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Inside the campaign to keep beloved lecturer Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson at USyd

Students at the University of Sydney have faced constant attacks on beloved departments, courses and staff. They've responded with countless protests, petitions, stunts and open letters. Students are mobilising once again – this time in support of a beloved pedagogue.

Dr Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson is the widely admired lecturer behind the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ most popular course – PHIL1012: Introductory Logic. He has worked at the University of Sydney for eight years, the last four of those full time. Dubbed the “king of philosophy” by USyd Rants and having received a PhD from Oxford University, the respect Sequoiah-Grayson garners from students is palpable. 

This cult following makes the University’s decision not to renew his contract, which ends next week, a remarkable lightning rod for student backlash. An open letter has circulated, attracting over 600 signatures, including more than 300 in the last day, demanding Sequoiah-Grayson be offered an ongoing position. “The University of Sydney will not find a more capable (or popular) academic or educator than Dr. Sequoiah-Grayson,” the open letter reads. Some students have even reportedly been buying his music in solidarity. 

When Honi asked for students’ experiences with Dr Sequoiah-Grayson, the testimonials we received were glowing – so much so that reproducing them reads as almost hagiographic. Students made it clear that his classes were an unrivalled pedagogical experience, not just in intellectual rigour but also in creating an atmosphere of support and encouragement.

Former PHIL1012 student and USU President Prudence Wilkins-Wheat saw Dr Sequoiah-Grayson as pivotal in overcoming her imposter syndrome in first year: “I… was convinced that I was the stupidest person in every room. But that all changed when I did philosophy and Seb was my tutor. He was kind and patient and made me feel like I had a lot of potential.”

In a similar vein, Isabel Formby, also a former student of Sequoiah-Grayson, described him as “a personal hero of mine, because he is such an incredible thinker and supportive teacher” and noted he had motivated and inspired her to enter philosophy academia. 

Numerous submissions to the open letter credited Sequoiah-Grayson with inspiring them to pursue postgraduate study in philosophy or with equipping them to succeed in other fields, including Computing and Government.

Another frequent comment was on Sequoiah-Grayson’s commitment to his students, who pointed to the hours spent filming content and adapting PHIL1012 to online learning, as well as going above and beyond to support individual students.

Formby told us he had “offered individual Zoom sessions to the whole cohort after midterm marks were released… a level of support I would never have expected in an undergraduate course.” 

Wilkins-Wheat described Sequoiah-Grayson reading over a draft essay: “he gave me feedback and explained to me concepts I was confused about. I ended up with one of the highest marks I’ve ever received at uni.”

Being taught by Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson has been a milestone and a highlight of many students’ studies. Yet while teaching courses that students look back on as formative years later, he has been trapped in the precarity of casual employment. This, along with the decision not to renew his contract, is seen by students as perplexing, “unbelievable” and “the biggest mistake.” One submission to the open letter described the move as “akin to Google getting rid of Search.”

The fight to save Sequoiah-Grayson’s job is perhaps unusual within education activism. Where previously students have mobilised to save whole courses or departments, now they aim to protect a single academic. 

This campaign crystallises one of the core complaints of student-led education activism over the last two years: the disconnect between University and Government decision-making and students’ lived experiences. Each campaign is trying to save some fragment of the student experience, but viewed together they represent simmering anger at the illogic of the neoliberal university.

Incredulity is a frequent emotion for students: why would the University gut Pathology mid-pandemic? Why would whole departments be cut from the School of Literature, Art and Media, despite it posting a surplus? Why are we losing one of the University’s most competent and popular teachers in Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson?

To many staff and students, these decisions betray pure contempt towards their work and education.

A casual tutor within the Department of Philosophy, who asked to remain anonymous because of past experiences being targeted by the Department, said it was acting with “contempt for its students, who continually ask for Seb and who choose to take Logic courses because of Seb…  [and] generalised contempt for and devaluing of teaching excellence, resistance toward innovation in teaching, and unresponsiveness to feedback from students and junior colleagues.”

The tutor noted that a number of tutors within the Department had been told their contracts would not be renewed in Semester 1 2022. They told Honi that this “indicates its contempt for its casualised staff, without whom courses like Intro Logic cannot run.”

They added that the Department fails to respond to feedback from casual tutors: “I’ve repeatedly given feedback on how courses could be improved, and relayed feedback from students with whom I have regular contact in tutorials. My feedback has never been taken on board, and instead courses have continued to run in the same format year after year, with superficial changes at most.”

USyd SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins told Honi: “USyd has treated a highly regarded lecturer with complete contempt, just like it treats the rest of its staff. Seb’s case reminds us that USyd management views staff as pawns to make profit, rather than as educators and researchers that provide value to students and society.”

Perkins added that higher education needs structural changes to “return to a model that values research and teaching instead of profit” including “an end to University wide course cuts, notably in the arts” and “staff who have job security, 40/40/20 academic positions and aren’t having their wages stolen.”

SRC President Lauren Lancaster agreed that staff were being systematically undervalued: “Instead of measuring staff value by the student engagement that they produce, academics’ terms of employment are increasingly bound up in opaque systems of KPIs and revenue incentives. That is not what education should be about, and the SRC stands in solidarity with SSG and all staff who face employment uncertainty at the University.”

You can view the open letter here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScV2tyA8SWKxd9iKsNGmxyUAp5ZgAz2BotCa4hTjh1Z2espIQ/viewform