Corporate culture choking the creative?

20:27, May 05 2012

Canterbury University has launched a bid to cut three of its Arts courses. But do the reasons given for doing so stack up and is this a pointer to the type of university that Canterbury will become? PHILIP MATTHEWS investigates.

Maybe this should be a marketing law. The more effective the campaign, the easier it is to sabotage. Think of the National Party billboards defaced last year, or the way that Enjoy Coca-Cola becomes Enjoy Cocaine. To that list, add the University of Canterbury's "U Can" strategy.

With some quick alterations, "U Can" becomes "U Can't". As in, "U Can't Forge Ahead", "U Can't Make a Difference" and "U Can't Build on Your Strengths". The faces of smiling Canterbury students awaiting their bright futures are replaced by a cartoon of Ed Adelson, the university's Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the College of Arts.

This is because Adelson, who came to Canterbury in 2010 from Ohio State University, is the driving force behind a "change proposal" that could see Canterbury's Theatre and Film Studies, American Studies and Cultural Studies programmes disestablished with the loss of nine full-time positions.

Adelson can seem reclusive - he insists on answering questions from The Press in writing, through a personal assistant. At the campus protest where signs saying "U Can" have become "U Can't", he is represented by a giant papier mache head inhabited by a student; another giant head stands in for the university's business-focused Vice-Chancellor, Rod Carr.

Each has a human resources assistant with them: a smartly dressed young woman with a clipboard, and a thug in a leather mask. A corporate public face and a more aggressive private agenda are implied.

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Other students in the crowd of around 100 ask prepared questions. The Adelson and Carr impersonators respond with corporate doublespeak and veiled threats. The fake Adelson carries a thick folder of documents called "Secret strategic thoughts".

The performance is funny and also, for those present, cathartic. Anyone who has been through redundancy or restructuring knows about the frustrations of management documents and consultations where the outcome seems pre-determined. For the affected staff and students at Canterbury, this lunchtime performance is a re-enactment that lets them find some humour in the genuine sorrow of the process.

Perhaps the strangest thing is the sense of deja vu. Four years ago, university management tried to disestablish Theatre and Film Studies and American Studies. The argument then was that they were not "core" subjects.

In 2008, the proposals were beaten back by a high-profile protest and public submission campaign - some enterprising Arts students even enlisted then Prime Minister Helen Clark's support. But there were different people in change then. Carr replaced Roy Sharp in 2009. Adelson replaced Ken Strongman in 2010. And the attack on the Arts programmes started all over again.

The confidential change proposal was released to affected staff in March and The Press has a copy. The proposal cites the earthquakes, and the resulting hit to student numbers and funding. It says that the College of Arts has been the worst affected. "Difficult decisions" must be made because of "an immediate requirement" to shrink the college's budget.

A key piece of detail is the creation in October 2011 of a new decision making framework to review courses. The purpose of this new framework, the document says, is to identify courses that are not sustainable financially and/or no longer fit the university's "strategic direction".

However, the issue at the moment, the document goes on to say, is not that Arts courses are weak or unsustainable, but that the College of Arts offers more courses than it can support on current and projected income.

In short: there is nothing wrong with the affected courses but someone or something has to go. It also becomes clear that this thinking actually pre-dates the earthquakes, as the proposal says Adelson has been engaged in his strategic process for 18 months.

Small programmes are explicitly targeted, as the university wants programmes to have at least three academic staff. This would take out Theatre and Film Studies and American Studies by definition, while Cultural Studies is a major with no academic staff attached. However, before it was restructured in 2008, Theatre and Film Studies had four academics.

In addition, a review of the School of Music was launched, and possible changes may be proposed there, too.

In the case of Theatre and Film Studies, the resourcing of creative and fine arts programmes in the 21st century is cited as a challenge.

In the document, Adelson says Arts should focus on areas of historical international distinction and community outreach. It is noted that Theatre and Film Studies is not as "traditional" as Music and Fine Arts, both of which were established at Canterbury in the 19th century - which makes some wonder how the university could ever sustain courses that relate to such recent developments as cinema and electronic media. Also, the "performance" aspect of Theatre and Film Studies doesn't fit with other courses, the proposal says.

It is also suggested that Theatre and Film Studies' desire to have facilities in town does not align with the "campus master plan" to keep everything at Ilam - although the programme's long history of performances in the city and, since the earthquakes, in Addington, is seen by others as part of its outreach.

There is another snag in that comparable programmes at other universities have higher staffing levels, but as Canterbury cannot afford extra staffing, the entire programme must go. Also, it may be hard to replace such "rarefied" academic staff as the department requires, the proposal claims.

The proposal says Theatre and Film Studies enrolments are at the low end of expectations, yet it is also said that there is no problem with staff-student ratios. There is an acknowledgement that the programme's staffing may actually be too low for current and anticipated student needs.

As for American Studies, there is an argument that it is less relevant than it used to be, as no other New Zealand university offers such courses. But supporters say the flipside of the same argument is that the programme therefore makes Canterbury a specialist, especially as excellence is not in doubt. Only last year, an associate professor of American Studies, Kevin Glynn, won a prestigious Marsden Grant, shared with an associate professor of Geography. It is worth $800,000 to the university.

Elsewhere, it is acknowledged that American Studies has been "innovative" but "this is not unique in the New Zealand context". Also, its student numbers in a core year two paper are below the required minimum and enrolments have been declining, yet staff-student ratios are "appropriate". As with Theatre and Film Studies, there is an argument that American Studies should be bigger than it is, but as this is unaffordable, the whole thing must go.

The university is taking submissions on these proposals until May 18. The decision will be made in June.

The change proposal is a strangely corporate, faceless document. Across 33 pages, only one academic staff member is named: Ed Adelson, who gets to make the decision.

Others who may be laid off go unnamed, often appearing simply as "FTEs" - human resources jargon for "full-time equivalents".

In his written answers to written questions from The Press, Adelson is only slightly more forthcoming.

He writes that "the change proposal must be viewed in the larger context of a comprehensive college that offers instruction across many areas". The three programmes under consideration make up about 3 per cent of full- time College of Arts enrolments, and students enrolled in these programmes "may be surprised to find options that address career interests in related areas".

Adelson writes that "there is no truth to [the] assertion" that university management has been determined to close Theatre and Film Studies and American Studies after being defeated in 2008.

Although Music is being reviewed, Adelson seems to make it clear that it will not be axed: "Music has been an integral part of the life of the University of Canterbury for over 100 years, and will continue to have an important presence on our campus."

However, it "faces a series of challenges, both fiscal as well as strategic".

As a Press editorial pointed out last month, it seems peculiar that only three years ago, Canterbury University, led by Rod Carr, campaigned very publicly to build a $24.3 million Music facility in the centre of town.

Now the same department is being reviewed.

"The scenario has changed dramatically," Adelson writes. "The university, like so many institutions and individuals, needs to make decisions which reflect the new reality."

But the Music review process is broader "than just a fiscal appraisal". There is talk about how the university can work with community musical organisations, in Christchurch, including the Christchurch Symphony.

Ironically, 2012 is also a Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) year. Academics submit portfolios of research work and the universities are then Government funded accordingly - it was a Labour initiative to encourage research.

Academics in the threatened Arts programmes have submitted their portfolios and Adelson admits the university could benefit financially for five years even while those who generated the funding have been made redundant. He would not speculate on the level of funding but in recent years, the PBRF for Theatre and Film Studies is understood to have been between $73,000 and $103,000 per year, or between 12 and 15 per cent of its total income.

Similarly, the Marsden Grant "generates funds in support of a major research project, and we expect that, if this process leads to a disestablishment of position, the project can continue as proposed," Adelson writes.

In other words, even if the academic who won the grant gets axed, the money stays.

In his written answers to The Press, Adelson repeats that there is nothing wrong with the standard of these courses.

"In fact, what has made the current process of choosing where to concentrate resources most difficult is that there is a high level of scholarship and delivery of instruction across the college.

"It simply is not possible to eliminate programmes on the basis of sub-standard output."

He says if these programmes are not cut, something else from the College of Arts will be.

"If the programmes identified in the change proposal are deemed the incorrect ones to disestablish, we will still have to make difficult choices. Other programmes will have to be considered."

Unlike Ed Adelson, associate professor Sharon Mazer doesn't mind a face-to-face interview.

Mazer is the Theatre and Film Studies co-ordinator. She too is an American, but has been at the University of Canterbury for 18 years.

She says that after the 2008 battle, there were terms of settlement that talked about fostering recovery, due process, academic process. Prompt and accurate responses to requests for information. All the right noises were made.

"But . . . even though we have a new Vice-Chancellor, even though we have a new Pro-Vice- Chancellor, they've never actually done any of the things they promised."

 

Confusion seems to be the dominant mood. As Mazer describes it, there is academic process that should cover the discontinuation of courses. When she raises this, Carr and Adelson tell her that it's not about academic process this time but strategic process. So Mazer asks to see the strategic plan. And Adelson says he doesn't have one but he has an operational plan.

On and on it goes. Carr tells Theatre and Film Studies it's about the Free Theatre's desire for facilities in town. So a Free Theatre representative writes to assure Carr that they are using donated facilities. Then Carr says that wasn't the decisive factor anyway.

Is there something special about Mazer, or her programme? Something that irritates management?

"If every department that asked for facilities and staff was a target, there would be no university left," she says.

Since the university was restructured into competing colleges in 2004, there has been a perception of warring silos. But Mazer says she has received support from other departments and even other colleges.

"The concern is across the board," she says. "Everybody knows that what happened to us could happen to them. Any day, you can walk into your office and get a note summoning you to a meeting. Ed Adelson has repeatedly summoned me to meetings without even a topic headline. He's the boss so you have to go. You can be told anything at that meeting and you will have only pretend recourse, which is what I think this consultation period is.

"Excellence is no protection. You can have a Marsden and be in the position that Kevin Glynn is in as an individual."

There is, as noted, the years of PBRF funding to come. There is also research degree completion money from the Government every time a thesis student finishes; that money will still flow in even if the courses are disestablished.

Each PhD is worth $45,000 and each MA $22,000. With 12 theses to be completed in Theatre and Film Studies, it has been estimated that the total will be $483,000. That money will potentially support other programmes.

"Isn't that extraordinarily cynical?" Mazer says.

As for the succession issue, the idea that she and senior lecturer and Free Theatre founder Peter Falkenberg are so "rarefied" that the course could not go on without them, she says, "What happens in any department? People get hit by buses all the time. Yes, I like to think that I am so exceptional that around the world it would be impossible to replace me."

Another curious thing is that despite its size and comments made in the change proposal, Theatre and Film Studies is one of the more visible aspects of the university in the post-quake city. High-profile graduates Coralie Winn and Ryan Reynolds founded Gap Filler. The Free Theatre put on The Earthquake in Chile, a post- quake work in which the community participated. Mazer points out that the programme's first PhD graduate was academic and musician Roy Montgomery, who is also part of Greening the Rubble.

"That's the ethos of our programme in action," she says.

It amazes her that the university will brand itself with the Student Volunteer Army but does not acknowledge Gap Filler.

"I've spent a year saying, why aren't you capitalising on this? Why don't you get Ryan and Coralie to wear big banners that say, I've been educated by the University of Canterbury?"

In the absence of total transparency, Mazer still has more questions than answers. This week she was alarmed to learn, via an Official Information Act request, that the university, led by Deputy- Vice-Chancellor Ian Town, tried to "sell" Theatre and Film Studies to the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT).

The released emails make for fascinating reading.

Town approached CPIT in August 2011. It appears that the university was in secret negotiations with CPIT for six months before affected staff were even told there was a change proposal, let alone a potential "sale".

Amanda Morris, director of the Centre for Fine Arts, Music and Theatre at the university, prepared a summary of Theatre and Film Studies for CPIT. Town wrote that the university was looking at programme closures and Theatre and Film Studies may be selected "for a review of strategic fit".

At the CPIT end, staff seemed interested but wondered if Canterbury's plans were "tied in to a comms strategy which breaks this news to the staff before we have to". There was concern that CPIT not be seen to be "in cahoots" with the university.

CPIT staff kept wanting to meet with the programme leader - which would be Mazer. This never happened, but Town brought Adelson into the "confidential and somewhat sensitive" discussions. After a meeting on the Ilam campus, Adelson sent CPIT a proposal that talked of the need to develop "an asset sale and purchase agreement".

There was also talk of developing a combined, positive media strategy.

On the same day that Adelson emailed his proposal to CPIT, he informed all Arts staff about the change proposal - but there was no mention of the CPIT plan.

By early March, CPIT seems to have gone cold on the idea. In an email to other CPIT staff, its dean of Creative Industries, Jane Gregg, wrote that it would be "highly risky" for CPIT to get involved "in a long-standing and ongoing issue that they have been trying to deal with since 2008".

There was also concern about sketchy financial details.

Gregg wrote that she was stunned that Canterbury "don't even have an idea of the actual cost of delivery".

She wrote that "surely that piece of work needs to be undertaken [by them] before they even know what the issues are that need resolving".

In another email, Gregg said "the only thing doing this project would achieve is digging UC out of a hole and I can't believe that should be our job".

A month later Gregg wrote to Adelson and asked what the next steps might be, or if there was a need for more meetings. Six days later, a terse reply came from Adelson: "No need for meetings at this point." And that was the end of the matter.

In 2008 and now, university management has repeated an argument that Theatre and Film Studies has not met its wider financial obligation, which is to contribute funds into a central pool.

In his written answers to The Press, Adelson says: "All universities have 'central' costs that must be supported in order to facilitate learning, such as libraries, maintenance of physical plant and student services. In the context of current fiscal shortfalls, the college and the wider university has lost much of its capacity to 'carry' courses that only cover the direct salary costs of those who teach in them."

But his own figures show this is not necessarily the case, for Theatre and Film Studies at least.

When he put his confidential proposal to CPIT, Adelson worked out a budget. In 2010, Theatre and Film Studies' income from student funding and PBRF came to $680,195. Expenditure was $550,686 with salary costs of $433,668. That year, Theatre and Film Studies put $129,509, or 19 per cent of its revenue, into the "central" fund.

In 2011 and 2012 - the earthquake-affected years - margins have been tighter. In 2012, it is projected that Theatre and Film Studies will not contribute to the "central" fund at all, based on Adelson's figures. But the same figures for all three years show that he would be wrong to say that this course "only covers the direct salary costs" of its staff.

The relentless focus on dollars and cents might seem strange to those outside a university, who still imagine ivory towers and learning for its own sake, or universities as the critic and conscience of society. That seems to be long gone. The language of business models is all through the change proposal.

In its discussion of American Studies, "there is a pervasive sense" that such programmes "cannot be sustained in a 21st century set of expectations and fiscal realities". American Studies would need more resources to "compete successfully in a global context".

Tertiary Education Union national president Sandra Grey keeps coming back to one point: what sort of university does Canterbury want to be in the future? To her, that is the broader question, beyond "the aspect of these particular programmes".

The union has filed papers with the Employment Authority seeking a compliance order. Essentially, the university is being accused of not following its own rules around academic process.

In general terms, the College of Arts funding issue is an illustration of the move towards so-called "stem" subjects - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - which is a broad focus of Canterbury and also the National Government, especially under Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce.

In March, Grey wrote an open letter to Joyce, reminding him that he was warned in 2011 that staff at Canterbury would lose their jobs, and students would lose courses, if the Government did not intervene in the funding crisis generated by the earthquakes.

"You have refused to meet with us since we warned you of this," she wrote.

Joyce has said that he refuses to intervene in what he calls an internal university matter. But he did say that, "it doesn't surprise me that in the current environment there'll be more demand for courses such as engineering than cultural studies".

What is the bigger picture? Grey warns of "a storm that could hollow out New Zealand universities and leave them as a shadow of their former selves".

The hard focus on financial outcomes, as demonstrated by the change proposal, is part of this storm.

Grey talks of "the pseudo- market and the line management created in the current system", which counts down to the number of students and the research output.

"It means that "institutions can really focus in and say, this area is making a slight loss and nobody wants to subsidise them, therefore they go".

"Should the financial imperative be more important than debating the academic and pedagogical objectives? We think the pendulum has to go back a bit and we need to talk about those academic needs, the teaching and learning needs. We're not seeing that at the moment."

In his submission to the change proposal in support of Theatre and Film Studies, Roger Horrocks, who was the founding father of film studies at the University of Auckland, writes that, "All universities are under financial pressure these days so it always tempting to disestablish a subject area".

But he warns it can have many negative consequences.

"It can weaken a university's ability to deal adequately with contemporary culture, it cuts off an important piece of the university's intellectual history, it decreases the creative energy within the institution, it turns away interested students and it destroys something unique."

The Press