The Australian, Perth

  • 19 January 1997

    Stir by degrees
    Bennett's Beat

    There's a bunfight at UWA over the decision to fast-track Aboriginal author Sally Morgan into a professorship.

    Still weathering the Dr David Rindos case, after denying him tenure, the UWA hierarchy has caused a stir among its own academics by deciding to make Sally the professor of the new indigenous history and arts centre.

    An anonymous letter to the heads of UWA departments claimed that Sally had not met any of the basic selection criteria for a professorial appointment.

    It called for a special meeting of the academic board to be convened immediately to deal with "the outrageous hijacking of the university's standards".

    It sparked a letter to members of the academic board by one of the uni's most eminent academics, which in turn triggered a response from the Acting Vice- Chancellor Mike Barber.

    Dr Ted Maslen, a Rhodes scholar and head of the physics department, said he had no strong views on whether or not Sally should be appointed as director for a centre for indigenous arts and history or as a professor of UWA. He usually ignored unsigned letters.

    But he was concerned by its claim that the Vice-Chancellor's office took liberties with rules formulated with the express purpose of ensuring that university management was properly scrutinised. His inquiries indicated that the claim was correct.

    Ted said that if Sal was to be appointed director and professor, it should proceed by general acceptance that there was a powerful if unusual academic case. The academic board should consider at the same time whether the Vice-Chancellor's office had used its power wisely or not.

    Mike had two cracks at writing a response. The second takes the sting out of the first draft. His initial letter said it was evident there were some misconceptions within the uni about procedures for fast-track appointments. But he changed misconceptions to concerns in a letter the following day.

    He also deleted a paragraph that said it was disappointing that some individuals were either ill-informed or were seeking to create confusion by deliberately misinterpreting the procedures specifically in relation to an appointment process now in train.

    He also deleted a paragraph that said: "Rest assured due process is being adhered to." Mike said the decision to use the fast-track procedures was to establish the centre as quickly as possible.

    The uni PR officer claimed Ted had a better understanding of the situation since he wrote his letter (this week). But Ted is sticking to his guns. He said there was no information in mike's letter of which he wasn't aware. "I have not changed my mind," he said, very firmly in respect to his letter.