NZ uni’s bold bet on a political Vice-Chancellor

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
28 February, 2024

When universities appoint vice-chancellors, they do not just pick a chief executive. They choose their academic leaders, who understand the value of research, teaching, and engagement with the public.

Successful candidates usually have a doctoral degree, a long list of publications, and a track record of academic appointments to fit this bill.

However, the University of Otago’s incoming vice-chancellor, Grant Robertson, has none of the above. But he was New Zealand’s Minister of Finance and, for a while, Deputy Prime Minister under Jacinda Ardern.

The question is: Is this enough to qualify for leading New Zealand’s oldest university on a salary of NZ$629,000?

The answer to this question is complicated and may depend on your political leanings.

If you are not on Robertson’s side of politics, consider what you would say if a politician you respected was appointed to a leadership position in an academic institution. Would that change your reaction? If you were outraged by Robertson’s appointment; would it have been different had it been Peter Costello or Sir Bill English?

So, let’s abstract from the concrete case of Mr Robertson for now and consider some general arguments. There are at least a few similarities between the roles of a senior cabinet minister and that of a university vice-chancellor.

Some ex-politicians bring a wealth of experience in leadership, networking, and policymaking. They have learnt how to navigate complex organisational landscapes and developed financial acumen.

In the complex landscape of higher education, these skills can be invaluable when securing funding, forming strategic partnerships and advocating for the institution’s interests.

Senior politicians are also accustomed to giving public speeches and dealing with the media, two skills helpful for boosting an institution’s profile and engaging a broad audience. By understanding political and social issues, they can also enrich a university’s contributions to public debates.

Perhaps most importantly, at least from the perspective of the university’s council, ex-politicians come with a full address book of domestic contacts. A Kiwi university could employ a star academic from Australia, Europe or America. Still, it would take that person years to understand the local landscape and build connections.

So, in principle, there are some good reasons why Otago would have considered Mr Robertson.

However, there is always a flip side to every coin. And there are equally valid reasons for speaking against the appointment of recovering politicians, not least the risk of politicising academia.

Universities are (or at least should be) pillars of academic freedom and critical thinking, and their integrity could be compromised if appointments are seen as politically motivated. Freedom of inquiry and the pursuit of truth remain crucial to the university’s mission.

Moreover, transitioning from a career in politics to the leadership of an academic institution requires acquiring and fostering a deep understanding of the academic community’s values and challenges.

Vice-chancellors must also be committed to academic excellence, research and education. They must be able to navigate the specific governance structures of universities, which differ significantly from those in political and governmental contexts.

Most importantly, vice-chancellors must have a clear intellectual framework for their jobs. Where politics is the art of compromise, academia should be guided by a commitment to seeking the truth rather than winning the next vote.

As unusual as it is to consider a former politician for the role of a university vice-chancellor, one probably should not rule it out in principle. There are good arguments for and against such political appointments. In weighing the candidates, it is therefore important to consider their personal qualities and performance record.

That takes us back to Mr Robertson. Across the political spectrum, few would deny he is a consummate politician. In his time in politics, he was one of Parliament’s best speakers and most skilful operators.

Robertson has gained much popularity due to his down-to-earth personality and sense of humour. Even his political opponents and right-leaning commentators would not have much negative to say about him personally.

This is an impressive accomplishment for someone who has held senior political positions for many years. Unlike many other politicians, notably his former boss Jacinda Ardern, Robertson has never become a polarising figure.

Nevertheless, none of this can obscure Robertson’s poor track record as finance minister. Though it was his misfortune to hold this portfolio in crisis times, he will go down in New Zealand’s history as the Minister of Finance with the loosest purse strings.

Under Robertson’s watch, the size of the New Zealand government ballooned. It did so before Covid hit, and it continued after it ended.

During Robertson’s six-year tenure, the public service grew by 30 percent. He indemnified the Reserve Bank for its large asset purchases, which have cost taxpayers more than NZ$11 billion. Despite his government’s spending spree, virtually no aspect of Kiwi life has improved.

It is not so much that ex-politicians should never be considered for jobs such as the one Robertson will now have at the University of Otago.

It is not even that Robertson brings little academic clout to the position, aside from his time as a student leader at Otago and a Bachelor of Political Science.

The problem is that Robertson’s track record as Minister of Finance does not suggest he has the skills to turn around an institution with chronic deficits like the University of Otago.

But perhaps everything that speaks against Robertson’s appointment will have the opposite effect. This is how it could work.

Where some might question Robertson’s commitment to academic freedom, he will have to work twice as hard to prove he has it. Where some may doubt his political neutrality, he cannot afford to discriminate against anyone. Where his record of managing New Zealand’s finances is unconvincing, at Otago, he can show that he has what it takes to bring a budget back to black.

Unlike other vice-chancellors who work in relative obscurity, the eyes of the public will be firmly on Robertson. It will now be up to him to demonstrate that he is up to his new job.

To read the full article on The Australian website, click here.

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