UNSW is (still) failing its Indigenous staff

UNSW's response to the Stand With Tess campaign shows it once again is failing its Indigenous staff

Stand With Tess campaigners at a rally last year. Source: Stand With Tess Facebook page.

In 2019, Universities Australia outlined a commitment to improving the sector that has, “historically underperformed against their obligations to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” Government guidelines require Australian universities to have plans to increase the representation of Indigenous staff to 3% of the total workplace; a goal few have yet met. This year’s Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted institutionalised racism in the university sector. In June this year, more than 100 former staff and students signed a letter stating NIDA was “‘complicit in white supremacy and colonial violence’ by not doing more to support students of colour.” 

This anger is not new. In October 2019, UNSW sparked outrage from staff and students when it refused to renew the contract of its celebrated Indigenous Programs Director, Tess Allas. The effective firing of Allas, one of few long-term Indigenous staff at the UNSW Art and Design (UNSWAD) campus, proved to many that UNSW was not  fulfilling its promises to increase Indigenous staff representation. 

Students rallying under the banner of #StandWithTess started a petition that has gained 1,719 signatures and a boycott of UNSW galleries with the support of Australian artists including Richard Bell, Frances Bell Parker, Daniel Boyd, Vernon Ah Kee, Dianne Jones, Julie Gough and Joan Ross. Nevertheless, UNSW and UNSWAD Dean Ross Harley continued to ignore requests to explain why Allas’s contract was not being renewed.

In 2018, UNSW management entered into an Enterprise Agreement with academic staff, which committed itself to a target of having “90 Indigenous academic and professional staff” and to “establish a financial compact that will guarantee dedicated funding […] associated with advancing Indigenous employment outcomes” of at least  $1.5 million by 2021.

In spite of this, the 2019 UNSW Annual Report records only 0.80% of staff being Indigenous, or 25 people. This is well below the 2% Equal Employment Opportunity benchmark that UNSW set for itself. It appears UNSW has given up on meeting its goal by the nominal expiry date of 31 December 2021. Indeed, following announced cuts of almost 500 jobs, this number may be even lower. UNSW declined to respond to Honi’s request for updated Indigenous employment figures or provide a response as to whether management believe the goal would be met.

UNSW management has been reluctant to accept responsibility for the decision. In October 2019, after exiting a meeting with Harley, Allas informed supporters waiting outside that the Dean had said the decision to cancel her contract was a “budgetary” issue, “out of his hands,” that was part of a “restructuring” directive from Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous Megan Davis. Uncle Vic Chapman OA, the UNSW Indigenous Elder in Residence and Fellow who had sat in on the meeting, expressed bewilderment stating, “As Tess said in the meeting, it appears Faculty is, ‘getting rid of the Aboriginal problem by getting rid of the Aboriginal people.’”

In an email sent by Harley formalising the cessation of Allas’s contract, the Dean refuted that account. “Misinformation [has been] circulating regarding the cessation of your employment,” the email states. “[T]he contract’s not being renewed was a Faculty decision supported by the University. This was not a decision of the Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous.”

A spokesperson for UNSW told Honi that “We are not able to comment on an individual staff member’s circumstance but would like to reassure you we are committed to Indigenous students and staff at the University.”

Uncle Vic described the failure to renew Allas’ contract  as “our Faculty’s Sorry Day” and announced he would be stepping down as UNSW Indigenous Elder in Residence if Allas was sacked.

Allas’s case highlights the particular challenges faced by First Nations staff within an already precarious sector. Despite being a member of staff for almost 14 years, Allas had only worked on two to three year fixed-term contracts. Fixed-term contracts give the descriptive illusion of job security, but in fact, the “appointment is made for a specified term or ascertainable period.” 

Allas has declined to comment on the matter.

Before Allas’ contract expired, #StandWithTess campaigners organised a rally on campus protesting Allas’ removal. President of the Student Council, Jack Poppert, delivered a letter in person to Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs seeking a meeting with students. In the letter, shared to Instagram, Poppert states, “We are concerned by the manner in which each of you have upheld the Indigenous Strategy as a defence of actions that we believe directly contravene its very principles. We have asked for attention. In return we have received mere signification.” 

However, campaigners were met with silence. Despite a meeting with senior management, campaigners were told that the decision to “restructure and centralise” Indigenous programs and to sack Allas remained incontestable. In a final correspondence, Deputy Vice Chancellor Merlin Crossley states that “the necessary management actions have been undertaken in good faith.” 

In final correspondence with the Dean, Uncle Vic Chapman states: 

“Dear Ross, until such time as you apologise to myself, Tess, Ruth and Tony for calling us liars, please remove me from your email list. Do not sent [sic] me anymore emails from unceded Indigenous lands.”

Still more staff have seen their jobs lost in the recent merge of the Art and Design faculty into the new Arts, Architecture & Design. One of these is Dean Ross Harley.  But unlike precarious staff like Allas, he remains protected. In a leaked email to staff, VC Ian Jacobs applauds Dean Ross Harley’s leadership and in recognition of his outstanding contribution to UNSW has awarded him with the title Emeritus Professor.

Ross Harley currently chairs the NIDA Board of Directors