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Join the Fight to Save Pacific Studies at the ANU!

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On 1 August 1946, the Bill establishing The Australian National University (ANU) was passed by Federal Parliament, and with it the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS) was founded. Understanding Australia’s place in the region was, and remains, a key part of the ANU’s legislative mandate and has been core to the ANU mission for seven decades. This long-term commitment and substantial investment by the ANU is now at risk. The ANU College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP), faced with large operating deficits in the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) and the Crawford School of Public Policy, is poised to make substantial cuts to research and education on the Asia-Pacific, and in particular Pacific Studies. These come immediately on the back of deep cuts to the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) program - the ANU’s largest Pacific-focussed program, which is funded in partnership by the ANU and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Leading scholars around the world have condemned the current round of cuts describing them as “a profound failure of vision and a retreat from the university’s national mission” (Andrew Walker 2015), “academic vandalism at its cheapest and most wilfully ignorant” (Michael Herzfeld 2016), and “another step in Australia's decline to mediocrity” (John Bowden 2016).

Please join the fight to save Pacific Studies at the ANU by signing this petition, which calls upon the ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt to:

  • Reaffirm the ANU’s commitment to its founding mission and legislative mandate in an area of vital national significance and in doing so position us to respond to the challenges facing our region and guarantee the ANU’s ongoing place as Australia’s National University.
  • Immediately restore and consolidate core investments in Pacific Studies in Australia’s national interest, so that the ANU need not lose acclaimed Pacific scholars such as ARC Future Fellow Stuart Bedford, Associate Professor Paul D’Arcy, Associate Professor Mark Donohue and Dr Vicki Luker, executive editor of The Journal of Pacific History.
  • Remove the embargo on Pacific-focussed units such as the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) spending research returns and accumulated surpluses so that key Pacific positions and valued Pacific scholars might be retained.

For more information about the ANU Mission, Pacific Studies at the ANU, and the key achievements of the Pacific scholars at risk please read on.

The ANU Mission

Writing in 1996 to mark the 50th anniversary of Pacific Studies at the ANU, Raymond Firth, a member of the Academic Advisory Committee which oversaw the establishment of the ANU’s four foundational Research Schools recalled that RSPacS, was established in the immediate post-WWII period to counter Australia’s “immense ignorance of the Pacific” (Firth 1996:5). Indeed Australia’s post-war policy makers considered a deep understanding of the Pacific essential “to the conduct of Australian affairs regionally” (Lal 2006:4). From the outset it was agreed that ANU academics should be mindful of government interests and that research investment within RSPacS should focus on the territories and issues of clear concern to Australia (Firth 1996:5), with “the main thrust of research” being “the study of human relations” (ibid:6) through a number of different disciplinary lenses, including anthropology, history, human geography, linguistics, archaeology, economics, law and political science.

The ANU quickly established itself as the leading institution for research and education concerning the Pacific, and played a key role in seeding and developing research and tertiary institutions throughout the region, including the University of Papua New Guinea, PNG’s National Research Institute, the University of the South Pacific and the National University of Samoa. In the 1970s it was also the case that the heads of many Arts, Humanities and Social Science departments across Australia and New Zealand were Pacific scholars and “subjects on the Pacific were taught in most Australian universities” (AAAPS 2009:8). By the 1990s this was no longer the case and Pacific research and scholarship in Australia was on the decline. In part this was because Australia increased its attention to Southeast Asia, often at the expense of the Pacific. The shift in focus saw RSPacS renamed the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) in 1994.

Taking Forward the ANU Pacific Mandate

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Pacific Studies at the ANU, two programs which explicitly take forward the ANU mandate, namely Resource Management in Asia-Pacific (RMAP) and the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program, were established to counter the decline in Pacific scholarship. Their establishment reaffirmed awareness that the countries in our immediate region continue to be vital to Australia’s strategic, economic and political interests. Certainly Firth considered the move a success, commenting that the “huge array of research projects undertaken in co-operation with government, public institutions and other universities” as a “sign of maturity” and “a rich fulfilment” of the Commonwealth Government's ambitions for its national university (Firth 1996:7).

Now more than at any time in the ANU’s 70 year history, Australia needs to be well informed and engaged with the significant geopolitical transitions and the social, cultural and environmental challenges facing our region. It also needs to contribute to and support the efforts that the poorly resourced Pacific institutions are making to train researchers and better understand growing regional vulnerabilities. This is well recognised within government by both the political and public service leadership. As such the growing dissonance between Australia’s official engagement in the Pacific and its understanding of the region is remarkable. So too moves by the ANU to disinvest in Pacific scholarship and increasingly rely on external funding to support research of vital national importance. The recent decision to axe acclaimed Pacific scholars is inexplicable. They include:

  • ARC Future Fellow Stuart Bedford, who has held three ARC fellowships back-to-back since 2005, and is the College of Asia and the Pacific’s only research active archaeologist currently working in Melanesia. Stuart has produced 60 publications in the past 10 years alone, was awarded the Vanuatu General Service Medal (GSM) in 2011, and was curator of first international exhibition of Pacific island archaeological materials in Europe, ‘Lapita: Oceanic Ancestors’ held at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in 2010-2011;
  • Associate Professor Paul D’Arcy, a leading Pacific Historian who has published 3 books, 5 special issues, 23 journal articles and 26 book chapters. In the coming year Paul expects to publish three new books including the first ever Environmental History of the Pacific. He is currently co-editing a UN Report on Pacific Islander inter-generational responses to climate change and was recently recruited by Cambridge University Press as General Editor of the first two-volume, sixty-four chapter Cambridge History of the Pacific Ocean. Paul is a passionate teacher and supervisor who has designed and taught 16 courses at ANU, and currently supervises 16 PhD students. He also works on community projects, most notably the Connecting Moana online teaching curricula project created within, and for, Pacific island universities, and chairs the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, an international consortium of libraries dedicated to preserving historical records in the Pacific Islands;
  • Associate Professor Mark Donohue, a passionate teacher and highly respected linguist who has published over 125 scholarly works, including 5 books. Following his ARC-funded Future Fellowship, Mark is currently investigating the social history of Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia, as revealed through areal linguistic research and has close to 20 ongoing language projects, including on languages of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (both Austronesian and Papuan), and more recently the Himalayan languages of Nepal and Bhutan; and
  • Dr Vicki Luker, a prize winning scholar who for the past decade has served as the executive editor of The Journal of Pacific History (JPH). Since 2012 she has convened 7 courses and supervised 5 PhD students. Vicki is co-editor of three books including one on HIV and insecurity in PNG, a forthcoming special issue of JPH on Leprosy in the Pacific, and is currently finalising a book examining the effects of polygamy and its abolition on family health. Her work sits at the intersection of gender, health, history and development. Vicki also serves on the Anglican Board of Mission’s international aid program’s national development committee.

Simultaneously the ANU has placed an embargo on well performing units like SSGM spending accumulated surpluses which might otherwise be used to retain Pacific scholars. These actions suggest the ANU is not only resiling from its Pacific mandate but is prepared to walk away from decades of research excellence.

Recent reviews have already flagged the risks arising from ongoing under-investment in Pacific scholarship. In 2009 when the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific was last restructured, the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies found that “Australia’s position as a centre of excellence in Pacific Studies is being challenged” (AAAPS 2009:8) by New Zealand and Hawai’i. In comparison to New Zealand, Australia had “slipped dangerously behind in postgraduate research output and generally in its knowledge of the Pacific” (ibid:40). This is a point not lost on our “competitors” who have moved from admiration of the ANU focus on, and resourcing of, Pacific and Asian studies to derision of its most recent moves. Indeed, just last week, Alex Golub, of the University of Hawai’i, described the ANU’s decision to cut CHL as not only a gain for the University of Hawai’i but “unique for its severity, short-sightedness, and the damage it will do to Australia’s well-earned reputation for excellence in studies of Asia and the Pacific” (Golub 2016).

The ANU’s distinct comparative advantage, exemplified by seven decades of research excellence and an outstanding record of educational achievement and public policy engagement, lies in the critical mass of knowledge and expertise concerning Australia’s near neighbours; in its physical proximity to government; in its responsiveness to issues of national importance; extensive contribution to Australian Government policy and in its genuine commitment to research training. Shifting the focus away from our region - the unique “jewel” in the ANU crown - and instead onto the Humanities, Arts and Social Science (HASS) disciplines, places all this at risk and will irrevocably diminish the ANU’s international reputation.

The Changing Profile of Pacific Studies at the ANU

In 1995, prior to SSGM’s establishment, there were some 20 Pacific scholars in continuing positions at the ANU. Most were housed in RSPAS. In addition, there were 12 scholars who held fixed term (i.e. non-continuing) appointments. Five were funded by the Australian Aid Program. With the establishment of SSGM in 1996 and Resource Management in Asia-Pacific (RMAP) program soon after, additional Pacific scholars were recruited. However financial pressures in 1997/1998 and again in 2007/2008 saw several senior Pacific scholars retire without being replaced. The later financial crisis also saw the Human Geography department, which had formed an important part of RSPacS/RSPAS since its inception, disestablished altogether.

A 2010 audit of Pacific scholars, following the restructuring of the College of Asia and the Pacific, revealed there to be some 23 Pacific scholars in continuing positions, and another 17 on fixed-term and in many cases externally-funded contracts. Since 2010 the overall number of Pacific scholars at the ANU has risen, albeit on the back of new external funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). That said the number of scholars in continuing positions is set to drop below 1995-levels when the announced CHL cuts take effect. Currently, there are 25 Pacific scholars in fixed term or externally funded positions. Some of these positions may well be at risk too as a result of the most recent cuts by the Australian government to international aid. Certainly the May 2015 aid cuts exposed the inherent risks associated with disinvesting in key areas and relying instead on government, in this case DFAT, funding to support core business the ANU is legislatively mandated to undertake. Those cuts necessitated significant changes in SSGM’s staffing profile, involving the loss of eight full-time academic positions.

Whereas in 1995, the ANU boasted a vibrant Pacific professoriate this has all but been eviscerated. And while 4 in 5 Pacific positions were then recurrently funded through the research block grant, this has now halved. Although the overall number of Pacific positions has not declined, parts of the ANU have systematically dis-invested in Pacific scholarship over the past two decades. As a consequence, Pacific Studies at the ANU is now in a highly vulnerable position. Indeed not only do externally funded positions now outnumber recurrently funded positions, it is also the case that many recurrently funded positions are under-written by, and therefore contingent upon, the research returns generated through external research funding. In light of this, we the undersigned call on the ANU Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt to:

  • Reaffirm the ANU’s commitment to its founding mission and legislative mandate in an area of vital national significance and in doing so position us to respond to the challenges facing our region;
  • Immediately restore and consolidate core investments in Pacific Studies in Australia’s national interest, so that the ANU need not lose acclaimed Pacific scholars such as ARC Future Fellow Stuart Bedford, Associate Professor Paul D’Arcy, Associate Professor Mark Donohue and Dr Vicki Luker, executive editor of The Journal of Pacific History; and
  • Remove the embargo on Pacific-focussed units such as SSGM spending research returns and accumulated surpluses, so that key Pacific positions and valued Pacific scholars might be retained.

 
Author Note

Nicole Haley is Convenor of the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program.  Her current research focusses upon elections and electoral politics in Melanesia, and women’s political participation across the Pacific. In the past decade, she has secured over $30 million in research funds an in 2014 she was awarded the ANU Vice Chancellor’s Award for Public Policy and Engagement.

References Cited

Firth, R. 1996. The founding of the Research School of Pacific Studies. The Journal of Pacific History 31(1):3-7.

Golub, A. 2016. “Canberra’s loss is Mānoa’s gain as the ANU walks away from decades of excellence.” http://savageminds.org/2016/05/26/canberras-loss-is-manoas-gain-as-the-anu-walks-away-from-decades-of-excellence/

Lal, B. 2006. The Coombs: Journeys and Transformations. In B.V. Lal and A. Ley (eds) The Coombs: A House of Memories. Canberra: ANU Epress, pp. 1-20.

Rose, S., M. Quanchi and C. Moore. 2009. A National Strategy for the Study of the Pacific. Report by the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies (AAAPS).

 

 



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