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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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What Happened to Your O Week?

On 14 November 2011, the University approached VUWSA with a proposed contract for Orientation 2012. It would be another three months before it was signed and O Week could finally be organised. In those three months, O Week went from a festival that would be, according to VUWSA, “the flagship social event of the year” to an event described by one student as “one of the weakest O Weeks yet.”

In the week leading up to the start of university, the Hunter Lounge played host to dubstep duo Mt Eden, the routine Neon Toga Party, and UK rapper Roots Manuva. Two of these events sold out— the latter was “well attended” but, Salient reporters noted, predominantly by non-students. Those who were in Wellington the week before term began, like most hall students, were fortunate enough to be able to attend the two musical acts available. For many returning students, the second week offered only a B-grade New Zealand comedian, and the hypnotist returning from 2011’s event.

“O Week lineup announced—students disappointed”, wrote VUWSA Treasurer William Guzzo on his now-defunct blog, Treasuring You, following the orientation announcement. More to the point than Guzzo, students commenting on Facebook described O Week as “horribly underwhelming”; “[a] bit shit”; “so shit”, and “Very. Very. Tame”. One student wondered, “Were the Wiggles busy?”

Many students were thinking back to the orientation of 2011, which, just 12 months prior, had been lauded by many as the best O Week in the country. Comprising five evening-time live music events—including US indie group MGMT and well-established hip-hop group De La Soul—as well as a toga party, numerous daytime musics events, a hypnotist and a comedian (then, Dai Henwood), it seemed VUWSA had finally figured out how to run a successful orientation. Barely an eyebrow was raised when VUWSA promised to “grow and build upon the successes of O Week 2011”.

The difference between 2011 and 2012 was stark. Did VUWSA fuck this one up?

According to Guzzo, planning for O Week began in “mid-2011”. Soon after, VUWSA Association Manager Mark Maguire “started lining [up] some amazing acts … excitement start[ed] to build.” Possible acts included Shapeshifter and Homebrew. In September, controversial voluntary membership legislation (VSM) passed, ready to take effect in January 2012, constricting VUWSA’s expected revenue streams. Suddenly the Association required assistance from the University to adequately fund O Week. Negotiations began.

The first contract was proposed on the 14th of November. It was not signed. With the terms unsatisfactory to VUWSA, the contract underwent repeated revisions. One month later, still no contract signed and no end in sight for negotiations, key sponsors–including a large telecommunications company– withdrew financial support. In the dying days of 2011, a new draft contract was delivered to VUWSA and new President, Bridie Hood. By January, this remained unsigned.

Guzzo noted: “University still stalling. Mark now unable to get big bands due to not having any money to give them, as the University kept mucking VUWSA around.” Shapeshifter, an act initially courted by VUWSA, had by now doubled its price; it was no longer an option. But then, on 8 February, three months since the beginning of negotiations, a contract was finalised. Guzzo’s blog records: “the University finally sorts itself out”. There were only 19 days until O Week was to begin.

This course of events raises many questions. Why did VUWSA refuse to sign the contract in the first place? And if the differences were reconcilable, as events have revealed them to be, why did it take three months?

Neither VUWSA nor the University were willing to explain why negotiations took so long, except for current President Bridie Hood, who attributed the three-month delay to the Christmas and New Year period. However, in documents released to Salient by the University, following an information request pursuant to the Official Information Act, it appears one clause in particular was the source of the delays.

Clause 7.4 states: “VUWSA must provide all of the records referred to in clause 7.3(a) which relate to a particular stage of the project to VUW upon completion of each stage of this project.” The records in question, per clause 7.3(b) should be such to “enable future use, provision and/or support of any infrastructure or any other works, goods or services implemented or provided by VUWSA by any competent service provider or VUW’s properly trained technical staff, without further reference to VUWSA.”

In short, the University expected VUWSA to provide them with all the information necessary to plan and run future O Weeks without VUWSA’s involvement. Such information amounts to years of accumulated planning resources, institutional knowledge, market research and the efforts of numerous executives and staff. In return, the University would provide just $30,000—less than one quarter of the expected cost of this one O Week.

Such a request seems unreasonable. Indeed, the University ultimately retracted its demand. Surprising, then, that it took as long as it did to resolve. The University, however, refused to comment on the nature of this protraction and, furthermore, withheld copies of modified contracts proposed over this period, for reasons of commercial sensitivity. Bridie Hood too did not offer comment.

However, VUWSA Treasurer William Guzzo explained on his blog: “the University [became] painstakingly bureaucratic … people politics [got] in the way.” Guzzo’s description is not unique. An individual involved in negotiations, but unwilling to be named, described negotiations as a “complete fuck around”.

Negotiating on behalf of the University was Campus Services, the organisation responsible for the delivery of most non-academic services. Emails released to Salient under the OIA indicate the primary contact for negotiations was Associate Director Rainsforth Dix, Victoria University’s authorised signatory on the contract. According to Bridie Hood, the negotiating position set down by Dix was at the behest of the University’s Senior Management Team (or SMT), comprised of the Vice- Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors and senior operations managers. Hood explained to Salient that she and VUWSA were told by Dix that the requirements in the contract were “what SMT wants. This is the line [SMT] have drawn.”

Apparently, Dix was just the messenger. But strangely, Salient was informed by the University solicitor as part of the official information request that there was no written communication between SMT and Campus Services administrators regarding O Week, nor were there any minutes from SMT meetings pertaining to Orientation. It seems odd that such a significant matter would come to pass without any written documentation. The accounts provided by the University and VUWSA seem irreconcilable. From where the controversial clause came remains as unclear as the rest of the process.

We cannot know precisely who is responsible for the “people politics”. And likewise, we cannot know who in fact deserves our credit for hard work in pursuit of a credible O Week in the face of this politics.

Student activist group We Are The University claim in the most recent issue of The Student that Dix has a “history of hostility towards student groups”. The situation becomes increasingly unclear in the light of 2011 VUWSA President Seamus Brady’s comments to Salient that the lengthy negotiation was due to “miscommunication” that could be ascribed to the ineptitude of the University.

Regardless of whether it was Campus Services or VUWSA at fault, “people politics”, or miscommunication, came at a high price for students: that of a quality O Week. At issue is not simply a trivial week of parties. The quality of Orientation is indicative of the University’s appreciation of a holistic student experience. The events play a key role in familiarising new students with the culture of their new home, as well as providing a vital opportunity to meet with their peers in a social situation before term begins. In an interview with Salient in 2011 on the role of students’ associations, Chancellor Ian McKinnon acknowledged the same: “students… are entitled to a good student experience at Victoria—that is, access to social… opportunities”.

Given that McKinnon identified “the student experience [as] a combination of the university and the students’ association working together”, this outcome is an embarrassing failure of both a University committed in its strategic goals to an “outstanding … social and cultural experience”, and of a students’ association that set out to “deliver the most amazing social experience of 2012”.

The presence of the confidentiality clause in the service contract allows both VUWSA and the University to remain silent about the nature of negotiations—reflecting a complete lack of accountability to students.

Perhaps this outcome was predictable. With the end of compulsory membership, and the attendant guaranteed revenue stream and political mandate, the negotiating position of students’ associations has been thoroughly weakened. Maybe our O Week was one of many casualties across the country.

This is not the case: it seems President Hood’s experience was almost unique. In a late-January email to one University administrator Hood revealed she was “really nervous and anxious” as other universities began releasing their line-ups. By contrast, Otago University Students’ Association President Logan Edgar told Salient that negotiations with the University were “mint, aye”.

They must have been: Otago’s O Week featured Shapeshifter, Shihad, David Dallas, Home Brew, P-Money & PNC, Dai Henwood, Bulletproof & Jessie G, Cairo Knife Fight, Knives at Noon and King Kapisi.

In January, Unitec too announced their lineup: Shapeshifter, Katchafire, 1814, Kidz in Space. Even Waikato University had over 25 organised social events, one of which was mysteriously entitled the ‘Vodka Cruiser Conga Line’.

As disappointing as Orientation might have been, what remains most concerning is what these negotiations signal about the future relationship between the University and student-governed organisations. There has been a shift in the balance of power. In a time where the Association has chosen to become reliant on funding contracts organised by unaccountable University administrators, there can be little hope of future events being organised for students, by students. We should wonder who is better placed to organise events such as these: an elected representative body consisting of current students, or ageing University bureaucrats?

While the one loser across the board is the student, nobody is willing to take responsibility. President Hood went as far as to assert that the problems that had arisen in this negotiation would not be issues in the future. When Salient asked why this was the case, Hood would not offer further comment. The answer, she said, was confidential.

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Comments (4)

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  1. This is an excellent article, guys – well-written and well-researched. I look forward to reading more like it.

  2. Francisco Hernandez says:

    Fantastic article. Salient the strongest I’ve ever seen it.

  3. Nick Cross says:

    A well researched piece of journalism. I have to wonder though, what you were thinking when you wrote the second to last paragraph. In the paragraphs just before you had just conceeded that other Student Associations, who are also going through VSM and all the resulting shifts in power balances, put on pretty good O-Weeks (the OUSA lineup is the best I’ve seen for any university since I’ve been a student).

    You mentioned that the Uni wanted the information nessessary to run future O-Weeks. Perhaps they just dont trust VUWSA to not self destruct in the near future?

  4. Masher and Brolly says:

    “Neither VUWSA nor the University were willing to explain why negotiations took so long, except for current President Bridie Hood,” – a bit of a contradictory statement!

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