The University of Melbourne has admitted it has “much more work to do” after backlash to its decision to appoint non-Indigenous staff members in leading roles focused on Aboriginal studies, as well as allegations of racist treatment of staff.
Accusations of systemic racism at the university have been an ongoing issue, with multiple Indigenous academics leaving the institution in recent months. However, a fresh wave of criticism has ignited following the resignation of Larrakia Wadjigan and Central Arrernte man Dr Eddie Cubillo from his role as a part-time associate dean and senior fellow at the Melbourne Law School earlier this month.
While Dr Cubillo remains at the university’s Indigenous Law and Justice Hub, he alleged the law school was “the most culturally unsafe place” he had worked at, per Guardian Australia, and claimed this was the reason that there was “an exodus of staff”. Yikes.
At the time of his resignation, Dr Cubillo was “the sole Indigenous academic at MLS, with several others having departed due to similar circumstance,” Law School Indigenous Student Representative Keshi Moore told Guardian Australia.
Moore was referring to the departure of three other First Nations staff members who resigned from the law school earlier this year over “continual violations of their physical, emotional and cultural health”.
Allegations of racism at the university extend further than just the Law School.
The university’s Indigenous Knowledge Institute, which was founded in 2020, is led by Professor Aaron Corn.
An anonymous academic told Guardian Australia that the appointment of a non-Indigenous professor to head the institution was “one of the big catalysts” for First Nations staff quitting.
“There was no shortage of [Indigenous] talent and it wasn’t a one-off,” they said.
Zena Cumpston, a Barkandji woman and former research fellow at the University of Melbourne who quit last year, slammed what she said was common practice for the university: hiring non-Aboriginal “experts” for senior roles advising on Aboriginal studies, instead of Indigenous academics.
“Our elders and communities have fought for these upper-level positions for decades – the fundamental basics of self-determination – and here’s a trend for positions with the word ‘Indigenous’ to be filled by ‘experts’, taking us back decades,” she said, per Guardian Australia.
Cubillo’s resignation, along with these other staffing issues, has sparked the launch of a petition calling for an apology for the MLS’ treatment of First Nations staff and students, as well as meaningful action to be taken to listen to and support those affected.
The petition has more than 1,300 signatures at the time of publishing, including dozens of Indigenous academics and respected advocates.
The University of Melbourne said it was “deeply concerned” by the allegations levelled against it by staff.
“Those experiences have challenged us to consider what we are doing to address Indigenous cultural safety and to demonstrate that racism is not tolerated,” a spokesperson said, per Guardian Australia.
“Creating an environment where Indigenous staff feel supported to thrive is a top priority for the university. There is much more work to do but we have made progress.”
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