*This piece uses Blak, Indigenous and First Nations interchangeably to refer to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples for brevity. We acknowledge that these terms do not wholly reflect the diversity of different groups or clans across so-called Australia.
Content warning: This piece contains mentions of racist language.
The University of Sydney is not a culturally safe space. It was not a culturally safe space in 1850 when it was first built, and it is still not a culturally safe space in 2023. Being built on stolen unceded Gadigal Country, harbouring policies from its time largely unchanged and still withstanding today, it accommodates institutional and systemic racism.
The 2020 Gari Yala survey, conducted by Jumbunna’s Indigenous People and Work Research and Practice Hub and Diversity Council Australia, is the first national survey to examine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences in the workplace. Exploring areas such as racism, cultural load, identity strain, exclusion, and authenticity — issues that are prevalent within Sydney University’s working environment.
Current and previous staff members from various faculties — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — were interviewed by Honi. Their identities have been anonymised. Interviewees disclosed issues that pertain to USyd’s environment — ranging from personal experiences with identity suppression, to workplace harassment, and institutional oppression.
A recurring point between interviewees is that the University is not a culturally safe space. Cultural training is not mandated for University staff members, but is instead “advised” optional training. A selected program is available for those in leadership positions involving a three-day retreat. However, neither the optional or mandatory cultural competency training is ensured to be taken regularly — even though cultural competence is not an end product, but an ongoing conversation and relationship. Though these courses are optional to many employed by the University, an ex-staff member noted “I was forced to do cultural competence training as an Aboriginal person, and it was taught by a white person […] I was the only person in my lab to do it.”
In conversations surrounding mandatory training, a staff member indicated that there is always pushback when making courses or training mandatory at the University, “but that to me is not prioritising the right things”. This pushback displays an institutional lack of prioritisation of creating and harbouring safe spaces for Indigenous staff members and, consequently, students.
Even with cultural training, how do we ensure non-Indigenous staff are absorbing information, and taking it on in their teachings and everyday lives? Especially when the training the University provides through their National Centre for Cultural Competence (NCCC) is organised and run predominately by non-Indigenous individuals.
The biography of the Director of the NCCC on the USyd website interestingly states they intend to “develop cultural competence from a non-Indigenous perspective and in particular how to facilitate a deeper understanding of transformative ways to learn and work together.” But how does cultural training have value if the source of training is not one that can engage with First Nations experiences and knowledge ongoingly? Cultural competence from a non-Indigenous perspective ultimately waters down and simplifies lived experiences, resulting in shallow cultural understanding for staff.
USyd’s 2022-2024 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Plan mentions “cultural safety, cultural competence, and cultural respect” and that “we need greater commitment to developing the cultural capability of our staff and leaders, with take up of existing cultural training and development needing to improve.” Despite outlining a greater need for safer spaces, no action points with direct outlines or detailed steps are provided for how to improve and implement these programs. A staff member noted that “Far too many actions still require ‘baseline’ data even though there have been dedicated Indigenous employment programs for over 10 years.”
Though the Employment Plan included launching a campaign in 2022 “for required cultural competence training and drive all staff completion”, with one year left until the plan ends, this has not been achieved or mandated across faculties, schools or other portfolios. Similarly, in the 2012-2016 Wingara Mura Bunga Barrabugu Strategy the University aimed to have 100% of its new and existing staff undertake cultural training by 2015. This has evidently not been achieved.
The University often uses equivocal terms — such as “deliver”, “implement”, “improve”, and “guide” — to appear as though it is changing. However, the policy points in its various Indigenous strategies often lack depth in how they are actually going to reach those targets and where the accountability for outcome lies
USyd engages itself in conversations surrounding Indigenising spaces, especially with their Walanga Wingara Mura Design Principles published in 2019. A staff member added that despite efforts being made “to indigenise, you know, Indigenous artworks, Indigenous design, I’m not sure how much effort we’re putting into decolonising.” A stroll through the Great Hall or Anderson Stuart Building, displays rows of portraits of colonial white men plastered across the walls. Most notably notorious is the “mankind” mural that stands in the Refectory in Holme building, which depicts a white man on a pedestal with a halo behind him whilst Blak naked bodies surround him on the ground.
Although it might be easy to jump to the conclusion that we should remove these paintings, conversations are yet to properly take place in discussing how to approach colonial artworks, structures, and buildings named after white settlers that litter the campus. Some interviewees point out the importance of truth-telling: having some form of structure next to (or replacing) current figures, that elucidates the truth of the past, creating space for a safer present and future.
Despite whatever training and goals the University projects in terms of curating safe spaces, First Nations staff continue to endure harassment, racism, and bullying in the workplace. A previous staff member noted that one of the first comments they had received were “we can’t give you the ethanol because you’re Aboriginal and you might sniff it.” Even when these harassments are raised, often they are dismissed, with another staff member’s claims being labelled as a “low level conflict” so that “the University doesn’t have to do anything”. Another previous staff member was told “to get over being Aboriginal and […] not take any notice”. Further exemplifying that the University lacks “any mechanisms, when people aren’t maintaining a healthy workplace,” as one staff member put it, in dealing with racial harassment.
In the current One Sydney, Many People 2021-2024 Strategy, the current Indigenous Community Engagement Officer within the Faculty of Medicine and Health, noted that in the strategy “there’s actually no mention of cultural safety at all.” Mostly focusing on increasing First Nations recruitment and representation for both staff and students. Another staff member commenting “How do we get to parity without retention? Who will want to work with us if we’re in an unsafe environment?”
Among current University staff demographics, a staff member highlighted that “60% are on continuing (ongoing) contracts and 40% are on fixed term contracts. For Indigenous staff it’s more like the reverse, 40% are on continuing contracts and 60% are fixed term — adding to job insecurity for this demographic.” It is worth noting here that the 40 and 60 per cent are based on the 1.5% Indigenous staff across the University.
Quite a few positions held by Indigenous staff within the University have their salaries partially paid through external philanthropic donations, adding to job insecurity. This compensation structure is curious, given that the University had recorded a billion dollar surplus in 2021. The University generally has a bad reputation for pathways into secure work since “the University doesn’t tend to recognise professional staff,” but for First Nations people, these structures are more inexistent. A leaving staff member added they had “to make a decision to actually leave the University because there was no structure, support or pathway into a research career for me.”
There’s a higher proportion of First Nation’s staff on satellite and rural campuses in comparison to the Camperdown-Darlington campus. When the University celebrates their increased recruitment of Indigenous members, it is often related to rural campuses – which is largely due to the work of the regional school, not the overall faculty or institution. As a result, we need to hold more scrutiny and accountability for the University in ensuring that there are structures in place which show that the University is promoting, hiring, and retaining Indigenous staff in all areas across campus and not in just one as a shortcut of reaching the NTEU’s enterprise bargaining agreement of 3% parity in the next three years. Flexible working arrangements and access to cultural leave policies play a part in providing a culturally responsive working environment.
The Camperdown-Darlington campus struggles with retention. A previous staff member, who had worked in the University for over 20 years — one of the longest-serving Indigenous staff members at the time until their termination in 2021 — pointed out that the number of Indigenous staff “was 140 or something in the later years, but then I sort of got sacked, there was like 80.”
Instead of the University fighting to keep their members, staff have to fight to stay on, or are pushed out. Indigenous staff have been dismissed for countless erroneous reasons, from health-related issues to speaking up against workplace conflicts. There have been instances where position requirements had changed, particularly surrounding “academic requirements” even though an Indigenous staff member may have held that position for years, pushing them out of USyd. The last notable instance being the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and its former Director.
When the first Indigenous Strategy — Wingara Mura Bunga Barrabugu — was introduced in 2012, it brought with it positions such as Deputy Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Services (DVCISS) in 2011, Associate Dean Indigenous for Faculties and Schools in 2013 and Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research. The University was attempting to create changes through Indigenous positions and introduced cultural competency as a graduate attribute. Yet at the same time had removed the Koori Centre in 2013, a dedicated space for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait students and staff, and established the National Centre for Cultural Competency. It wasn’t until 8 years later in 2021, a dedicated centre was reintroduced with the opening of the Gadigal Centre.
Currently, only a few Associate Dean Indigenous positions are held by First Nations identifying staff, taking away opportunities of Indigenous voices in leadership roles. Earlier this year, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences were in the process of recruiting an identifying individual for the position. However, despite Indigenous staff members eligible for the position, a non-Indigenous individual is rumoured to be starting in the position later this year. The Faculty of Science have announced that the next person to hold the Associate Dean Indigenous position must be identifying. Ten years since the position’s creation, for the recruitment to finally be appointed to a First Nations identifying individual demonstrates the institution’s lack of willingness to properly engage with putting Indigenous voices in power.
The University has recently proposed a new Confirmation of Identity process for students and staff identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander to remove statutory declaration depending on verified documents from Aboriginal corporations, which has raised concerns. Although it hasn’t been implemented, its proposal has already affected current students on scholarships, having their bursaries paused and access to the Gadigal centre denied until they can provide documents verified by Aboriginal councils. Minimal communication and appropriate consultation has occurred. The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council had a consultation on campus with students which ultimately was unproductive and traumatic for students, where their identities were questioned. Communication restarted two months ago after a year of stagnancy. A letter was sent to the Vice Chancellor from the NTEU union with minimal response. A staff member commented that with this policy it “in a way stops people from applying for positions”.
The first DVCISS position was held by Shane Houston, whose sudden departure from the University continues to raise questions. Staff had received an email on the day of his departure saying he would be “stepping down from his role […] and leaving the University today”, suggesting he had been fired. Houston had soon after filed a million dollar claim against the University for his dismissal. After his removal, staff have claimed that several relationships that the University had with communities and organisations were severed, with no efforts from the University to maintain them.
This is a recurring theme with the University when staff contracts or projects are terminated. The relationship that the institution had with communities or key Indigenous organisations are no longer sustained or maintained.
In 2019, the University launched the Warburton Arts and Knowledge Portal (WAKP). This was in collaboration with the remote Ngaanyatjarra community from Warburton in Western Australia, known to be home to the largest collection of Aboriginal art owned by Aboriginal people in the country. However, if you attempt to open the portal today it displays a message the same as the start of the year that the website is “offline for maintenance”. The project had begun under the first DVCISS and a year in the Production Manager was brought in. He noted it took over a year to build trust with the women of the community until he could raise questions surrounding their stories and artwork. It took “two and a half years to slowly build this portal and work with software designers and UX designers, you know, to create the front end and always consulting with the community.”
The website was a collection of artworks that would lead you to various traditional and cultural knowledge about place, plants, animals, and the stories connected, which was hopeful of being integrated within the University’s curriculum. The website was described to be the peak of collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge sharing. To celebrate the portal’s completion, women from the Warburton community had travelled to Sydney and painted a gift for the University in the foyer of F23.
However, when the current DVC ISS replaced Houston implementing a “military hierarchy”, she started “sunsetting the program”. Despite the four and a half years that were spent on the project and over half a million dollars, the Project Manager added that “we can’t even now go back to the community and go, here is your resource.” He added that digital elements could have had “potential employment possibilities for young kids who see the digital world and go, yeah, I actually want to do that.”
When the portal was launched in 2020 the current DVC ISS “was phasing it out”. There were plans for building an Eora Portal but that project as well was dismissed, “basically worked me into becoming redundant.” When the contract for the Production Manager had ended, so did the relationship with the Ngaanyatjarra community. The University failed to maintain a sustainable relationship and the community supposedly withdrew their approval from the website. Staff that had taken up the collaborative project within their units and teaching then had to readjust to the removal of this culturally approved resource.
For staff that wish to embed cultural knowledge within their teachings, they note a lack of “scaffolding” or support from the University in approaching this task. One staff member had noted that “I’ve had guest lecturers come in every year and they’ve been paid through a mix of my own research funding, sometimes my personal funds to supplement some of the payments, and then partially through some teaching relief money that I got from a project.”
A student at the University commented that he often guest lectures introductory units on Indigenous cultures for international students, but is paid in $50 Woolworths gift cards. Some note that there is often pushback from their faculties to introducing Indigenous knowledge in first year units, deeming it might be too “early” and should be left for later years in the course. This spotlights the University’s prioritisation of “Western” knowledge as the ultimate form of education, sidelining other cultures and perspectives, when instead education should be extensive rather than narrowing.
A staff member suggested that “there’s been not enough talk about having Elders in residence […] I think that we could do a lot more teaching wise and research wise”. Many universities across Australia — such as Monash and University of Newcastle — hold an Elders in Residence program, where community Elders form a panel to assist the University in embedding traditional knowledge and culture within both educational and physical spaces of the University. However, questions arise surrounding USyd’s ability in respectfully building a relationship with knowledgeable and respected Elders when the current environment is unable to retain, support, and respect Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff.
The relationship that the institution currently maintains with Indigenous staff members is substandard. During 2016/2017, an independant Indigenous consultancy was brought in to do a review of Indigenous employment at the University in preparation for the revised Indigenous employment strategy, however many staff that had been interviewed have noted they have never seen the report that came out of it. A previous staff member alluded to “compromised data of all the Indigenous staff” within the University. As the complaints that they had made had circulated between staff members and external parties, removing any privacy or security they thought would be ensured, “they had taken my confidential complaint and shown a third party from the uni when it was meant to be private and confidential.” Something of this severity, calls for serious investigation and accountability from the University.
The University’s first Indigenous MBA graduate had been awarded the Edmund Barton Medal for Postgraduate Leadership last year in 2022. In “one way was actually really a good, good piece of recognition that it was a mainstream category” but on the other hand, Barton was someone that had “instigated a lot of [the] white Australia policies” — the effects of which can still be felt today. They noted the dilemma of “how do I get up on that stage and accept a graduate medal that’s named after someone that instigated a lot of the systemic racist laws that are still being played out?” In their initial attempt to engage in conversations with the alumni office, not much came out of it, until a public talk at the graduation of the Vice Chancellor Sponsorship Program. This then launched requited efforts from the alumni office. An expanded narrative was read and included in the Alumni Awards program. Discussions were made in support for changing the name of the award, but despite the conversations that had happened, any further progress has been stalled since, implementing minimal change to the award.
There have been some strides over the past few years in regards to improving and increasing First Nations representation and celebration in the workplace. There has been greater engagement with First Nations voices and creating the strategies that have been named. Nonetheless, a departing staff member noted, “you’re adding value to things across the University, but the University isn’t adding value back to you.” Although there are strategies in place, they don’t tend to trickle down into schools and faculties where these things need to be implemented. The University as an institution needs greater urgency and willingness to actually implement change to demonstrate their “leadership for good”.
There is an apparent disconnect between higher management and schools, a current academic commenting that “we need to stop relying on top down initiatives. But we need to be supported [from] the top down, […] you can see clearly where there’s potential for change, but at the top, maybe it’s a bit abstract what actually happens down here.”
As the oldest university in Australia, with decades of discrimination embedded within its research and teaching, USyd has the most work to do in creating fair and safe spaces for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The current situation is far more layered than what is visible or has been explored in this piece. Nonetheless, the University needs systemic change, to take strides towards dismantling institutional racism, and to urgently take steps towards transparency, accountability and truth-telling.