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The AUT Situation: How A Global Pandemic Revealed It All

By Jack Pirie

It feels like it was just yesterday that we all were finishing our first semester assignments. I mean for those that got those five-day extensions due to “COVID reasons” it probably wasn’t too far from yesterday. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you missed out. If you do know what I’m talking about, then a very well-played semester to you.

Last semester we saw AUT attempt to combat the effects of COVID-19. It’s fair to say that success of the university’s ability to deal with a global pandemic among many other things was perhaps underwhelming. We started off with the flip-flop decision making based around the ‘Block Learning Model.’ To spark your memory (in case you forgot) the university decided to shift online learning in the form a block learning model in which one paper would be taught at a time and all the previous work done by students would be null in void. Not to mention the academic year would conclude a few weeks from Christmas.

That was until the media caught on to the student uproar and began to bring AUT into the national spotlight. According to the Vice Chancellor, the decision to go back to a ‘normal’ system of online learning was due to the university listening to the student voice. Interesting comment, as in case you forgot, AUTSA (the physical representation of the student voice) was in fact left out of many of the conversations in regard to decision making processing around block learning. AUTSA told Debate they were “shocked” by the lack of student representation seen during the process. In a previous exclusive interview with Debate, Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack went on to say that “far too much has been made out of the decision to go to block learning” and claims that student lives being affected was an “overstatement.”

Moving forward toward the announcement of Level 4 lockdown, we saw a shambolic breakdown in communication with student accommodation. Where students in halls were left with no information, guidance or direction from the university going into a national lockdown that none of us had ever experienced in our lifetime. Four hundred students living in university halls (most of them being their first year away from home) were left to their own devices. This led to approximately 300 students moving back home all across the country for the national lockdown. During this time students were still expected to pay full price fees for their unused rooms. Once again AUT caught the media’s attention and found themselves in the national spotlight, attempting to defend their lack of communication and reasoning for their actions and inaction. The Vice Chancellor told Debate these issues were being blown out of proportion and ensured it was not the university’s responsibility to offer a rebate to students in the halls. However, not all is bad. AUT and a number of other New Zealand universities' poor response to student accommodation only further highlighted the need for an inquiry on a national level. Because of the injustices witnessed at AUT halls and other student accommodation during the lockdown period, parties across our government have agreed to conduct an inquiry into residential student accommodation.

To complete the hat-trick of events, we saw an AUT professor accused of sexual harassment, thus dragging the university's name through the mud again. Max Abbott held the title of Dean prior to these allegations and had been at the University for 29 years. The allegations came from a colleague who had said the sexual harassment had spanned a two-year period. Since the allegations, Abbott has resigned from the University. However multiple sources have since emerged questioning the ‘top dogs’ of the University and how their behaviours remain unchecked in their own ‘boys club.' ‘There are people saying that this harassment culture has been an open secret for years at AUT, with powerful figures within the University abusing their positions with little to no consequence.

AUT and a number of other New Zealand universities' poor response to student accommodation only further highlighted the need for an inquiry on a national level

Since these allegations, the Vice Chancellor announced an ‘independent review’ of AUT “policies, systems and practices with a focus on sexual harassment.” This review is currently being led by a legal expert with no affiliation to the University. This legal expert is Kate Davenport of the Queen's Counsel. As of yet Debate is unsure of any student involvement in the review process. In an email to staff the Vice Chancellor says “At this time, there is a lot I need to reflect on, a lot I need to think about in how to make changes to improve, and the outcome of the review will be enormously helpful… it reminds me that we are all human with flaws – but also with great potential.   As all of us try to do the right things we will all make mistakes, we will all misread situations, and we will all misjudge things.” The independent review is expected to take three months to carry out. Kath McPherson is the university contact person for the Queen's Council. In an email sent out to staff McPherson said “While getting the review process underway - I am making contact with leaders of faculties and directorates to see if they and/or their staff would like to meet with me in the coming weeks.  I also plan to establish a university-wide women’s caucus to provide guidance to me and to be a resource for the independent reviewer. I will be engaging with the AUT Diversity Group, AUT Women on Campus, and some of our own academics with expertise in sexual harassment and related fields… I want to ensure that staff, students and external stakeholders have opportunities to engage with the review in the way that makes them most comfortable.”

This semester I will be keeping you up to date with all things news to make sure you stay informed and make sure you know what is happening in your university. It’s only fair that you, the student, feel informed, confident and safe in the place you go to learn.


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