ACT News

ANU School of Music struggling to appoint new head

An international search to secure a new head for the Australian National University's troubled School of Music will need to be resumed after the leading candidate declined the job.

Staff and students were advised the American academic and musician who was offered the position has opted out after months of negotiation

Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt says he is giving the search for a new head for the Australian National University's ...
Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt says he is giving the search for a new head for the Australian National University's troubled School of Music his full attention. Photo: Graham Tidy

Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said: "I was advised over the weekend that our preferred candidate for head of school had decided not to take up the position after a strong counter-offer from one of the world's top-ranked universities."

"I have a strong commitment to the school and the future of music at ANU and the search for a suitable head has my full attention. We will immediately resume an international search for an outstanding leader for the next stage of the school's history," Professor Schmidt said.

Meanwhile, staff and students within the Open School of Music have expressed concern after the contract of popular music teacher Anne Ewing was terminated.

Ms Ewing became a whistleblower in October 2015 when she featured on the front page of The Canberra Times condemning the school's toxic and bullying culture.

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Ms Ewing handed in her resignation after 12 years of teaching musicology, theory, and composition to ACT college students through the ANU Open School of Music, agreeing to speak publicly of her experience within the school. But she continued to tutor chamber music as she planned an overseas move to pursue her music career.

"I was half expecting to be asked to leave then, but nothing happened, so I thought it had blown over and I continued to work as usual."

This year, she was even given extra duties as the accompanist for the tertiary vocal department.

But earlier this week, Ms Ewing received a registered letter advising her casual contract had been terminated immediately. She was given no reason and no notice.

Her immediate superiors were not informed of the decision, which was made within the College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Ms Ewing said she had no doubt the decision was connected to her criticism of the school, in which she said morale had hit new lows after the shock loss of former head Peter Tregear who was ostensibly forced out in August – 18 months before his contract was due to expire.

"I planned to move overseas by the middle of this year anyway, but I do feel they are making a point by doing this," Ms Ewing said.

"I am upset for my students, who will bear the brunt of this disruption."

The National Tertiary Education Union noted the ANU was not obligated to give Ms Ewing notice, but "the NTEU would be very concerned if staff were sacked due to exercising their workplace rights; we will be making further inquiries".

The ANU would not comment, citing privacy reasons.

Meanwhile, current and former staff at the school said they were not surprised it was proving difficult to find a new head, given the reputational damage suffered by the school in recent years.

It means the school has been without a permanent head for nine months.

Professor Schmidt has not denied the deep levels of unhappiness within the school, but has committed himself to rebuilding it, appointing former public service commissioner Andrew Podger to review the school and provide a way forward by May.

"The School of Music community consultation discussion paper that will be released in May by Professor Andrew Podger will help inform candidates of the opportunity to shape the future of the school."

​But it appears Professor Podger might have been concerned about the sheer volume of communication - and level of internal discord - being drawn out during his consultative period.​

He wrote to all school staff on Wednesday to clarify the scope of his review.

"It is not an inquiry into the past, though the consultations are likely to include references to the school's history and past events to put into context views about the school's future," Professor Podger said.

"Accordingly, the School of Music community consultation is not considering or evaluating the performance or achievements of any former, current, or potential staff members of the School of Music. Consideration of documents relating solely to individuals, such as their CV or other indications of individual achievement, lies outside the scope of the community consultation," he said.

Professor Schmidt, meanwhile, announced "four high-quality new appointments to the school this year", including Dr Christopher Sainsbury, Dr Bonnie McConnell, Dr Natalie Williams and Kenneth Lampl​ who will be joining the school from New York as a professor later this year.

"Interimhead of school Royston Gustavson, who is doing an outstanding job, will continue to lead the school while the search continues," Professor Schmidt said.