A plan to save the Australian Catholic University’s accreditation has backfired spectacularly with the dismantling of its prestigious philosophy department less than five years on – leaving some of the world-class academics it courted considering legal action. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

ACU academics stranded by department closure

An ACU campus building under a blue sky.
The Daniel Mannix Building at ACU’s Melbourne campus.
Credit: Benjamin Crone / Shutterstock

The Australian Catholic University was in some trouble. The university, founded in 1991 after the amalgamation of several Catholic tertiary bodies, was much newer and smaller than most and it wasn’t producing sufficient research to maintain its accreditation from the federal regulator for tertiary bodies.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency specifies certain thresholds for “research that leads to new knowledge and original creative endeavour” and requires it to be of international quality. Failure to meet these thresholds may lead to loss of accreditation, and so universities employ staff to monitor their compliance with these standards.

To mitigate the risk of losing accreditation, a plan was conceived by former vice-chancellor Professor Greg Craven and former deputy vice-chancellor for research Professor Wayne McKenna. It emphasised humanities, where research is cheaper to produce, in part because it does not require expensive laboratories. Part of the revitalisation of the university’s research capacity was the establishment of the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, for which ACU had grand ambitions, namely to “achieve a world-leading position for philosophical research in the analytic tradition”.

The Dianoia Institute sought to attract some of the world’s philosophical stars, luring them from vastly more prestigious positions internationally. Academics arrived from Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, as well as from less high-profile universities whose philosophy faculties were internationally admired.

And it worked. After its founding in 2019, the Dianoia Institute quickly began producing world-class research, which led to the once-obscure university rapidly climbing international rankings. One of the contributors to this success was Dr Dmitri Gallow, an American who was previously an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh – a campus with the fifth-ranked philosophy program in the English-speaking world.

“I looked at our publications, compared to every other school, ranked by The Philosophical Gourmet Report, over the period of our existence – just looking at the top five philosophy journals – and Dianoia had just far and away more publications than almost every other,” Gallow says. “The only exception in our accounting was Oxford, which has, like, five times the number of faculty.”

A similar audit was conducted at the Australian National University, which also found the ACU’s Dianoia Institute was producing large amounts of world-class research.

As recently as July, ACU’s Melbourne campus hosted the annual Australasian Association of Philosophy conference for the organisation’s centenary. But then, in September, word came from the relatively new vice-chancellor, Professor Zlatko Skrbis, who was appointed in 2021 – and from the deputy vice-chancellor of research and enterprise, Professor Abid Khan, who had been in his role barely a year – that the Dianoia Institute would be dissolved and there would be further staff cuts elsewhere in the university’s humanities schools. Fifty-two positions would be “spilt”, 19 of those reabsorbed elsewhere in the university, leaving a net loss of 32.4 full-time equivalent jobs. This announcement came after the university cut 80 full-time positions earlier this year.

In a statement at the time, the university said: “The Dianoia Institute for Philosophy (DIP) contains a world-class collection of researchers. However, the institute’s research program doesn’t inform the curriculum taught in the School of Philosophy and the size of the institute is difficult to sustain in the current model and economic climate.”

That “economic climate” was informed, the university said, by the pandemic and declining enrolment. The ACU’s annual report for 2022 cited a net surplus from continuing operations of just $200,000, down from $55.5 million the previous year. The report also noted a decline in revenue as a result of “reduced enrolments and changes to Australian Government funding arrangements”.

“ACU’s domestic enrolments have been on the decline for about eight years and, while the recovering international enrolments across the sector are yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, ACU’s relatively low ratios of international students are also yet to grow,” Professor Khan told The Saturday Paper in a response to questions. “In an environment of reduced revenue, the levels of internally funded research investment in areas where there is low student load and little externally derived funding, for example from government research grants, contract research, consulting or jointly funded PhDs, has become unsustainable at the volumes previously supported by the university.

“Like most Australian universities, ACU has undertaken budget cuts, including to staff, as a result of the pandemic. Making decisions about staff jobs is never easy, and the university prioritised non-salary expenditure among the first areas targeted for reduction; however, it has been necessary to include a reduction in staff numbers. ACU is a publicly funded university with a governance structure that ensures accountability and transparency. As an organisation that educates more than 30,000 students and employs more than 2000 people, we have responsibility to our students, staff, the community we serve and to the taxpayer to ensure responsible economic management.”

To the four staff The Saturday Paper spoke with this week, the September announcement was abrupt, unilateral and self-defeating, not least because of the injury to its international reputation. Most crucially, though, it also left them precarious: most had quit tenured or otherwise long-term jobs overseas to commit to the new project and were now wondering what to do. For some, there was also a sense of betrayal: there was just no way they would have left secure and prestigious work to relocate to the other side of the world to a new institute at an obscure university if they thought there was a risk of it being dissolved just four years after its establishment.

“I was approached a long time ago,” one academic tells The Saturday Paper, asking to remain anonymous as negotiations continue between the union and the university. “I was happy with where I was. It was a prestigious program, and secure. The job was yours until you decided to work elsewhere or retire. My plan was to stay there. But I was contacted about this institute, and it was an ambitious goal: to create the most prestigious philosophy institute in the southern hemisphere. And it was a collection of some very talented people. I was shocked to see the people signing up for this. There were the top three cited living philosophers, perhaps.

“An unknown number of academics were recruited from permanent positions abroad because they were led to believe these positions were permanent – and then [they] found in as little as a few months that they were being made redundant. A few people have left the profession. A few have left the country and are living with family while applying for jobs. To my knowledge, there is not a single position being advertised in my field in this country, so my choices are brave it out through redeployment, sue, or look for work in another country.”

Asked if the university had misled academics, Professor Khan said simply: “ACU follows industry standards when advertising positions. There is never a set guarantee that a position at the university will be ongoing in perpetuity. We make every endeavour to ensure we strive for a workforce that balances our needs with those of the sector and the community.”

Regarding another thorn for international staff – that communication from the university had been poor and contradictory – Professor Khan said: “The university followed appropriate processes determined by our enterprise agreement. It’s hard to comment on individual responses and feelings of affected staff but we acknowledge that these are difficult times for many.”

Professor Paul Kenny, an Irish political scientist who worked not in the Dianoia Institute but in the ACU’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, tells The Saturday Paper he weighed up the risks and rewards of leaving the ANU for ACU. “It looked like a really unique opportunity to build up this research-only based team and to bring in all my own new people,” he says. “But I was in a perfectly good stable job, you know, with a likely promotion within the next couple of years. I’ve given up an awful lot. Personally and professionally it’s been devastating. I have two young kids and the Australian academic market is pretty uneven. Jobs come up here and there, but for established academics, at full professor level, there aren’t that many places to go. It’s quite unusual that you move around frequently. So it’s thrown me into a serious crisis: will I have to leave Australia to keep working?

“The cuts themselves come as a shock. I mean, it’s unusual in the Australian system – you just don’t see this sort of magnitude most of the time. Cuts to a department or program are achieved through gradual attrition and voluntary redundancy. So this kind of sledgehammer approach, you know, is really out of sync with the sector.”

Kenny isn’t persuaded by the argument that Covid is to blame. “I was hired six months into Covid, and I recruited two other early-career researchers a year and a half into Covid. So the idea that Covid was unforeseen, it’s just not true in our case.”

The National Tertiary Education Union has lodged a dispute with the ACU, while some staff are exploring legal recourse. Dmitri Gallow, meanwhile, has taken voluntary redundancy and is pondering his next move. “I’ve put all of my stuff in storage,” he says, “I’m planning to just sort of live with friends for the next year while I apply for jobs, and hopefully I get something somewhere in the world in philosophy. But most of my colleagues find themselves in worse positions. I’m single and can upend and move anywhere in the world. But some of my colleagues have wives who are lawyers and who spent the last two years passing the Victorian bar and setting up a practice. And, you know, [it’s] very difficult to move then. They had come thinking that they had a permanent position and they were setting up a life.”

And what of the ACU? Another staff member says: “We were brought in because, frankly, the uni wasn’t producing enough quality research to retain its accreditation. That will last another few years. But what’s the long-term plan? Grad students are down, and they’re leaving because they don’t know if their supervisors are staying. They’ve poisoned their reputation globally.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Philosophical argument".

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