Melbourne’s “Toxic” Arts

Having given Monash University a whack, it’s time to take a quick look at the University of Melbourne. A couple of intriguing reports about the University appeared earlier this week in Melbourne’s Age newspaper. The reports are most interesting for what was not written.

The first report, by Kylar Loussikian and which appeared on Monday, detailed allegations apparently raised by Professor Jennifer Milam, Head of the School of Culture and Communications. Professor Milam is reportedly in a legal battle with the University of Melbourne, stemming from accusations of bullying against her.

That battle is notable (and see an earlier report here), but the focus of Loussikian’s report, and his second report with Tom Cowie the following day, was on a more general issue, the supposedly “toxic” environment in Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts. That characterisation appears to be due to the university’s former vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis.

According to Loussikian and Cowie:

  • A legal review conducted by the University of Melbourne “found four heads of school [in the Faculty of Arts] were ‘undermining’ acting dean [of Arts] Denise Varney“.
  • Professor Varney, who had been in the School of Culture and Communications, was promoted to acting dean in February. Academics claimed to The Age that school heads had been discouraged from applying for the acting dean position.
  • Milam has “alleged to have implied that the faculty [of Arts] was hiding profits”.

There’s plenty more detail and colour in Loussikian and Cowie’s reports, including the suggestion that the four heads in question could be investigated for misconduct, which “could lead to dismissal”. Two of the heads are also named: Professor Milam and Professor Trevor Burnard, who was head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies up until July and who is reportedly leaving the University.

So, what is really going on? God only knows. But there is one glaring question underlying all this: if those four heads in Arts were indeed “undermining” Dean Varnie then why were they undermining her? What is the underlying substance of the dispute? The secondary but still important question is how Professor Varnie came to be acting dean. If heads in Arts were discouraged from applying, then by whom, and why?

We know nothing about this dispute other than what has been reported. There’s plenty nasty we could say in general about Australian arts and humanities and vice chancellors and heads and deans. We have friends at the University of Melbourne who pretty much loathe everything about the place. But can the systemic awfulness of Australian universities offer any insight into this very specific dispute? God only knows.

All that seems clear is that there’s a larger and, we’ll guess, more important story that, for whatever reason, Loussikian and Cowie aren’t telling.

2 Replies to “Melbourne’s “Toxic” Arts”

  1. Absolutely there has to be more to this one. If every academic that “undermines” a dean is up for dismissal, I’d wager there wouldn’t be many academics left!

    1. Yep. Pretty much deans and heads are always at war, or at least are threatening war. The question is, what was this war about?

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