By Madison Lee

In 2014, Western University in Ontario was shaken up by a convergence of scandals centred around our current Vice-Chancellor Amit Chakma. In this case, Professor Chakma was accused of hypocrisy for making vicious financial cuts to jobs and resources, then utilising a clause in his contract to double his salary. After a vicious backlash from the university community, Professor Chakma and the university were forced to spend nearly $100,000 on a public relations initiative that included a ‘100 days of listening tour’, finally talking to his community. The people Professor Chakma spoke to were under the impression that he already knew all of the problems present at the university, and that the listening tour was merely just a gesture to save face. In response to this, a more candid ‘alternative’ 100 days of listening was implemented, whereby students and staff expressed their concerns, analysis, and opinions for 100 days on a Tumblr blog titled noahconfidenze, – a nod to the motions of no-confidence that were passed through the Faculty association at the time to express the lack of faith in Professor Chakma’s capability to lead the institution. I read through all 100 posts, to see what lessons he might (or should) have learned and how these are related to the current University-wide ‘restructure’ occurring right now at our own University.


Lesson One: Neo-Liberal Style Governance does not Work

A purely-profit motive at a place like a university goes against the key values of higher education and in fact leads to a decline in quality of education at the price of an increase in the size of the pockets of those sitting in administration. Things like liberal intellectual enquiry, innovative research, student satisfaction, and staff wellbeing are all at stake when the only factor that determines ‘success’ is the number of grants supplied to departments. Emily Abrams Ansari posted to noahconfidenze: “Increasingly, Western professors are not considered successful researchers if they are not generating money for the university, whether through grants or research commercialization. The Arts and Humanities (as well as numerous other non-science disciplines) struggle greatly for attention and respect under this kind of model, because our research is typically neither expensive nor marketable to industry. Nevertheless, what we can achieve in these fields with very little money, and sometimes none at all, is quite remarkable.”


Lesson Two: The Vice-Chancellor is a Public Servant

When a leader of a university loses sight of the purpose of their position and instead becomes infatuated with the bottom line and revenue-raising, the very fabric of the university begins to fray and then eventually disintegrate. The community at Western raised this point again and again. Western’s Professor Alison Hearn posts to noahconfidenze: “…Dr. Chakma: you are at the top of the list of pressing issues… you as a symptom of a larger set of structural problems, as a university president who thinks of himself as a ‘leader’ in the style of a corporate CEO…” Hearn continues: “I fear that all this leadership rhetoric has blinded you to what being the ‘leader’ of a public university, ie: a public servant, could and should mean: a person who supports, defends and champions the interests of his academic community, of which he is a valued member.”



What Changes Did He Make Instead?


  • Avoid being the Face: Now, at UWA, Professor Chakma did this by first changing the governance structure of the university, doing away with Faculties and creating Schools and Discipline Groups. A source describes that this change “looks on the surface like it would reduce ‘top-down’ authority, but in practice just concentrates it in the Heads of Schools and School Managers who are appointed by management”. In other words, Professor Chakma creates the environment by which some state-of-emergency-type structural deficit is cause for Heads of Schools to do his dirty work for him. This is evident in the backlash received by Social Sciences Head of School Amanda Davies, who is responsible for the infamous ‘Proposal for Change’ which sparked the UWA student movement. Although, what Professor Chakma probably didn’t anticipate from this lesson is that now students are mad at not only him, but also people like Davies who are only just starting out on their career in management.


  • Suffocate Permanent Staff: Secondly, it seems Professor Chakma’s reorganisation of the governance system at UWA favours the dwindling of permanent positions for academics and an increased reliance on casual and sessional academic positions. Why is this important? The employment landscape for academics in Australia has never been so precarious. The few permanent staff remaining in universities rely heavily on casual staff to make sure that their workload is appropriately managed so that they can still deliver a decent quality of education. A source stated that “the workloads of permanent staff have increased to unsustainable levels, pressuring them to use their research grants to fund teaching buyouts as well as to pay for more research assistants. This means that for many years much of the actual teaching work…has been done by casual & sessional staff, paid for from the external research grants obtained by the dwindling number of permanent academic staff.”


  • Avoid Engaging in Public: Professor Chakma learnt to avoid confrontation with activists. An activist from Western described Professor Chakma’s conduct in public, saying “he’s remarkably easy to provoke in public into saying wildly stupid, compromising things.” This is certainly true when you listen to his widely panned interview with ABC Radio Perth, in which he accidentally disclosed that eight other schools were under threat. In addition, when confronted during the occupation of the Chancellery, he gave answers that were deemed by those present to be condescending and disjointed, inflaming students’ emotions. It is also telling that the Vice-Chancellor has now only engaged in extremely controlled environments including having steak and wine with Guild Representatives during the Senate dinner, and during the Convocation Spring Meeting.


  • Avoid Voluntary Disclosure of Information: There is a looming state-of-emergency structural deficit at UWA that nobody is really sure actually exists. There have been numerous attempts to get the UWA administration to release the data underpinning the Proposals for Change but at every advance, there was a denial. This top-secret data set is only becoming more elusive as activists are having to go to more extreme lengths to try to get some sort of justification for the loss of some 400 jobs and the devastation of any trust held in their University’s management. In one case, Professor Chakma accidentally admitted that $20 million of this $70 million deficit was what he ‘wishes’ he could spend on infrastructure. In the same breath of saying “we are not a rich university”, he then promised to spend upwards of $80 million on infrastructure. This further muddies the waters over whether this deficit actually exists. 


  • Weaponise Language: Professor Chakma’s leadership style indeed seems to be a weaponisation of leadership language like ‘student satisfaction’ and ‘responsibility’ to front the fact that students’ wellbeing is deteriorating, and nobody is taking responsibility for it. On the noahconfidenze Tumblr, Leif Schenstead-Harris described Chakma’s weaponisation of language:

“I am more concerned to speak to your symbolic nature, in fact, for you represent at this moment a concentrated and intense vision of a corporate academy which works by exploiting those who produce and perform for it: ‘mobilizing’ its researchers for commercial use; ‘incentivizing’ its teachers to lure students into ever-larger lecture halls; and, in the final analysis, capitalizing on the abstraction of a community’s intellectual labours which you then sell back to us as a ludicrously packaged ‘student experience.’ In your administration, along with your colleagues in corporate vision, you serve values that I cannot and will not recognize: venality, greed, and the abuse of language. To watch you is to witness a triumph of the falsity of prestige over the true spirit of pride. You administer a university of opportunism and risk, and in doing so you close down possibilities for fearless and caring leadership.”


In fact, I think that Professor Chakma was likely never willing to listen, negotiate or meet in the middle. We cannot expect this from him. Professor Albert Katz describes Chakma’s ‘consultation’ on changes made under his administration: “…I have heard that decisions were made after ‘wide consultation’. That was rot then and remains so today. Decisions were made, a limited number of trusted allies would be consulted and regardless of input, the decisions would be implemented.” It is interesting to note that this Change Management Committee seems to reflect this selective engagement process.

We can speculate all we like on what Professor Amit Chakma learned from his scandals at Western. But now I would like to ask Pelican readers: what is it that you have learned?


The Vice-Chancellor declined a request for comment on this article.





By Pelican Magazine

Pelican is the second-oldest student publication in Australia and the only independent paper at UWA. If you like having opinions, writing, drawing, and/or free tickets to local events, then Pelican is the place for you! We print six themed issues a year, and run a stream of online content.

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