On the 31st of October 2014, an open letter was sent to Vice Chancellors of universities across Australia, the media, the Australian College of Educators and relevant politicians, including Christopher Pyne. The letter expressed concerns regarding the lack of appropriate procedures and policies surrounding anti-discrimination in Australia. It has been signed by academics and students from a diverse range of universities nation-wide. The objective is to address “the current political climate of increased disregard for matters of diversity and equality.”

The letter was made public due to concerns following the investigation of allegations of racism against Professor Barry Spurr of the University of Sydney. He was accused of consistent discriminatory and offensive behaviour in the form of emails from his university account consisting of racist, sexist and in some cases, classist language and imagery.

It discusses the need for better policies and procedures surrounding anti-discrimination. “It means that engagement with these policies should occur at recruitment, induction, on-going training, professional development and performance reviews, and should be considered to be a promotion threshold.”

The letter even touches on the sensitive issue of sexual assault on campus. “There is a culture of treating sexual harassment and assault (for example, that take place within student accommodation) as an internal administrative issue. However, sexual assault is a criminal offence, and those who experience assault must be fully supported to take whatever measures they deem appropriate, including referral to the police.”

Dr. Janet Hunt from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) discussed the prevalence of the issue. “Universities are a place where human potential is meant to flourish and discrimination prevents that from flourishing.”

Signatories from the Australian National University were extensive, including Brian Schmidt.

Jessica Rogers, Indigenous Australian Reconciliation PhD Scholar and PARSA Equity Officer at the ANU, signed the letter. She stated, “We hope to continue this action with a forum to encourage the VCs and University councils to realise that the issue it will not go away until it is dealt with by university legislation and to continue the dialogue around this issue across Australia. All employees and students deserve respect, equality and safe, supportive university environments.”

Various academics from the National Centre for Indigenous Studies also signed the letter, including Corinne Walsh, Dr. Melissa Lovell and Tamai Heaton.

Dr. Fiona Jenkins from the ANU Gender Institute provided comment. “The Open Letter to the VCs is an important initiative. Gender and race based discrimination can occur in many subtle ways. It’s not always a case of overtly expressed sexism or racism.  It can often be the fact that people from minority groups are seen as less valuable and easier to push around. The powerful influence that high-status individuals or a dominant group can wield in academia means that many people are afraid to make formal complaints because they fear the consequences for their careers. Staff need recourse to an ombudsperson style position who could be turned to as an independent reviewer of the handling of complaints at ANU.”

The list of academics from ANU that signed the letter include:

Dr. Asmi Wood, Dr. Fiona Jenkins, Dr. Fleur Adcock, Professor Francesca Merlan, Dr. Janet Hunt, Dr. Katerina Teaiwa, Dr. Katherine Lepani, Dr. Katrina Lee-Koo, Associate Professor Kuntula Lahiri-Dutt, Dr. Lindy Orthia, Professor Margaret Jolly, Professor Margaret Thornton, Dr. Michelle Burgis-Kasthala, Professor Mick Dodson, Dr. Nick Cheesman, Dr. Patrick Kilby, Dr. Penelope Marshall, Professor Peter Jackson, Dr. Rachel Morgain, Dr. Rebecca Monson, Dr. Ruth Barraclough, Dr. Sally Sargeson, Dr. Sally White, Dr. Sango Mahanty, Dr. Shameem Black, Dr. Will J. Grant.

The full letter can be read at this link: http://woroni-legacy.dev/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Open-Letter-to-the-VCs-of-Australian-Universities.pdf 

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