CMU Australia meets newspaper critics

Carnegie Mellon’s Australia campus has come under criticism from the press and taxpayers alike.

Over the summer, the Adelaide Advertiser ran a series of articles criticizing the amount of taxpayer money used to bring the Heinz College to Adelaide, South Australia, and suggesting that the campus was experiencing management difficulties.

The executive director of Heinz College Australia described critical articles from a South Australian newspaper as “distortions” and “factually inaccurate,” and reported growth and progress at Australia’s Carnegie Mellon campus, the nation’s first foreign university.

Executive Director Tim Zak alleges that the Advertiser series was written by a reporter who wanted to create a stir in light of an upcoming election for the office of premier in the state of South Australia — the equivalent of the gobernancy in the United States.

“The articles were distortions; they were incorrect,” Zak said. “Our attempt to put our side of the story and the real facts into the public domain were ignored.”
The author of the series, Miles Kemp, did not respond to e-mails for comment.

Zak admitted that there was initially a tense relationship between local citizens and universities and Heinz Australia.

According to Zak, local residents have begun to warm to Heinz College, which began operations in Adelaide in May 2006 as part of the “University City” initiative instituted by the current premier of South Australia, Mike Rann.

“Some of the local universities here certainly weren’t too keen on having what they perceived as another competitive, globally ranked institution right in their backyard,” Zak said. “Over the passage of time, though, those relationships have continued to thaw out.”

South Australians critical of the approximately $20 million of Australian government money promised to the creation and operation of Heinz College in Adelaide suggested that the money could have been better spent on public Australian universities.

Brenda Peyser, associate dean of the Heinz College, confirmed that the cost of Heinz Australia’s tuition and operation is significantly greater than that of other Australian universities, but noted that it is on par with top-tier MBA schools in the country.

“Our arrangement has been that the state would provide up to $19.5 million in funding, and to the extent that we are able to cover our costs, the South Australian government pays less,” Peyser said. Zak added that Heinz College Australia’s objective is to soon become the first global university not to be subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

Yet, the school remains under criticism. The Quality Directorate of Australia’s Department of Further Education conducted an audit last April, which was picked up by the South Australian press.

A Sept. 30 article in the Adelaide Advertiser called the audit “scathing.” The article reported that while audit results praised Carnegie Mellon’s academic standards, it revealed several management problems.

Among the problems highlighted by the article were that the college’s academic board had only met once in three years despite an Australian regulation mandating that it meet four times annually. An unclear connection between the management of Heinz College’s Pittsburgh campus and its Adelaide campus was also cited.

Zak said that in an effort to resolve expected difficulties between the accreditation standards of Australia and the United States, Heinz College Australia agreed to be audited after two years of operation instead of the requisite five years.

“We knew that we would have some issues to resolve, and we wanted to do so earlier rather than later,” Zak said.

One such issue — the Australian requirement that institutions of higher education have an “academic board” that meets at least four times a year — created a conflict between the college’s dual accreditations in the United States and Australia.

Australian universities’ academic boards assess degree programs, academic quality, and compliance with Australian regulatory requirements, and also must be able to act independently from the head of the university. Zak said that compliance with an academic board’s ability to act independently could have put the Heinz College’s American accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in jeopardy.

“If we had just complied with the Australian rules ... we would have had an independent board outside of our school’s home country that would have had a sort of governing power,” Zak explained. “We had to try to resolve how we could still have a body in place that could ensure that we were complying with Australian regulations but not have full governing responsibility.”

Heinz College Australia was able to reach a resolution through the creation of an “academic advisory board, acting only in an advisory capacity to the college’s Adelaide campus.”

Zak agreed to have all deficiencies highlighted by the audit resolved by the end of last June, and reported that corrections had been completed by the middle of that month.

Despite the poor press it has received, Heinz College Australia has experienced about 30 percent growth this year and anticipates another 30 percent in 2009, according to Zak. The college currently has a total of 110 students representing 20 different countries, and offers a master of science in both information technology and public policy and management.

Megan Boundey, a Heinz College Australia student working toward her graduate degree in public policy and management, is spending this semester in Pittsburgh. The Adelaide native feels that Carnegie Mellon’s presence in South Australia will have far-reaching benefits.

“What [the articles] don’t focus on is the amazing educational opportunity which is now available locally, and the benefits [the college] will have on the local economy once these graduates are out in the workforce,” Boundey said.

Although it was initially Rann who contacted Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon about the possibility of opening a Carnegie Mellon campus in Adelaide, the Australian campus is part of the university’s drive toward internationalization. With campuses in Qatar and Australia and programs in Greece, Japan, and Singapore, the trend in location seems to be moving eastward.

Zak said that trend mirrors predicted demographic shifts toward eastern economies.

“Economically, socially, culturally, and politically, this is going to be a really dynamic part of the world,” Zak said. “If Carnegie Mellon is going to continue to be a leader in its education programs and research initiatives, it’s vital to be closer to this part of the world.”