Slights,spit and a supermarket chase:call for scalps over uni’s wild ride

An allegation that University of New England vice chancellor wiped her saliva on a schoolgirl’s face has engulfed the chancellor,who was aware of numerous earlier complaints related to her management style since 2020 and an exodus of executive staff.

James Harris is facing pressure to resign as chancellor at UNE,which was founded on the land and homestead donated by his great-grandfather in 1937. His role overseeing Brigid Heywood’s three years as vice chancellor has raised questions about the function and accountability of university councils.

Heywoodresigned last month after police charged her with common assault and behaving in an offensive manner. She has denied the charges and will face court on Monday.

The University of New England was founded in the 45-room homestead Booloominbah,donated by the great-grandfather of chancellor James Harris in 1937.

The University of New England was founded in the 45-room homestead Booloominbah,donated by the great-grandfather of chancellor James Harris in 1937.Supplied

It has also emerged that SafeWork NSW is investigating working conditions at the university dating to July 2020,including whether they contributed to the suicide of a staff member. (There is no suggestion that Heywood or Harris are personally under investigation for the suicide. That investigation is more broadly into the working environment of that staff member.)

At least a dozen former staff have signed non-disclosure agreements with the university following their departure.

Local MP Adam Marshall also raised concerns about Heywood with Harris last year after she allegedly pursued and filmed a woman through a supermarket for not wearing a mask during pandemic restrictions.

National Tertiary Education Union branch president Craig Johnson said the council had brushed aside concerns around workplace culture and risk management for years.

“There were governance problems at the university well prior to the resignation of[Heywood],” Johnson said. “We understand that all of this was pointed out to the chancellor. It’s the thing most commonly raised with me:the chancellor needs to go to fix the place.”

Heywood’s controversial tenure is still reverberating around the northern NSW town of Armidale. The professoriat has called for a public reckoning into problems at the university,with any evidence of maladministration and misconduct to be brought forward and non-disclosure agreements to be over-ridden.

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,” an executive was overheard saying.

Her manner was off-putting to some. At her staff induction session,she took umbrage with three other recruits who said they had taken jobs at the university for a tree change. That reason was rubbish,said Heywood,who asserted they should have joined UNE because it was an employer of choice.

One staff member was taken aback when Heywood spoke for 70 minutes at an introductory meeting without asking a single question. “It was not what she said,but what I didn’t say,” the staffer said. “She was supposed to be listening to us and understanding the university.”

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

Many were enthused by Heywood’s ambition. Previous vice chancellor Annabel Duncan had been deeply committed to the staff,but was introverted and tended to mumble. Some speculated that Harris,who declined to comment for this story,wanted a personality who would 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 charged with common assault.

University of New England vice chancellor Brigid Heywood resigned in August after she was charged with common assault.Rhett Wyman

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

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

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

According to the letter,Powles had raised concerns about Heywood’s leadership style with McClelland after an external consulting firm found the executive team was not highly functioning. 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 alleged,Heywood “engaged in a relentless and systematic harassment” of Powles that included her sending him multitudinous emails,requesting 19 reports over a period of six days,raising issues with his performance and ultimately standing him down for alleged misconduct without providing particulars.

Powles later resigned.

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

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

Current and former staff say the redundancy program was managed by an outsider who did not have the corporate knowledge to determine whose applications should be rejected. Redundancies were enthusiastically adopted by staff at the top of their field who quickly found new jobs and people who were already writing retirement plans. Some business units were left under-powered,heaping pressure onto remaining staff.

SafeWork has issued the university with notice to produce copies of exit interview responses,a summary of overtime hours and a summary of compensation claims for psychological injuries dating to the implementation of the strategic plan,as well as the job description for an employee who took his life. This investigation does not relate to Harris or Heywood personally,but is into the university broadly.

A spokesperson said:“SafeWork NSW is aware of the death of a staff member of the University of New England in March 2022. SafeWork NSW is making enquiries relating to the circumstances of 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 viewed them as natural resistance to the changes she was introducing. He said when council recruited,they were looking for someone “a little bit revolutionary”.

UNE chancellor James Harris.

UNE chancellor James Harris.Supplied

In September 2020,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 performed due diligence when it appointed Heywood. “I said,‘we’ve actually got to make council the target here’,” Battin said.

The motion was carried but voter turnout was only 12 per cent. Most staff were at a meeting about the voluntary redundancy program.

The community

Armidale residents are keen observers of the game of thrones at Australia’s oldest regional university. UNE has weathered the ignominy of two former chancellors being referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption – though neither resulted in criminal charges – and a colourful spat between its chancellor and vice chancellor in 2008 that involved allegations of 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 purloining,was later cleared of wrongdoing.)

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

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

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

But six months later,Heywood would come to the attention of police,after abizarre incident at an International Women’s Day event. 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 smudging it on the girl’s face. “Oh,you’re brown,yes,you’re right,” Heywood allegedly said. “It’s not coming off.”

This time,the policecharged Heywood with common assault and behaving in an offensive manner at a public place,and Heywood resigned five days later,on August 5. She denies the allegations 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 grievance.

“She said it made her feel that she’s worthless,” he said. “They haven’t reached out to us once. My daughter would have studied at UNE but not anymore.”

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 charges facing Heywood but could not comment further while the matter was before the court.

“The UNE understands that some believe it should have communicated more swiftly with the community,” the statement said. “This was a highly complex and serious matter and we hope that UNE staff,students and the broader university community understands that the university needed to ensure,and did ensure,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 the NTEU,the university has nearly 100 vacant positions.

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

“If people have lost trust in the transparency and accountability mechanisms,then you’ve got a problem because people don’t believe that their grievances will be adequately dealt with,” Lunney said.

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

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

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Harriet Alexander is a reporter for the Herald.

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