‘Right versus right’ decisions and the Karori campus

The following commentary by Victoria University of Wellington's Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford was published in The Dominion Post on Wednesday 1 June 2016.

Decisions taken in a community are often seen as ‘right versus wrong’ decisions. From this perspective, such decisions are straightforward because they are based on a widely held set of common values that allow most people to distinguish right from wrong. Those who make ‘wrong’ decisions are viewed as unethical or self-centred whereas those who make ‘right’ decisions are considered principled and community-minded. Accordingly, accusatory debates about such decisions often ensue.

In reality, far more of the significant decisions affecting communities are ‘right versus right’ decisions. These cannot be resolved by a discussion of moral values because the main options are considered ‘right’. This places the decision maker in the unenviable position of choosing which option is ‘most right’.

The decision Victoria University faces over the future of its Karori campus is a good illustration of a right versus right decision. Some will consider it ‘right’ for Victoria to retain the campus so local residents can continue to enjoy access to its facilities. Others will believe that if the campus is eventually declared surplus to requirements it would be ‘right’ for the University to sell it so it can reinvest the proceeds in its public good mission.

To reiterate, this is not a right versus wrong decision. Karori residents are not wrong to think Victoria should strive to protect the interests of their local community. Similarly, the University is not wrong to manage its capital efficiently to reduce cost pressures on students and tax payers.

Make no mistake, this is a difficult decision for Victoria.

A fundamental element of the decision-making context is the reasoning behind the 2010 introduction of a new policy for the management of Crown-owned land and buildings occupied by tertiary education institutions (TEIs). The Government thought it important TEIs should be able to manage their land and buildings strategically and efficiently in the way that best supported the institution’s goals. The new policy allowed TEIs to apply to transfer Crown assets into their own name for a nominal fee or to apply for the sale of the assets and the retention of the proceeds for agreed initiatives.

Mission and strategy become critical in right versus right decisions. Victoria’s mission is to provide high quality research and teaching and – through a process of engagement - to ensure these activities have a positive impact on the community. Our strategy to provide a holistic learning and teaching experience that is second to none was key in moving the Faculty of Education to our vibrant Kelburn campus. As regards the future of the Karori campus, the strategy we must consider is that of optimising our facilities and use of resources.

The mandates of other organisations are important considerations. Other bodies have a mission to provide community facilities, to make town planning decisions and to decide on investment in schools. Victoria cannot make decisions for these bodies, but we welcome their guidance about the future of our campus.

Financial deliberations are important too. Victoria has invested upwards of $10 million on maintaining and upgrading the campus and it costs well over $1 million a year to operate. The University cannot be drawn into a situation where it uses student fees and taxpayer dollars to cross-subside the community facilities of Karori residents in the absence of genuine teaching or research needs for the campus.

The impact on tangata whenua and Karori residents figures prominently in the University’s decision making. We are engaged in close dialogue with the elders of the campus marae and are talking directly with the community, the Ministry of Education and the Wellington City Council. In particular, we are reliant on the Council to guide us on the current and future needs of the Karori community relative to the needs of other communities in Wellington.

In conclusion, right versus right decisions are difficult, whether it is the future of the Karori campus, the extension of the airport runway or a solution to the traffic woes around the Basin Reserve. My appeal is that Wellingtonians carefully differentiate between right versus wrong and right versus right decisions, reserving their condemnation for the former and their intellect for the latter.