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Why 'orphaned responsibilities' cost us in the long term

By Greg Mienczakowski and Greg Whateley - posted Tuesday, 24 May 2022

In recent years we have repeatedly seen that internal review processes and investigations within major organisations have sometimes failed to appropriately deliver credible outcomes. For example (and the list of potential inclusions here is far wider than just one Australian state or political party) after a taxpayer paid $7.7M inquiry bill we still do not know who actually authorised the $86.4M contracting out of Victoria's COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Program's security arrangements. The contract awarding decision has mysteriously been deemed an 'orphaned responsibility.' And for decades various religious organisations have, around the globe, failed to deal appropriately with the numerous allegations of sexual abuse internally lodged against them (

Slating the responsibility for administrative blockages and omissions back to any individual has been extremely difficult. Nor is government in Canberra immune to criticism in resolving such matters and similarly, universities may also be susceptible to lacking the levels of administrative clarity desirable especially when faced with potentially negative publicity. Bureaucracy is an ever-present strategic tool in the avoidance of institutional and administrator reputational harm.



In 1859 Lord Acton declared that "Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power." Acton was actually describing the governments of Switzerland and France at the time, but he might just as easily have been talking about some governments of today and even the nature of administrative bureaucracies governing large corporations – perhaps including various tertiary institutions.

In Acton's terms (though we hasten to add that we are not usually prone to quoting the inscriptions of such an ardent Conservative as was Acton) there is a somewhat Machiavellian slant to universities potentially 'massaging the messages' they give to staff, students and the wider world in order to distance themselves (or paint themselves free) from 'reputational taint' or responsibility in matters such as SASH failings, employee malfeasance, student contract cheating, underpayment of staff - or even of some of the more questionable institutional relationships developed with foreign donors and foreign powers.

The central idea of Machiavelli is that the state power is not bound by the moral law. The law is not above the state, but below it.

The survival of the state is paramount and the end, essentially, justifies the means. Though when it comes to universities and their huge investments in brand protection and image marketing does the desire to protect institutional reputation and financial interests justify how you chose to do it?

Rewriting and/or reinterpreting history

From the UK to the USA and Australia some of our long-established institutions are presently trying to accommodate their historic relationships to (and tolerance of) racism. History is once more being 're-written' or at least 're-interpreted'. Currently, they may also be spinning out the messaging yarn in response to significant staff redundancies in the claimed light of falling student enrolments due to COVID. Professor Frank Larkins' data suggests that rather than just COVID related student losses in Australia "Some universities have used additional opportunistic strategies to determine their staff reduction policies within the pandemic environment." (Frank Larkins, CMM 21.03.2022.


Orphaned responsibility

So, when in a recent CR article it was highlighted that several issues around mandatory SASH (Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment) committee establishment in tertiary institutions and the unseen implications of participating in such 'quasi-judicial decision-making bodies' as a compulsory part of the administrative obligations of universities, alarm bells began to ring.

Certainly, reliably reporting SASH incident occurrences and related issues to government through TEQSA is extremely important. However, in the case examined in CR 30. 03. 22, individual staff members on a SASH committee which later had its student expulsion verdict overturned in a court of law could have been left to fund and defend their own cases if the expelled student had felt inclined to legally pursue individual committee members. Would the university have come to their aid? Or would the quasi-legal ruling of the committee have been deemed the responsibility of committee members and not that of the University. Just an 'orphaned responsibility' occurring without being owned by the University itself? Hard to say for sure – but given the bureaucratic nature of our universities' corporate style leaderships, and some of the recent examples referred to above, it is not a road to travel lightly.


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About the Authors

Jim Mienczakowski is an emeritus professor and currently a higher education consultant.

Greg Whateley is Emeritus Professor and currently Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Academic) at Group Colleges Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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