Multi-million dollar UniMelb funding suspended over awarding honorary doctorates to exclusively caucasian men

The Snow Medical Research Foundation has suspended all funding ties with the University of Melbourne following a third year of honorary doctorates awarded to only causasian men.

Photo of the six University of Melbourne 2022 honorary graduates . Source: The University of Melbourne.

The Snow Medical Research Foundation cut multi-million-dollar funding ties to the University of Melbourne (UniMelb) last Monday, suspending their inclusion in the prestigious Snow Fellowship program.  

This comes after UniMelb released a photo and a press release on 28 February revealing this year’s six honorary doctorate recipients are solely caucasian males — for the third year in a row.  

Operating as Australia’s largest research foundation, Snow Medical released a tweet on 7 March stating that they had made the “difficult decision” to “suspend” the University’s funding and participation in the program due this continued lack of diversity.

Snow Medical chair Tom Snow described it as a “cultural issue” of the UniMelb board, which is the body responsible for deciding the recipients of honorary doctorates each year. 

The six men awarded comprise a genomicist, a virologist, a miner who oversaw an iconic Australian airline, a policy-maker, a veterinarian and an architect of the global intellectual property system. 

During the awards ceremony, UniMelb Chancellor Allan Myers described their honorary degrees as a “recognition of outstanding achievement in a field of endeavour”. 

The board has not awarded an honorary doctorate to a non-man or non-white individual since 2018. 

The press release additionally states that three women and an Indigenous man were also on the list of this year’s awardees. These individuals were unable to attend in person and their doctorates will therefore be “conferred at a later date.” 

In a press release on 8 March, responding to Snow Medical’s suspension of financial philanthropy, UniMelb stated that they are “committed to strengthening a vibrant and inclusive community where diversity is recognised, valued and celebrated.”

“While we acknowledge the areas where we need to improve, Snow Medical has made their decision on the basis of a single honorary doctorate event.” 

However, in an ABC News article also published 8 March, Snow expressed his frustrations stating that “over the last three years, and they’ve had three years to think about this, they’ve only been able to find white men who are able to turn up to the ceremony.”

After 16 million dollars in donations to UniMelb across two years, the abrupt withdrawal of ongoing funding from Snow Medical puts “the rest of the sector on notice” according to  Marguerite Evans-Galea, co-founder of Women in STEMM Australia. 

Snow Medical have stated that they are “committed to working with the University to ensure real change happens” and, although “this will cause short-term pain,” Snow says he hopes UniMelb will “massively turn this around” and recognise their mistake. 

Snow, also Board Chair of Equality Australia, acknowledges the work that needs to be done in all institutions to provide equal opportunity, including within Snow Medical itself.

“We all have improvements to make, and we can all do better”.  

In 2020, Snow Medical donated a ‘gift’ of 5.5 million dollars to UniMelb and USyd, to “plug coronavirus research gaps and fast-track economic recovery”.

In 2021 at USyd, eight of 14 honorary doctorates were awarded to men. Of the 14, the vast majority are caucasian. Notably, Shellie Morris, an Indigenous singer-songwriter and educator, was awarded a doctorate “in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to music performance and education, in particular for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their culture and language”.