ANU Staff on the Chopping Block

ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt once described the university’s School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) as the ‘jewel in the crown’, but in 2014 it was placed under review. CHL staff supervise 180 PhD students, have won several ARC grants (in 2015 there were four ARC Laureate Fellows and six Future Fellowships) and have achieved ERA ratings of 4 and 5 across the relevant disciplines. This was not enough to save them from the managerial axe.

CHL was to be the test case for a new University wide review policy. As management oscillated between financial and academic rationales for the review, the estimated deficit of the school likewise varied: sometimes the shortfall was estimated to be less than half a million dollars, at other times several million. In 2015, the university commissioned an expensive external review who found that this excellent school had yet to settle from previous re-structures and recommended that it should endure no more. Despite this in late 2015 deeply unsettling rumours began to circulate about staff cuts as high as 60%. In early 2016, new Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt assured CHL staff that the number of affected staff would be a “mere handful.” However, in February university management outlined a proposal to dis-establish the school. CHL, which in July 2015 had 95 staff, 65 of whom were on continuing contracts, was to be reconstituted with only 34 continuing staff. It recommended transferring tenured staff teaching ‘lesser-taught languages’ onto fixed term contracts of 3 years. Likewise, the school was to be restructured into four departments with roughly seven staff in each department, each at predetermined levels. Following the release of this document staff and students at ANU and colleagues from Australia and around the world, raised their concerns and objections and demanded access to transparent financial data. Though access to this data had been requested at every stage of the review process, it was not until April 2016, more than two years after the commencement of the review, that rigorous figures were made available to staff. The final Implementation Plan proposed to cut fifteen staff, making it the biggest industrial event in the history of the ANU. Under immense pressure the university was forced to retain Academics teaching Lesser-Taught languages on continuing contracts and to commit to funding these languages beyond 2018–though at a significantly reduced amount. The decision of who would enter the new school was to be made not on merit but per the strategic goals of the school as determined by a deliberative committee comprised predominantly of senior CHL staff, who, in return for their duties, and to avoid more blatant conflicts of interest, were granted individual immunity. All academic staff were scheduled for a one-on-one meeting with the Dean in the week beginning the 9th of May. Upon entering these meetings, some staff were told that “the deliberative committee has/has not recommended you for a place in the new school.” Those not recommended–whilst nominally being given a chance to find a place for themselves elsewhere in the university–are being provided minimal institutional assistance with these transitions. These academics, whose privacy I will respect here, are individuals whose reputation, research excellence, teaching and supervisory abilities are second to none, who have given years, if not decades of their life to building up CHL and educating entire generations of students and future scholars. It is a dark time for CHL, it is a shameful time for the ANU, and one which bodes ill both for other schools with upcoming reviews, and more broadly for deep scholarly commitment to the Asia Pacific Region at both the ANU and more broadly in Australia.

I share this summary of the key events of our review as a testament to the stressful and destabilising two-year ordeal that has left many numb and unbelieving, shaking our heads in wonder, asking over and over again, “how did this happen, how could this happen?” In response I can only say: this is how it happened. Let’s come together and talk about it, acknowledge it, cry about it, scream about it, and importantly to tell everyone else about it. The neo-liberal university seeks to divide, silence and shame. We instead seek to hold our heads up and say to the university: the shame is not ours—it’s yours!

Annie McCarthy, PhD Student


The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author.