.

All have officially either resigned or moved on to other positions although Woroni understands at least one of these vacancies was not voluntary.

On top of the retirement of Professor Robin Stanton, Pro Vice-Chancellor (E-strategies), nearly all of Professor Chubb’s appointments have seemingly been “managed out”.

Organisational change is perhaps inevitable in any leadership transition and vital for implementing a bold new vision of a leaner university, especially after Professor Chubb’s ten year reign. However, the circumstances in which they have occurred raises eyebrows and gives weight to accusations that he is out of touch with the ANU community.

First there was the dramatic announcement in April that Chancelry would be looking to cut 150 jobs and slash funding to find $40 million in budget “savings” by the end of this year.

Hundreds of staff and students descended upon the Chancelry in protest. Professor Young stood his ground, keen to flex his leadership muscle. Just weeks later, he backed down in an embarrassing about face.

Once bitten, twice shy goes the old adage. But a civil engineer by training, Professor Young was never one for fluffy concepts like the Arts. He wanted to send a strong message about shoring up the commercial viability of the ANU and picked another, in his mind, seemingly inconsequential target: the School of Music.

Whether it was because of the deceptive manner in which it was announced (claims by Chancelry the plan had been in the works for three years were directly contradicted by staff) or the striking ignorance it demonstrated about the role of the School of Music in the Canberra community, the proposed cuts galvanised our community.

Where hundreds – mostly aged Professors bedecked in tweed and weary Union officials – had turned out to protest the $40m budget cuts, thousands of students, staff and members of the Canberra arts community gathered in force to protest the end of a performance-focused Bachelor of Music and the halving of music staff and one-on-one tuition.

Music students were distraught, the campus was outraged into action and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, which relies on School of Music staff and students, pondered a grim future performing with a solo bassoonist.

It was obvious he’d picked the wrong battle to fight. It was a small school which provided high cultural value. The cost savings to come out of it were relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But, he must have thought, two back downs in the dawn of a new Vice Chancellorship does not a strong leader make.

No, Professor Young. A real leader builds a consensus, consults with the affected parties (the School of Music staff had been given no inkling of the plans nor had any idea their positions would be declared vacant overnight) and takes a moment to read the Enterprise Agreement his own staff have signed (it turned out the University didn’t have the right to spill staff positions).

Having a vision is one thing; getting others to see it is another.

But this time Professor Young was clearly onto something. Sensing the tendency of the University population (and its student associations) to become easily distracted, he ploughed on. As the fervour dissipated and students wandered off for mid-year holidays, it was quietly announced that the cuts would go ahead.

The NTEU was forced to back down and not a whisper was heard from ANUSA (Woroni’s approaches for comment were ignored). A dejected Stephen Darwin of the NTEU told Woroni “the compromise” was a “tremendously difficult decision but we had no choice”.

It has become apparent that Professor Young is a methodical (some say charmless) albeit delightfully moustachioed managerial mind who is at odds with much of the University’s culture. It’s a stark contrast from the forceful and personable presence of Professor Chubb who oversaw a decade of expansion and growth. But it’s the Vice-Chancellor we have and his vision for the University is becoming clearer. In doing so, he may already have isolated vast chunks of the staff and student population.

But in a rapidly changing higher education sector where performance indicators and metrics are the new black, Professor Young probably sees himself – to borrow the words said of another caped crusader – not as the Vice-Chancellor we deserve but the Vice-Chancellor we need.