• Groups representing Indigenous academics have expressed their disappointment with the decision to appoint a non-Indigenous person as Director of the Institute. (Facebook)Source: Facebook
The selection of a non-Indigenous person for the role of Director of a leading university's inaugural Indigenous Knowledge Institute continues to attract condemnation from many First Nations academics.
Jack Latimore

12 Aug 2020 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 12 Aug 2020 - 11:00 AM

Several groups representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics have have each sent letters to the University of Melbourne's Vice-Chancellor concerning the appointment last week of a non-Indigenous person to the role of inaugural Director for a new Indigenous Knowledge Institute.

The university Vice-Chancellor's office received two letters on Tuesday from prominent organisations representing Indigenous academics working within the tertiary education sector. A third letter from another group representing a network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate students will also be sent later this week. 

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) cited a number of reports and research highlighting the need to appoint greater numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in to academic and senior management roles in its letter to Vice-Chancellor, Professor Duncan Maskell.

The letter referred to a 2011 report by the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC) that committed to a strategy to increase Indigenous representation in Higher Education to better reflect population parity. The report said there was an expectation that faculties and administrative sections would "actively recruit, develop and offer a career path for Indigenous employees".

The NTEU letter also cited a 2020 Universities Australia, Indigenous Strategies Annual Report that highlighted Indigenous academic staff across 39 member universities only rose 0.19 per cent between 2005 and 2018, and drew on University of Melbourne staffing data to note that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander comprised only 1.6 per cent of all staff at the university, a figure that sat at around the halfway point to population parity.

Of the 139 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working at the university, only 27 per cent were employed in full time equivalent academic positions.

"As those institutions in receipt of Indigenous Student Assistance Grant funding are required to work toward a 3 percent employment target ... to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff it is of great concern to see The University of Melbourne has chosen not to employ an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person to a role that has clear and unique responsibility to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, peoples, their cultures and artefacts," the letter said.

The NTEU said while it recognised the qualifications and bona fides of the newly appointed Director, it found the appointment "deeply disappointing" and an indication that the university did not consider Aboriginality as a genuine qualification for the position.

"Further, there appears to be no recognition of the direct lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and how this lived experience impacts and influences individual and group perspectives and understandings across the workplace," it said.

The letter was signed by the Acting Chair for the NTEU's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Committee, Dr Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, the NTEU General Secretary Matthew McGowan and the Melbourne University Branch President Steve Adams.

A collective comprised of members of the 2019 cohort from the University of Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health Fellows Leadership Programme also wrote to the Vice-Chancellor expressing its disappointment at the selection for the inaugural Director position.

The Poche fellows collective asked that Prof Maskell reconsider the appointment to ensure it becomes an Indigenous identified position.

"We believe having an Indigenous person in this position shows commitment by the University of Melbourne to its Reconciliation Action Plan 2018-2022, Indigenous Employment Framework 2018- 2021, and the Poche Leadership Programme," it said.

The collective said the position of inaugural Director for the Indigenous Knowledge Institute provided a "terrific opportunity" to promote the university's commitment to its Indigenous Employment Framework 2018-2021, which emphasises the importance of Indigenous staff, academic positions, and leadership.

"As once proud Poche Fellows, we believe the program we enthusiastically undertook has lost prestige and significance for enhancing Indigenous people’s leadership," it said.

Both letters stressed that the organisation were not criticising or questioning the academic qualifications of the newly appointed Director Indigenous Knowledge Institute.

NITV News has contacted the Vice-Chancellor for a response to the letters.

Advancing Indigenous Knowledge

The Indigenous Knowledge Institute was launched by Prof Maskell in 2019 at the Garma Festival in East Arnhem Land and runs alongside four other interdisciplinary research institutes at the university.

The five institutes are designed to foster collaboration in research across the university.

The university invested around $6 million to establish the Indigenous Knowledge Institute

“The Institute will be a centre and gathering place for Aboriginal knowledge in all its forms. It will respect, celebrate and become a magnet for knowledge of other Indigenous First Nations people from around the world,” Professor Maskell said in a 2019 statement published by the university. 

Professor Maskell said the institute would build on work in the fields of language, arts and music, life sciences, engineering and design, health, and data infrastructure already taking place between University researchers and teachers and Indigenous communities across Australia. 

“We will launch this initiative to preserve and restore Indigenous knowledge and support the wider teaching and understanding of cultures which are the oldest on earth, and have too long been neglected, ignored, or forgotten in our universities and society,” he said at the time.

At the 2019 launch of the institute, the university’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), Professor Shaun Ewen said: “Only when Australian Indigenous knowledges, perspectives and experiences are centred at the University of Melbourne can it meaningfully recognise its place and begin to fulfil its aspiration to be a truly great Australian University for the world.”

Inaugural Director appointed

Last week, the Vice-Chancellor appointed Professor Aaron Corn as the inaugural Director of the new institute.

Prof Corn is a widely recognised scholar of Indigenous music with 30 years experience in research and education, including collaborative research grants with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and the Mulka Project.

"It is a great honour to be Inaugural Director of this Institute, which has a great opportunity to help maintain, cultivate and showcase the importance Indigenous knowledge and cultures,” Prof Cron said in a statement last week.

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