Business is booming.

Slights, spats and a supermarket hunt: Call for scalps over uni’s wild ride

With Heywood out of the picture, the community is asking: what went wrong?

Heywood’s arrival

It was clear from the moment Heywood arrived in Armidale that UNE was in for an interesting ride. “She’s either going to take us to the moon or drive us over a cliff,” one executive was heard saying.

Her manner was off-putting to some. At her induction session, she overpowered three other recruits who said they had taken jobs at the university to change wood. That reason was rubbish, said Heywood, who argued they should have joined UNE because it was an employer of choice.

One employee was surprised when Heywood spoke for 70 minutes at an initial meeting without asking a single question. “It wasn’t what she said, but what I didn’t say,” the staffer said. “She had to listen to us and understand the university.”

Ahead of a meeting with a minister, she told a senior staff member that “you might want to iron your skirt or buy yourself a smart dress”. Four months into her tenure, she spoke at a ticket-raising event attended by more than 200 people and described the project co-ordinator as “nauseatingly enthusiastic”.

Many were enthusiastic about Heywood’s ambition. Former vice-chancellor Annabel Duncan had been deeply committed to staff but was introverted and tended to mumble. Some speculated that Harris, who declined to comment for this story, wanted a personality to promote and shake up the university. He said at the time that Heywood had “an impressive academic career spanning several countries”.

University of New England Vice Chancellor Brigid Heywood resigned in August after she was accused of common assault.Credit:Rhett Wyman

A biological scientist by training, she had held leadership positions at mid-level universities in the UK and New Zealand. In her previous job at the University of Tasmania, she drew the ire of the women’s collective for resisting calls to deport the man who sexually abused Grace Tame, the 2021 Australian of the Year.

As she pushed her agenda through, staff struggled to keep up with the policy changes. The reporting lines were confused. Recruitment was opaque. Casual staffing was precarious, with contracts sometimes left to the last minute until they were renewed.

In May 2020, senior academic Jonathan Powles had his lawyer write a letter to Harris and vice-chancellor Jan McClelland alleging that he had been subjected to adverse action by Heywood and the university.

According to the letter, Powles had raised concerns about Heywood’s management style with McClelland after an outside consulting firm found the management team was not functioning well. When Heywood became aware of this, she questioned his loyalty and “management maturity” and withdrew her permission for him to attend a conference in Canberra.

Powles complained to Harris and McClelland, and they assured him that they had spoken to Heywood and the withdrawal of her permission was purely coincidental.

But from that date, the letter claimed, Heywood “engaged in relentless and systematic harassment” of Powles that included her sending him countless emails, requesting 19 reports over a six-day period, raising issues with his performance and ultimately suspended him for alleged wrongdoing without providing details.

Powles later resigned.

In July 2020, Heywood introduced a new strategic plan titled “Time for Change”, including 200 voluntary redundancies and a more centralized reporting structure with a savings target of $20 million per year.

Heywood, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said at the time that the program offered a sustainable foundation for future growth. “Currently, UNE’s revenue does not cover our costs and has not for some time,” she wrote to staff.

Current and former employees say the layoff program was managed by an outsider who did not have the company’s knowledge to decide whose applications should be rejected. Layoffs were enthusiastically adopted by employees at the top of their field, who quickly found new jobs and people who were already writing pension plans. Some business units were left under power, putting pressure on remaining staff.

SafeWork has issued a notice to the university to provide copies of exit interview responses, a record of overtime hours and a record of psychological injury claims dating back to the implementation of the strategic plan, as well as the job description of an employee who took his own life . This investigation does not concern Harris or Heywood personally, but concerns the university broadly.

A spokesman said: “SafeWork NSW is aware of the death of a University of New England employee in March 2022. SafeWork NSW is making inquiries into the circumstances surrounding the death and further comment is not available at this time.”

When concerns about Heywood’s management style were raised informally with Harris around this time, he saw them as natural opposition to the changes she introduced. He said when the council was recruited they were looking for someone “a little bit revolutionary”.

UNE Chancellor James Harris.

UNE Chancellor James Harris.

In September 2020, the staff issued a vote of no confidence in the university council. Former NTEU representative Tim Battin said he moved the motion because he was concerned the council’s selection committee had not carried out due diligence when it appointed Heywood. “I said, ‘we actually have to make the municipality the target here,'” Battin said.

The proposal was adopted, but the turnout was only 12 percent. Most employees were at a meeting about the voluntary dismissal.

Community

Armidale residents are avid Game of Thrones watchers at Australia’s oldest regional university. UNE has endured the disgrace of two former chancellors being referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption – although neither resulted in criminal charges – and a colorful row between its chancellor and vice-chancellor in 2008 involving allegations about a BMW bought with university funds and the mysterious disappearance of a Noritake tea set. (The then vice-chancellor, who was accused by the chancellor of failing, was later cleared of wrongdoing.)

In September last year, the society’s Facebook pages lit up with the allegation that UNE’s vice-chancellor had chased a non-mask-wearing mother around Woolworths, claimed she was a doctor and asked to see the woman’s medical exemption. Her quarry, Monique Bezzina, said Heywood was so persistent that other shoppers intervened to protect her. She later wrote to Heywood, the police and local state councilor Marshall.

“It was honest to God, the scariest thing,” Bezzina said. “I’ve worked in human resources and with the public for 15 to 20 years and I’ve never seen anyone act like this.”

Neither Heywood nor the council ever responded to Bezzina. She did not file a formal complaint with the police.

But six months later, Heywood would come to the attention of the police after a bizarre incident at an International Women’s Day. A 16-year-old schoolgirl mentioned racism in a small group that included Heywood. According to the girl’s father, and what is alleged, Heywood responded by licking her finger and smearing it on the girl’s face. “Oh, you’re brown, yes, you’re right,” Heywood allegedly said. “It won’t come off.”

This time, police charged Heywood with common assault and behaving in an offensive manner in a public place, and Heywood resigned five days later, on 5 August. She denies the charges and will defend the charges in court. In announcing her resignation, Harris thanked Heywood for her “significant contribution” to the university. The schoolgirl’s father said the university’s media release and its failure to respond to his letters had aggravated his daughter’s complaint.

“She said it made her feel worthless,” he said. “They have not approached us once. My daughter would have studied at UNE, but no longer.”

The university declined to answer specific questions about the chancellor’s handling of complaints against Heywood. It said in a statement that it acknowledged “the deep hurt felt by many” regarding the allegations against Heywood, but could not comment further while the case was before the court.

“UNE understands that some believe it should have communicated more quickly with the community,” the statement said. “This was a very complex and serious matter and we hope that UNE staff, students and the wider university community understand that the university had to ensure, and ensured that due process was followed.”

Earlier this week, the university announced that acting vice-chancellor Simon Evans would become the interim vice-chancellor. His immediate task would be to build a stronger workplace culture.

According to NTEU, the university has almost 100 vacancies.

UNE law professor Mark Lunney said the chancellor’s handling of Heywood and the council’s failure to acknowledge or apologize pointed to a deeper structural problem. If universities wanted to corporatize, they should have the same reporting mechanisms as public companies, he said.

“If people have lost confidence in the transparency and accountability mechanisms, then you have a problem because people don’t believe their complaints will be adequately addressed,” Lunney said.

“You need a chancellor to be able to stand up to the vice-chancellor at times.”

“There’s this whole idea that a university is a place of free speech. I wonder if anyone really believes that anymore.”

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