The History Department at the University of Melbourne must be desperately hoping that John Howard’s election-driven sudden interest in Aboriginal children will keep media attention distracted from their own Indigenous scandal.

The new History Department head Joy Damousi has managed to bungle the appointment of an Indigenous lecturer to teach the Department’s only subject in Indigenous history.

The department has for many years been the target of strong criticism from Indigenous academic historians for its lack of Indigenous staff and its grandstanding in the so-called ‘history wars’ debates. Of all the major universities in Australia, Melbourne University has the only History department that does not employ a single Indigenous historian.

The current subject in dispute is called “Indigenous and Pacific Islander Histories” and was taught several years ago by Tony Birch who was Melbourne University’s first Indigenous historian. But Birch became so disillusioned with his treatment by the History Department that he left and became a lecturer in creative writing in the English Department.

He was replaced two years ago by Pacific Indigenous lecturer Tracey Banivanua-Mar who also became strongly disillusioned with her treatment by the History Department and in December last year resigned and moved to La Trobe University.

Thus the History Department was left with a problem as to who would teach its Indigenous history subject this semester (which begins next Thursday). Joy Damousi, faced with a million dollar deficit and no Indigenous staff, decided the cheapest option would be to appoint two non-Indigenous post-graduate students to teach the subject. This decision generated an angry response from Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and Damousi was forced to nullify the initial appointment and promise to have the subject taught by an Indigenous academic.

Damousi’s problem then became one of trying to find an Indigenous academic who would teach the subject under the sub-standard salary and conditions that the Department was offering because of their financial deficit. Education faculty academic Phil Egan expressed interest, but only if he taught it jointly with historian Gary Foley, and only if the salary and conditions were improved in recognition of their experience, expertise and qualifications.

The History Department had never approached Foley to teach the position because of his widely known antipathy toward the department, which he has accused of hypocrisy in their engagement with Keith Windschuttle and his history warriors. Thus, they didn’t want Foley but they did want Egan.

So, on Sunday night the head of the Department, Joy Damousi, who has been enjoying the isolation of Paris (France not Hilton), was compelled to make a dramatic long distance phone call to desperately plead with Egan to accept the position without Foley. Despite the anxious and extraordinary call from Damousi, Egan refused.

The History Department now finds itself in an impossible situation whereby Damousi’s promise to have the subject taught by an appropriately qualified Indigenous academic cannot be delivered, and the subject will either be taught by unqualified and inadequate non-Indigenous staff, or will be withdrawn.

Professor Kate Darian-Smith, Deputy Dean and Associate Dean (International and Graduate Studies) Faculty of Arts responds:

Background: In mid-May 2007, the School of Historical Studies had a vacancy for a Lecturer position to teach the 12-week subject “Aboriginal and Pacific Islander Histories” in Semester 2. With a tight time-frame leading up to the commencement of teaching, the Head of School decided to advertise the role as a sessional appointment to accommodate the 2007 teaching workload. A formal selection process was undertaken in consultation with the University’s Human Resources division, working with the Indigenous Employment Co-ordinator to seek advice on attracting suitable Indigenous candidates to this position.

Advertising: The vacancy was circulated to the University’s Indigenous employee mailing list by the Indigenous Employment Co-ordinator on 4 June 2007. It was also advertised nationally in The Koori Mail on 6 June 2007.

Offer: An Indigenous candidate applied for this vacancy, a formal selection process was conducted in association with the University’s Human Resources division, and the applicant was offered the position in late-June 2007. Mr Gary Foley did not make an application nor did he express interest in this position to the School so he was unable to be considered for the vacancy. The University of Melbourne believes that by advertising its positions it can attract the very best candidates. It is also a very fair and open system.

Other Comments: The University of Melbourne’s School of Historical Studies is firmly committed to teaching and research in the area of Indigenous History. It is therefore a priority for both the Faculty of Arts and the School of Historical Studies to make a continuing appointment in Indigenous History in the near future. When doing so the School will seek an EEO exemption, so that only Indigenous Australians can apply. The selection process for a Lecturer to teach the subject “Aboriginal and Pacific Islander Histories” is in no way related to the Faculty of Arts’ current budget deficit.

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