A contentious decision by the University of New South Wales to bypass existing policy and rename a school within the College of Fine Arts (COFA) after a financial donor has sparked student and staff concerns — and reignited the debate over the corporatisation of higher education.
On 24 September the University announced it had received a $2 million donation from the Sherman Foundation to fund part of the construction of a new public art gallery at COFA — itself part of a broader redevelopment of the campus funded by the Federal Government.
The Shermans are well known arts philanthropists and founded animal rights organisation Voiceless. It was revealed in the initial announcement that one of two wings in the new gallery would be named after the Shermans, and the other after Nick Waterlow, the former COFA gallery director who was murdered last year. No information about the curatorships of the gallery or special privileges the donors would be accorded was released.
What immediately angered staff and students at COFA, however, was the proposal to rename the School of Art History and Art Education the Sherman School of Art History and Art Education. The naming of buildings and institutes after corporate donors is a common enough occurrence at universities across Australia, but as UNSW management admits, this marks the first time an actual school will be renamed after donors.
When students raised questions about the naming of the school with the Dean of COFA, Professor Ian Howard, he pointed to overseas institutions such as Harvard University where the renaming of schools after donors is a regular occurrence. Indeed, he suggested Australia was currently "lagging behind" the United States in using private resources to fund education. Howard’s response ignores both the fact that Harvard is a private institution — unlike UNSW — and that no precedent exists for the renaming in Australia — a country with a historical reputation for placing strong emphasis on public education.
Student and staff concerns turn on the issue of being forever associated with one particular group of arts benefactors — in a small community with already limited employment opportunities. Students are also predicting that this will set a precedent at UNSW which, once pushed through, will act as a model for soliciting major donations in exchange for the naming rights of schools and faculties across the university.
Indeed, Ian Howard said that he predicts other schools at COFA will follow suit and change their names. Anger over what students see as a damaging step away from the integrity and reputation of a public institution such as UNSW has been compounded by the University’s refusal to publicly state that no other schools on campus will be renamed.
Talk swirling around the university about a deal struck between COFA and the Shermans intensified when the appointment of Dr Gene Sherman as Adjunct Professor at COFA was announced. The position involves some teaching and curatorial responsibilities, as well the right to host up to two exhibitions a year free of charge at the new gallery. Taking into account Sherman’s history in the arts community and her past association with COFA, the fact that these decisions came immediately after the donation was made and were not initially publicly announced could create the impression of a backroom deal.
Students and staff at UNSW have privately and publicly expressed their dismay at what they see as a "cash for titles" culture developing at UNSW. The issue is not Sherman’s qualifications, they argue, but rather the damaging perception that some appointments may be based not on teaching and learning outcomes but on large donations.
Finally, the university’s lack of consultation on the proposal with any students or staff within the school at COFA has bothered many. Given the University’s Naming Rights Policy (pdf) makes no reference to the naming of schools (as it has never occurred), appropriate procedure would be to discuss the issue with student and staff representatives and propose an amendment to the policy. Instead the proposal was rushed through a private committee consisting of the UNSW Chancellor David Gonksi, and the Fred Hilmer Vice-Chancellor, both supporters of corporate philanthropy, without any student or staff input.
This scenario will sound familiar to staff at UNSW who have been engaged in a protracted industrial relations dispute over inadequate pay rises and increasing levels of casualisation. The campaign, which has resulted in several forms of industrial action including work stoppages and the banning of the transmission of test results, has the support of the largest union on campus, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Student Representative Council.
Staff were recently blindsided by an agreement stitched up by the University administration, which again locked out student and staff input, as well as the Community and Public Sector Union who represent some non-academic staff. The agreement was passed at a ballot of staff members, however as the Vice-President of the NTEU Susan Price said in an interview, "the agreement is yet to be approved by Fair Work Australia. The NTEU will take all possible steps to ensure this substandard agreement is not imposed on staff."
What links the industrial relations dispute and the renaming of the school at COFA is the corporate managerial role adopted by the Vice-Chancellor, Fred Hilmer. Under his watch, the university is viewed as a profit-making enterprise with a particular focus on efficiency — to the detriment of staff rights. Locking key communities such as staff and students out of decision making is critical to the implementation of this model.
While some responsibility must also lie with the successive federal governments who have chronically underfunded higher education, funding cuts alone do not explain why UNSW has taken the corporatisation of education to the extreme. What is being perfected at UNSW is now slowly rolling out to campuses across Australia. It is only a matter of time before the battles being fought there are repeated across the rest of the country.
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