ACU, Despite Citing University Finances as Reason for Cuts to Dianoia, Funds New Hires and Centers


Australian Catholic University (ACU) recently announced a plan that involves closing its Dianoia Institute of Philosophy and making 14 of its existing faculty compete through a re-application process for only 4 positions, as well as cutting faculty in history, political science, theology, and religious studies.

ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Zlatko Skribis posing with other people and a baby goat

ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Zlatko Skribis (left), under whose leadership the university went from budget surpluses to a projected deficit of $30 million in a photoshoot with a baby goat. 

Questions about Financial Justification for Cuts

The plan, which has received a significant amount of criticism from academics around the world (see the comments on this post, for example, and this petition) was proposed by ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Zlatko Skribis because “the university is operating in a difficult economic environment” and is facing “limits on financial resources.”

Yet the university has apparently found resources during this time to make new hires and start new initiatives, which suggests the possibility that economic difficulties are not the impetus for the proposed cuts, and that university administrators are not being forthcoming with a full accounting of the reasons for them.

For example, as The Australian reported yesterday, ACU is launching as part of its teacher training program an “Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy.” With its launch, the new center has hired “the largest group of working scientists in this area in Australia,” according to the dean of the Faculty of Education and the Arts. The literacy center complements a STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) teacher training center that the university established several months ago.

A Catastrophe and a Humiliation

Meanwhile, it is unclear what led an opinion piece in the Australian news publication The Catholic Leader, critical of the planned cuts, to be removed from the paper’s website. The article (a screenshotted and partially incomplete version of which can be seen here), called the cuts “a catastrophe for Catholic education in Australia and a humiliation for those who have supported it over so many decades.”

The article, by Miles Pattenden, a Senior Research Fellow in ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, raises this question:

How, for instance, did [Zlatko SKribis] turn budget surpluses in the last years of former Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven’s tenure into a projected deficit of $30 million this year?

He notes the “cruelty” of the proposal:

Many colleagues were recruited by ACU management within the past ve years, often from overseas. They gave up tenured positions elsewhere to come to ACU. Now they and the families they brought over, face being left destitute.

as well as the lack of faculty input:

Tellingly, ACU management did not consult with any of us or seek alternative ways to reduce budgetary deficits before wielding this bluntest of axes.

He also focuses on how the proposed cuts are at odds with the Catholic identity of the university:

A Catholic university such as ACU ought to invest more and harder in Humanities than secular institutions. Humanities are the heart of the Catholic tradition as St John Henry Newman recognised in his seminal exposition of The Idea of a University. Newman’s ideas have been inuential far beyond the Catholic world. They are a shining example of what Catholics and our Church contribute to modern, liberal, Western societies. For a Catholic University to turn its back on them—indeed to be sacking the very people within its ranks whose scholarship most embodies them—with so little forethought is deeply disturbing. 

How did the cuts get to be proposed and taken seriously? Pattenden writes:

Part of what has gone wrong at ACU is undoubtedly a lack of focus and understanding of our core Catholic mission and values. The management team responsible for this “change plan” includes no humanities scholars.

Contacting the Administration

Readers who wish to express their opinion about the plan to the administration should email [email protected], and if they like, also do so in the comments on this post or this one.

 

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OldTimes
OldTimes
7 months ago

I can never resist checking the salaries of those top managers slashing faculty while referring to budget issues. Skribis makes a million a year! Top administration has really turned into a class of vampires feasting on higher education…

Ozzer
Reply to  OldTimes
7 months ago

I’d quote you in tomorrow’s town hall to get a reaction, but the VC has decided he’d rather not attend.

Ozzer
7 months ago

Watch this space–they’ll be hiring people in business and law after these appointments in literacy. It was interesting watching the architects of this answer a question as to why anyone should ever trust an offer of employment again (from the transcript of today’s meeting)

“At the outset, I’d say firstly, no one’s been dismissed at this point. This is a draft plan and we’re in a formal consultation period, so receiving feedback. I would also note that it is the nature of higher education and particularly of an institution like ACU that is incredibly so dependent on its commonwealth support that we do need to be judicious with the money we spend. We also need to be agile in responding to the demands and the priorities of our funders, and that includes also, of course, the demands and the priorities of our regulator. Other higher education institutions across Australia have also lost staff. During COVID, the sector lost 6 % of its staff. ACU actually lost none at that point. And we, it’s within our right, of course, as an institution, as a self -governing, self -accrediting institution, to change the models that we use internally in order to meet the demands of those who are our funders and regulators, but also our own strategic intent. So, I think for many people, many people would recognise that universities need to do what they need to do to survive and that this is the nature of working in higher education.”Right, but there’s been no evidence that the research intensification strategy is unsustainable and ACU did remarkably well during COVID (as the speaker tells us). What, then, is the cause for getting rid of people? It’s “strategic intent”. Take note. Whereas you can think of an offer of continued employment in the UK or the US as an offer of stable employment, the ACU’s of the world make that contingent on ‘strategic intent’. And what is strategic intent? Taste of the people who replaced the chap who retired. This is a sign that Australia has nothing like tenure. Stay away and get out if you can. Watch this space. They have retained scores of people in the humanities without using any selection criteria to determine who would be best suited to keep their jobs. (Do you think giving the reigns of all of philosophy to the institute for religion and critical inquiry is a quality control decision based on the judicious review of who might be best suited to serve the teaching and research needs of the university? No, of course not. The administration doesn’t even know what we do. The Chancellor identified work on ethical issues surrounding AI as one of the key issues that universities should be concerned with and proposed firing literally everyone doing anything remotely connected to that.) They are not just hiring people in literacy. My prediction is that they’ll hire scores of people in business and law. Why? Because it’s a new line on the CV is administrators who want to claw back money from people that were offered jobs because they can use that money to advance their careers. They won’t be here in a decade. These administrators like to talk about ‘the nature of higher education’, but they made people redundant who hadn’t even had time to move here.. We’re talking about people who they had tried to negotiate out of permanent positions who were made redundant so quickly that they hadn’t even packed their bags to come here. That is not in keeping with industry norms. It is disgusting and it pushes things, in my mind, to a completely new level in Australia. How can they both argue that someone is vital to some purpose in securing them a visa they get in July or August and then mark them for redundancy in September? If you say financial emergency, they are incompetent buffoons who shouldn’t have control of the money. Nothing happened in that space of time that explains this 180. If you don’t say financial emergency, they are erratic managers who should be ignored by the people who hand out visas.

Disgruntled Australian
Disgruntled Australian
7 months ago

Unfortunately, this kind of sneaky move is increasingly common at Australian institutions. So, although this might be shocking to North American and European colleagues, for anyone who has worked at an Australian university for long enough, especially post-pandemic, this is not at all surprising.

Steve Finlay
Steve Finlay
7 months ago

I think it’s important to say (in case it isn’t obvious to everyone) that the newly hired staff in the literacy centre deserve no approbrium. I hear that at least some of them may be refugees from similarly brutal redundancies at Macquarie University.

James Cummings
7 months ago

Of the 14 researchers, only one has a secondary interest in philosophy of religion. For a Catholic university, that is contrary to the nature of being. A professional philosopher could have easily discovered that something was amiss.

The whole idea of an M+E research-only institute was obviously an unsustainable scam. All the researchers involved should have insisted on a tuition-paying MA program before they ever came.

My strongest regret is that the current crop of corrupt, perverse administrators have received an apparently irresistible first-mover advantage in dismantling the institute, simply by recognizing a tiny portion of its reality. Please give any victims strong consideration in your legitimate job searches.

Nevin Climenhaga
Reply to  James Cummings
7 months ago

I’ve generally been staying out of the online discussion of Dianoia’s situation, but I did want to respond to this comment, as I feel the first paragraph presents a misleading narrative about Dianoia’s research strengths and connections with the rest of Australian Catholic University. Philosophy of religion is one of my primary areas of specialization. (3 of my 12 journal articles are in philosophy of religion. Another is in the leading biblical studies journal, Journal of Biblical Literature: this article arose out of fruitful discussions with colleagues in ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry on the use of formal methods in historical reasoning.) My Dianoia colleague, John Hawthorne, has made important contributions to the literatures on the problem of evil and the fine-tuning argument (and is currently co-authoring a book on fine-tuning). Leading philosophers of religion/philosophical theologians Eleonore Stump, John Haldane, and Robert Audi have part-time or honorary appointments with ACU and are all affiliated with Dianoia. Philosophy of religion is also a secondary research interest of Rachel Fraser, a new hire who was set to commence next year.

In the most recent Philosophical Gourmet Report, ACU tied for 6th in philosophy of religion: https://www.philosophicalgourmet.com/metaphysics-epistemology/. This was presumably largely due to Dianoia — although we can’t take full credit as there are excellent philosophers working on philosophy of religion in other parts of ACU as well (including Nick Trakakis in the School of Philosophy and former Dianoia member Tyler Paytas in the Western Civilisation program).