University of Auckland’s current Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon has announced he will be vacating his position later this year, ending his 15 year tenure as the university’s chief academic and administrative officer. Currently New Zealand’s longest serving Vice-Chancellor (and the third-highest paid public official in the country), McCutcheon has overseen his fair share of changes, closures, and (most excitingly) controversies – so many, in fact, that we’ve decided to create a timeline of the best of them.
McCutcheon confirmed he would be closing three specialist libraries and axing over a hundred support service jobs, despite protests from students and staff which culminated in an April rally attended by more than a thousand people. McCutcheon justified the staff cuts as necessary to ensure the university remained solvent. In an article published in the Herald, he told students that the libraries would be completely destroyed – instead, most of their books were to be consolidated into the main library. Those books which weren’t consolidated would be held in storage facilities off-campus, where they could be requested by students so long as 24 hours notice was given. McCutcheon contended this was a more efficient library system which ultimately benefited students, and indicated he was considering turning the library spaces into study areas. Students and staff expressed concern that the library closures would negatively impact student culture and study-life. Concerns were also raised over the university’s failure to effectively communicate what would be replacing the libraries. Around the same time as opponents blocked off Symonds street in protest, the Tertiary Education Union accused McCutcheon of running the university like a dictator, and suggested he had been unfairly limiting academics right to speak out against his decisions.
As academic and support staff braced themselves for impending job cuts it was revealed the university had spent around $33,000 in Northern Club membership fees for high-ranking academic staff. The club, located across the road on Princes Street, bills itself as an exclusive gentlemen’s club which offers “luxury Champagne tastings” and “master cheese classes”. McCutcheon defended the spending in an article published on Stuff, saying the Northern Club facilities were used to secure donations for the university. “If you want to put it in context …” he said, “in the last four years, we would have raised $200 million [through donations] … None of that funding benefits the people who are on the list of memberships”. McCutcheon indicated staff were encouraged to use the Northern Club meeting rooms to solicit these donations, saying there was “no scandal”. Tertiary Education Union spokesperson Enzo Giordani said the membership was “a bad look” at a time when around 40 jobs were being phased out. Several students also expressed disappointment with the university’s spending, with one fifth year law student labelling it “indefensable” and “inappropriate”. The student went on to say “it’s kind of shocking that … [the university] spend[s] almost $40,000 so that the Vice-Chancellor can go across the road to have a meeting rather than have it in his office.”
Alex Johnston, a spokesperson for ‘Fossil Free University of Auckland’ (FFUA), accused Stuart McCutcheon of actively blocking the university’s attempts to divest shares it owned in fossil fuel companies. 13 students occupied the Vice-Chancellor’s wing of the Clock Tower, staging a 12 hour formal sit-down protest with demands that McCutcheon support the divestment. The protestors argued it was unethical for the university to continue to ‘sponsor’ climate change. Two days after the protestors left the building they led a much larger rally through the university, reiterating their demands. Shortly after the sit-in an unnamed spokesperson for the university told The Herald that the university had not directly invested in any fossil fuel companies. They said some funds were indirectly invested in these companies, but these funds were managed by the University Foundation – an organisation separate to the University of Auckland – and therefore they were outside of the university’s jurisdiction.
Stuart McCutcheon announced the University of Auckland would be closing its famous Maidment theatre, the university’s foremost performing arts space. McCutcheon said the space was dangerously vulnerable to earthquakes, and, moreover, was “no longer fit for purpose”. Later, he indicated the university planned to replace the Maidment with a new performance center. Opponents of the move admitted the building was due a renovation, but maintained it was more than fit for purpose. Some called the decision “short sighted”, while others claimed the promise of a new venue was little more than “a carrot” that would be taken away as soon as the closure took place. The building has since been demolished, but – to the best of Craccum’s knowledge – there has been no word on whether the university will follow through on McCutcheon’s promise.
Over 100 Tertiary Education Union members marched to Stuart McCutcheon’s office to hand him a series of notices demanding across-the-board pay-rises and an overhaul of the pay-rise system. Under the then-current system, only around 10% of staff were eligible for pay-rises, and it was not possible for staff to negotiate for across-the-board pay-rises. Irked staff members claimed the University of Auckland’s ‘no-negotiation’ policy was archaic when compared to other New Zealand universities, many of whom actively negotiated pay-rises with their staff. Around the same time, the Tertiary Education Union released an article highlighting the disparity between McCutcheon’s salary (more than $680,000 a year), and other university staff, some of whom earned as little as $36,000. Following the march McCutcheon entered negotiations with the union.
Of course, every ‘best of’ album sees a few fan-favourites hit the chopping-block. McCutcheon’s (dis)honorable mentions include the Tertiary Education Union’s decision to take legal action against his policies in 2013 (and then again in 2014); the 2015 student protests against fee raises; the staff strikes of 2017; and … well, you get the idea. Like any long-serving public official, McCutcheon’s history is a motley patch-work of positive change, short lived furore, and half-forgotten scandals. It’s complicated – like Inception, or a high-school relationship.
The question now is whether McCutcheon’s legacy will be one of good or evil. Will he be remembered as a despotic overlord hell-bent on destroying the arts, or as a benevolent God come down to protect the university from the unrelenting forces of market change? No-one can answer that question but McCutcheon himself – his last few months at the helm are likely to leave a lasting impression among students and staff alike. So bring on Stuart McCutcheon’s final season! Let’s hope it’s as action packed as his last few.