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COVID-19 Changes at the Top in Australia

Some university leaders are burned out -- and others want to travel to be closer to family members.

March 19, 2021
 

Coronavirus has sparked mass turnover in the top ranks of Australian higher education, with half of the country’s 40 universities either appointing or seeking new bosses since the pandemic began.

Ten universities have changed leaders in the past 10 months, with another five hunting for new vice chancellors (the top position) after incumbents either left or flagged their forthcoming departure -- including two this month. Four more institutions welcome new heads later this year after their substantive leaders quit or announced their impending retirements in December. Two more changed vice chancellors in January and February last year, in the pandemic’s early weeks.

Churn among Australian university bosses has quadrupled since the crisis began, a Times Higher Education analysis suggests. Over the two decades before the pandemic, around five institutions a year recruited new permanent leaders, with annual replacements ranging from two in 2000 and 2010 to eight in 2011 and 2012.

Many recent resignations have occurred for familiar reasons such as incumbents retiring, getting appointed elsewhere or sensing the need to move on -- along with scandals and conflicts with governing bodies.

But other factors are also at play, with some vice chancellors burned out by the crisis and others anxious to be closer to family. Murdoch University’s Finnish-born vice chancellor, Eeva Leinonen, who assumes the presidency of Ireland’s Maynooth University in October, said the pandemic had forced a rethink of personal priorities.

“For eight years I was only one flight away from my family and had many opportunities to connect through travel,” she told staff in an email announcing her departure. “This is no longer the case.”

University of New South Wales Sydney boss Ian Jacobs, who announced his resignation in January, cited a desire to be closer to his U.K. mother and in-laws. Charles Darwin University head Simon Maddocks, who left in December after seven years as vice chancellor, said it was time for new leadership and reportedly expressed a desire to be closer to family in South Australia.

As well as driving some vice chancellors back home, the pandemic may reduce the pool of potential replacements. “We can expect there will be fewer international appointments and possibly fewer interstate appointments,” said Australian National University policy analyst Andrew Norton.

“At the margins, it has to matter that you’ve got a more restricted choice of candidates. Ideally, from a university’s point of view, if you’ve got a strategic plan, you’d want to find a leader who you think is the best possible match with that plan.”

Norton said the vice chancellor’s job had become “much harder” in the past 12 months.

“You’ve got very complex reductions in staff numbers, with all the angst that brings, and so little scope to do new things.”

Leo Goedegebuure, of the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, said he had not seen such turnover of university executives in 30 years of higher education research. “I can understand that people get tired of it. If all the pressure is on the budget, and the only thing you have to do is fire people, it’s not really what you signed up for.”

Four universities are being run by interim vice chancellors, while another three recently found permanent replacements for long-serving acting bosses. Before the pandemic, one or two universities at the most each year had interim vice chancellors for more than a few months.

Norton warned that universities could become “paralyzed” if stand-ins resisted taking actions that could “lock in” their successors. “In terms of making the big decisions for the university’s future, it’s not at all ideal to have an interim for any longer than absolutely necessary.”

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