Witt: Leadership rifts exposed

Bullying allegations emerge

Last updated 05:00 02/02/2013
richard handley

SAY YOU WANT AN EVOLUTION: Richard Handley, left, pictured with an Evolve sculpture last June. Donna Willard Moore, who is pictured next to Mr Handley, has launched an online petition calling for him to stay on.

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The man credited with turning around the fortunes of Witt - the Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki - is leaving under a cloud, and staff are angry. Why is the Witt board prepared to let him go? John Anthony investigates.

Allegations of bullying have surfaced in the wake of the decision to show Witt chief executive Richard Handley the door when his five-year term finishes.

The claims are made in a confidential Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki (Witt) Council review released last October and leaked to the Taranaki Daily News.

The review, conducted by Auckland outfit The Boardroom Practice Limited, involved the council and nine of Witt's senior managers reviewing the council's work.

Its report cited tension between council chairwoman Mary Bourke and chief executive Richard Handley as concerning.

Some of the comments from staff are damning. Senior management questioned the council's understanding of Witt's core business and vision. They expressed concern over the council's decision-making capability, referred to a lack of trust and respect between the two parties and said some councillors lacked financial literacy.

One comment from a member of the leadership team said: "I hold concerns about bullying and unprofessional behaviour I have not only witnessed but also received at council meetings from the chair".

Another said they were "disgusted at the lack of respect" Miss Bourke and others on the council showed Mr Handley.

"He is the reason for the institute turnaround, not the council. He does not deserve special attention but at times even common courtesy and professional respect is nil."

Miss Bourke has denied the issue has been driven by a personality clash and said there was nothing stopping Mr Handley reapplying for his job.

The Witt chairwoman has been at the helm since October 2008. She is also the chairwoman of the Taranaki District Health Board and was mayor of South Taranaki from 1992 to 2007.

Half of the Witt Council's eight members were appointed by the Minister of Education and the remaining four were appointed by the Witt Council. The Government- appointed members are Miss Bourke, deputy chairman Malcolm Inglis, Elanga Ekanayake and Ruakere Hond. The four members appointed by the Witt Council are Jackie Broughton, Paul Goldsmith, Rex Hendry and Gavin Woolley.

Miss Bourke told the Daily News this week her working relationship with Mr Handley had been very productive and professional, particularly during the first three years of his tenure. She said the council included two members who were experienced accountants and a number of members with direct experience in the tertiary sector.

She declined to comment about anything further contained in the report and was disappointed that it had been leaked.

The decision to open the role of chief executive to new applicants had nothing to do with whether a personality clash had developed between herself and Mr Handley, she said.

Instead it was to ensure Witt had the right person for the job going forward.

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"We're at a stage in the evolution of Witt where the environment has changed radically so the council has taken the option that's theirs, by right and responsibility, to go to the market."

The council was focused on Witt's future rather than looking back at recent successes, she said.

"We need to be more flexible and agile in the way that we respond to the various environmental challenges that we see looming within the sector."

Miss Bourke said the public backlash to the decision did not surprise her, however she had found it hard seeing her council copping flak for it.

"It's never easy watching your team be publicly questioned over a decision that they have responsibly and correctly made."

Mr Handley was still invited to put his name forward for the five-year contract.

In a statement sent to the Daily News yesterday Mr Handley said that while he was disappointed, he respected the council's right to make a statutory decision and would support an orderly chief executive transition.

The revelation this week that he would be leaving sparked an online petition, which by noon yesterday had attracted 150 names.

Yesterday Stratford motivational speaker Peter Mischefski told the Daily News he intended to facilitate a mid-February public forum to get support for and discuss the present situation at Witt and the position of the CEO.

An email purportedly from Witt's Maori academics circulating this week also called for Maori community groups to support the 66-year-old CEO staying on for two more years.

The email says the growth and development of Maori learning at Witt since Mr Handley started had had a very positive impact on Taranaki iwi and the wider community.

Losing Mr Handley now would jeopardise progress with Maori wananga (tertiary study) at a crucial time in Taranaki, it said.

Tertiary Education Union national industrial officer Irena Brorens, who was in Taranaki this week, said the council's decision was a shock.

"I don't understand the logic of the decision," she said.

Whitireia New Zealand chief executive Don Campbell said he did not want to comment specifically about the Witt Council's decision because he did not know details of the situation.

"However, as a general observation you would wonder why you would want to change a successful formula by changing the CEO at a time of important strategic change in tertiary education," Mr Campbell said.

Whitireia New Zealand is a Wellington tertiary institution which placed in the top third of polytechnics for student course completion rates in 2010.

Mr Campbell said Witt's results under the leadership of Mr Handley spoke for themselves.

He said the leadership provided by tertiary institute CEOs was arguably the most critical factor in their success.

"There is much evidence in the sector's history of what happens when councils get the CEO appointment wrong - the institution's performance and staff and students and communities usually suffer. It can take years to recover."

University of Otago employment law and employment relations expert professor Alan Geare said if a chairperson and chief executive were at loggerheads and differences couldn't be resolved then one would have to go.

"It wouldn't be in the interests of the institute having the chief executive and the council chair undermining each other," Mr Geare said.

But he suggested legal action against the council was an option for Mr Handley on the grounds most fixed-term contracts organisations were using today were arguably illegal.

- Taranaki Daily News

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