Shock departure of Adelaide’s leadership

Covid-19 crisis the suspected trigger, as university offers no reasons for chancellor’s resignation or vice-chancellor’s leave of absence

May 5, 2020
Most beautiful universities in Australia - University of Adelaide

University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen has taken indefinite special leave a day after chancellor Kevin Scarce’s abrupt departure.

In a 5 May statement, the university confirmed the vice-chancellor’s leave of absence and said it was “not in a position to comment”. It said deputy vice-chancellor research Mike Brooks had been appointed acting vice-chancellor.

“Professor Brooks has previously served as both acting and interim vice-chancellors,” the statement said. “The university’s world-class education and research is continuing.”

In a statement issued the previous day, the university announced that Rear Admiral Scarce had told the university’s council he would “bring forward” the end of his term as chancellor to that day. His tenure was not due to conclude until 30 September.  

Rear Admiral Scarce is a former governor of South Australia who specialised in military logistics and procurement during his military career. No reason was given for his sudden exit from the university, seven months ahead of schedule while the institution was grappling with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking on behalf of the council, deputy chancellor Catherine Branson thanked Rear Admiral Scarce for his “very significant contribution” since December 2014. “[He] has throughout his term been a strong presence and advocate for the university,” Ms Branson said.

“He has led council during an important time of transition, when the university’s world rankings and its role in the South Australian community have continued to rise. His term as chancellor has encompassed the opening of the state-of-the-art Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building, which is a critical part of the Biomed City Precinct, the adoption of a new strategic plan, and a stronger focus on outcomes for South Australia’s industry and community.”

Nick Warner, president of the National Tertiary Education Union’s Adelaide branch, said the union did not know the reasons behind the chancellor’s resignation or the vice-chancellor’s leave “or even if the two are related”.

“This has come as a shock to staff of the University of Adelaide and the lack of explanation is adding to anxiety levels already heighted by the Covid-19 crisis,” he said. “Staff desperately need clarity from the university council and the remaining senior management.”

A source told Times Higher Education that Rear Admiral Scarce had resigned during an extraordinary meeting of the university’s council, during which serious financial difficulties triggered by the coronavirus crisis were discussed. The university has not responded to these claims.

A 2019 report by University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones found that Adelaide’s dependence on Chinese students was “extraordinarily large”. Some 13 per cent of the institution’s 2017 revenue came directly from Chinese students, Dr Babones found.

While the other six universities profiled in his report were more dependent on international students’ fees, Adelaide was the only one of the seven to record an operating deficit in 2018, after converting a A$56 million (£29 million) operating surplus into a A$4 million shortfall – largely because of reduced investment earnings and bequests.

Some A$12 million in increased student fees, as the university increased its fiscal reliance on foreign students by 2 percentage points, was not enough to compensate for these losses. A mooted merger with the University of South Australia, partly driven by a desire to increase the two institutions’ allure to foreign students, fell through in October 2018.

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Reader's comments (3)

Not surprised, a lot of unis (Aus and GB) that have had dodgy dealings with international pathway providers have had recent exits at the top. Time for another 4 Corners investigation.
It’s only the beginning and many more people at the higher echelons of universities here will resign or be made to resign and universities will have to merge to survive and achieve economies of scale and synergism. The real estate that universities have built and are sitting on are not immediately redeemable in cash but most will undergo conversion. Consolidation in the university education as well as in the vocational education sector will begin shortly and that will mean many more people that will be let go and many universities closing down. The die has been cast!
It is indeed uncomfortable and even sad when such senior administrators have to or choose to leave. However, it is indeed clear that all universities would have to innovate in order to navigate the current context of changes and uncertainty. We know that for most universities their bureaucracy was not structured to facilitate innovations in the true sense of the word. There is no time for looking back, turning back, taking actions in the hope of returning to a pre covid state or even waiting for a major cash injection/s from government. Those who do not wait but pull their staff together to explore options with students well-being uppermost are more likely to build the momentum to emerge from the current situation to see a brighter day. Quick institutional adjustments are needed.