What is going on at RMIT? Already this year, the University has made headlines over two scandals.  First, there was the mid-year scandal of an aerospace engineering lecturer allegedly helping his students to cheat on a 2008 and 2009 exam.

Just last month, criminologist and deputy dean, Professor Julian Bondy, resigned in a hurry over claims he had plagiarised parts of his 2000 doctorate thesis.

Now it is the School of Art’s turn with an internal dispute over a proposed restructure in the Fine Art program turning into a public campaign.

Leading the fight against the changes is RMIT Diploma of Visual Art senior lecturer Steve Cox.

Cox claimed to Crikey the changes will see several non-connected disciplines grouped in clusters next year  and mean teacher numbers, facilities and student contact hours will be cut but costs to students increased.

“The general consensus is that students will not receive thorough training in their various disciplines, due to less contact hours with staff. This will mean that an entire generation of young artists will not be sufficiently trained to make valuable contributions to Australian culture. This situation will take a decade to right itself,” Cox said.

Students have responded to the proposed changes by starting the “Save Art from RMIT” Facebook page, which had 637 members at time of writing. Members include Australian artists Gareth Sansom, Diane Mantzaris and Nora Sumberg as well as Cox, who has been cautioned by RMIT over his membership of the page.

In a meeting with RMIT head of Art Professor Elizabeth Grierson last week, Cox claims he was warned to take down all comments he had posted in support of student concerns on his personal Facebook page and the group page. Cox alleges he was told his behaviour was a “grave misdemeanour”, asked to resign, threatened with legal action, then told Professor Grierson would be scrutinising his Facebook page to ensure Cox made no further comments.

Sir William Dobell Professor of Art at ANU Professor Sasha Grishin describes the RMIT Fine Art programs as a key cultural institution in Australia, which as produced some of the finest visual artists practising in Australia.

Professor Grishin has not seen specific details of the proposed changes, but believes the changes will involve substantial cuts in student contact hours.

“Essentially if you cut the number of contact hours, if you cut out life drawing, and if you have fewer sessional hours then inevitably the whole thing bleeds,” Professor Grishin said.

Members of the local art community have joined in the protest against the changes to the course and the treatment of Cox.  Mantzaris is concerned the changes mean that when students leave RMIT they will not have the same level of conceptual and technical development of previous students.

“RMIT used to be at the forefront of art education in this city. It is now a very poor cousin to VCA and Monash. So, the future of Melbourne art has been severely compromised. Why wouldn’t artists be concerned about this,” Mantzaris said.

Sumberg is concerned RMIT’s actions not only threaten the integrity of the course, but will make it easy for RMIT to “simply be rid of it and an iconic fine art course will no longer exist”.

Mantzaris, Sumberg and artist/educator Dr John R Neeson are outraged at the univerity’s treatment of “much loved artist”  Cox.

“Many artists also feel a duty of care to counteract matters affecting their and their peers freedom of speech. As soon as you start censoring someone or something in a university, education stops being an education, art stops being art, and civilisation as we know it ends,” Mantzaris says.

Sumberg worked as a lecturer in painting at RMIT in the 1980s, and finds it hard to comprehend what is happening to Cox.

“I and my fellow students of the ’70s and ’80s  were encouraged to push boundaries and voice our concerns — which we did. Speaking out was considered the norm. Negotiation was possible. Being passionate and proud was part of the success of a great course. Artists thrived in art schools then. Those students received the kind of education that enabled them to flourish and enrich the community,” Sumberg said.

Professor Grierson disputed the claims and reflected on the “well known” effects of change.

“When you are going through a change project, not everyone comes along with it, some people hate change, we have to manage that … but there are one or two people who have been quite outspoken through these social media sites.”

Professor Grierson stated proposals to “refresh” the Fine Art undergraduate degree have been part of an extensive consultation process involving staff and students, with more consultation scheduled for next year. Professor Grierson provided Crikey with a document titled BA Fine Art – Proposed Structure Revision for 2012 Student FAQ.

While Professor Grierson would not comment specifically on details of her meeting with Cox, as “staff confidential discussions can’t be discussed in public”, she maintains she is a free-speech advocate.

“Everyone welcomes free speech, especially in art schools, we encourage debate — as long as it is consistent with fact and university values … It is interesting that a lot of the most vocal comments from staff have been from those who haven’t attended whole school meetings,” Professor Grierson said.

An online petition to “Save Steve Cox” was published earlier this week and currently has 20 members.

Peter Fray

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