You can almost hear the strains of violins coming from the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. It could even be a major performance of the Ride of the Valkyries, because somebody down at “The Con” is feeling very annoyed.

The big point of contention is Professor Kim Walker who has been Dean of the institution for the last four years. Walker is apparently pushing all the wrong keys because now the Governor of NSW and Chancellor of Sydney University, Marie Bashir has been dragged into the tussle.

Last week, an anonymous letter was forwarded to major media outlets including Crikey, “written on behalf of University of Sydney senior academics and senior management for responsible governance.” It contains veiled threats to the popular Governor if she doesn’t withdraw her support for the contentious Dean of the Conservatorium.

What the letter highlights is that the stakes of a simmering problem are getting higher and shows the well-heeled conservatorium community exactly how bad the situation is. Of course, no one will own up to writing the letter, making the anonymous threats and off the record slanging matches all the more brazen.

The letter starts:

Dear Marie,

We are writing to advise you that your support of Kim Walker is misguided and is causing seroius [sic] personal hardship to the staff of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, to its reputation and to the reputation of the university. You are also bringing your own reputation into disrepute and you are rapidly losing the respect of your colleagues at the The University of Sydney.

What the contents of this letter show is that the person associated with these letters is extremely senior within the University, displayed by the fact that the only time that Bashir would have given her support to Walker would have been at a meeting of the exclusive University Senate.

This is not the first time that Walker has been the subject of media attention and poisonous letters.

Just days before last week’s letter, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Higher Education Reporter, Harriet Alexander revealed that Walker was the subject of plagiarism allegations for the second time in six months and was accused of writing “lecture notes for audiences at a series of talks at the Art Gallery of NSW that contain phrases and sentences identical to those contained in a treatise by two Pulitzer Prize-winning United States historians.”

It was only in September last year that Alexander documented allegations of plagiarism against the Dean with a February 2007 report to the conservatorium’s college board “containing a number of passages identical to documents from high-ranking officials at Indiana University over recent years.”

In fact it was estimated that two-thirds of the text in the report had been plagiarised from Indiana documents. Walker was stood down over the affair until an internal review was completed in July and August of last year.

This new letter, however, pushes the drama to a bigger sphere and now drags the NSW Governor in. The letter also alleges that a string of staff have left the Conservatorium, including three heads of school and even accuses the Dean of financial mismanagement, harassment and bullying.

A senior union official has confirmed with Crikey that the National Tertiary and Education Union (NTEU) “had a myriad of complaints about Walker from staff at the most senior level at the Conservatorium.”

Crikey has tried to contact the office of the Governor in regards to the matter with no luck, but the letter that is now circulating throughout Sydney’s arts and music community makes things very plain for Bashir.

“If you do not reconsider your position,” the letter goes on, “and withdraw to a neutral place and allow the university to conduct its business, details of your conduct, including your financial support of Walker’s legal costs, will be put into the hands of the press where it will be open to public debate.”

The allegations are strong, the bile is even stronger and it appears that a Governor hailed by her people as one of the best leaders of her time is about to be forced to dance to a tune that’s more allegro than adagio.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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