Students starting or continuing studies in the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR) should be deeply concerned by recent developments and outstanding issues from last year.
In an email on January 8th this year the SPIR Undergraduate Convener Dr. Andrew Banfield told the School’s academic staff that 11 courses in the Political Science and International Relations Majors would be disestablished. The email itself was unambiguous and stated simply that “the following classes have been disestablished”. If so, this means that these courses will not be taught in 2014, and no other SPIR academics – who may desire to do so in future – will be able to teach them either.
The courses that were stated to be disestablished are: Pols2081 Religion and Politics in Australia; Pols2083 Contemporary Australian Political Issues; Pols2102 The Political Philosophy of Deception; Pols2103 Australian Democracy: Comparative & Theoretical Approaches; Pols2116 Class, Power and Conflict; Pols2061 Classical Marxism; Pols2076 Frankfurt School and Habermas; Pols2092 Fascism and Antifascism; Pols2115 Revolution!; Pols2097 Strategy 1; and, Pols2098 Strategy 2.
As current students may be aware, many of these are not unpopular courses. For example, Dr. Kim Huynh’s course – Pols2102 The Political Philosophy of Deception – regularly attracts 70-80+ students and Dr. David West’s courses, whilst perhaps more ‘boutique’, were nevertheless consistent in bringing in 30 or more students every time they ran. Naturally, access to specific figures for each course over the past three years are not easy to come by for students, but on the surface it would appear that these courses aren’t being scrapped due to poor attendance.
It may be pointed out by SPIR administrators that several of the above courses were taught by Dr. Michael McKinley, Dr. Rick Kuhn and Dr. West – academics who, for differing reasons, left the School last year. The argument being that the academics responsible for these courses have departed and thus the School cannot offer them. This, however, would not explain why Dr. Huynh’s Pols2102 is on the list of courses to be disestablished given that it was taught in Semester 1 2013 and that, whilst he is currently on parental leave, Dr. Huynh is still a member of the SPIR staff. That a recently taught and popular course can be summarily disestablished while the convening academic is on parental leave is a deeply troubling proposition.
Irrespective of the future of Dr. Huynh’s course, what cannot be excused is the apparent lack of effort by SPIR administrators to consult with or even notify SPIR students about the prospective disestablishment of these 11 courses. That SPIR students should be learning through Woroni – rather than from the School itself – of courses being targeted for disestablishment more than a month after the School apparently disestablished them is simply outrageous. Consequently, students must wonder whether or not SPIR administrators are following due process in disestablishing – or merely proposing to disestablish – these courses in this authoritarian fashion.
Another aspect that stands out about the disestablished courses and these departures are the important perspectives that have been jettisoned with them. Dr. Rick Kuhn was, and remains, one of Australia’s foremost experts in Marxism; Dr. David West was the School’s authority in Critical Theory; and, Dr. Michael McKinley brought a unique approach that emphasized the contradictions, paradoxes, inconsistencies and consequences of war, strategy and politics.
These departures bring us to another troubling issue, that is, the fact that these are just the latest in a long list of respected academics who have recently left SPIR, several of whom had been teaching at the ANU for more than 20 years, including: Dr. Jim George (2011), Dr. Ben Wellings (2013), Dr. John Hart (2012), Dr. Renee Jeffrey (2013), Dr. Mike Miller (2013) as well as the former Head of SPIR, Professor John Ravenhill (2013). This means that in only 3 years – between, Hart, Kuhn, McKinley, George, West and Ravenhill – SPIR has lost over 147 years of departmental knowledge and teaching experience.
Given the recent swathe of departures from the School, one would expect that SPIR would be in the process of seeking to replenish its depleted staff – and they are. Five positions were recently advertised and it is clear that the School is seeking to exclusively appoint academics pursuing quantitative approaches – a fact which is evidenced by the selection criteria in the position advertisements. In light of the recent departures, it must be asked why SPIR administrators appear to have no interest in hiring academics capable and willing to teach and research critical perspectives in politics and international relations.
Indeed, a perusal of the courses on offer in the Political Science and International Relations majors reveals that there is only a single course between both them that focuses on Gender (Dr. Katrina Lee Koo’s Pols2085 Gendered Politics of War) and a total absence of courses dealing with the causes and challenges posed by global climate change – perhaps the most pressing issue facing nations in the 21st Century – let alone a course dealing with the complex politics of Australia’s many marginalised and impoverished Indigenous communities. This, when viewed with the disestablishment of recent courses, must provoke students to question whether or not SPIR is becoming a school almost exclusively focused upon quantitative and institutional approaches to, and studies of, politics and international relations.
Whilst these are just some concerning trends and questions, the immediate fact that SPIR students aren’t even being notified of substantial changes to the courses on offer in their majors suggests that the School’s administrators have little regard for student input in such matters. Students, however, are not powerless in these situations.
Indeed, just last year, speculation that academics in SPIR would be prevented from offering tutorials for later year courses sparked a public dispute between concerned students, staff and administrators of the College of Arts and Social Sciences – the body which governs SPIR. The ANU Education Action Group rallied students in support of academic autonomy and tutorial funding and, by publicly challenging the administrators both in writing and in protest, ultimately led a successful campaign against the cuts to tutorials that culminated with the occupation of the Dean’s Office and forced the ANU Chancellery to conduct a formal inquiry into the College.
Consequently, I encourage all new and current students in SPIR to make enquiries to the Acting Head of School Ian McAllister (firstname.lastname@example.org), the Undergraduate Convener Dr. Andrew Banfield (email@example.com) and to the CASS Dean of Education Dr. Royston Gustavson (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ask them why these courses are being summarily disestablished and why the School has kept its students in the dark about these decisions. Concerned students can also make contact with the ANU Education Action Group either at its stall on Market Day during O-Week or at one of its regular meetings on Wednesdays at 5pm in the Brian Kenyon Student Space.
Jason Andrews graduated from the School of Politics and International Relations in 2012 and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of New South Wales Canberra. He is also a member of the ANU Education Action Group.