InASA statement on the University of Sydney’s decision not to fund the Chair of Australian Literature

The International Australian Studies Association (InASA) is writing in response to recent press reports of the discontinuation of the Chair of Australian Literature at University of Sydney unless philanthropic funding is forthcoming (SMH 15/10/2019; The Australian 16/10/19). InASA urges immediate reconsideration of this course of action on numerous grounds. 

At a time when tensions are particularly acute between national interests and global politics—particularly on University campuses in teaching and research—in-depth and specialised expertise of Australian culture in both its distinctiveness and its global connections is essential to provide knowledge and leadership to the public, students, and government. Australian literature, understood as part of an expanded public sphere and cultural industry, makes an enormous contribution to Australia’s self-image and to our international profile. 

Leading writers all contribute to a range of topical issues and debates through different perspectives and from different positions. The study of Australian literature amplifies such writers’ voices and provides a stage for their contribution to intellectual thought. Professor Robert Dixon’s leadership in the Sydney Studies in Australian Literature book series, enabled by his role as the University Chair, is an excellent example of this. 

There are now thirty-eight “Australian Studies Centres” in China, and many Chinese academics have trained in Australian literature and participate in Australia’s extension of influence and “soft power” in the Asia-Pacific region. This is also evident in the Australia-Japan Foundation Chair in Australian Studies at the University of Tokyo (regularly held by Australian literature specialists). 

Humanities and Social Sciences in Australian universities face new challenges, with philanthropic funding being marketed as a panacea for disinvestment by university administrations and federal governments led by ill-informed and instrumentalist agendas. It is particularly disappointing to see the University of Sydney proposing to outsource its core business in this way, given the strong stance taken by many academics there questioning the potential for philanthropic funding to infringe upon academic freedom. 

Finally, the announcement of the disinvestment in Australian Literature comes only months after the Parliament of Australia called an “Inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy”. The Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney has long played a national role in precisely the issues raised as under threat by the Senate’s inquiry, and it is extremely unfortunate that the University of Sydney does not consider literature to have a future role in such critical concerns. 

We strongly urge the University of Sydney to reconsider its position and to support the ongoing funding of the University of Sydney Chair in Australian Literature. 

Associate Professor Noah Riseman, 

President, International Association for Australian Studies 

Associate Professor Anna Johnston 

Vice-President, International Association for Australian Studies 

The response by the University of Sydney’s Vice Chancellor, Michael Spence, to InASA’s statement is available here: VCSpence to InASA – Noah Riseman & Anna Johnston_re discontinuation Chair of Australian Literature USYD_23 Oct

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