The Australian National University School of Music has once again become a scene of industrial unrest with the shock departure of its head Peter Tregear – 18 months before his contract expired.
Dismayed staff say Professor Tregear had "put himself on the line" to get ongoing staffing and resources issues resolved, but had fallen out of favour with senior management in the process.
Comcare has also been called in to investigate a number of complaints relating to a toxic work culture and untenable workloads with at least four academics having taken stress leave – and one leaving the school – over the past 10 months.
It is understood Professor Tregear was forced out following six months of increasingly tense relations with senior management over his calls for more staff positions to be filled and greater administrative support for the school.
He was brought in in 2012 to reinvigorate the school which had been devastated by a $1.5 million budget cut and the axing of 14 staff under Vice-Chancellor Ian Young. The job was widely referred to as a poisoned chalice.
Poached from Monash University's Academy of Performing Arts, Professor Tregear had extensive experience as a researcher, teacher and academic administrator both in Australia and overseas. He is also a singer and conductor who last year shared a stage with The Rolling Stones during their Australian tour.
Professor Tregear said on Monday: "I leave this school with the highest admiration for the commitment and passion of the students and staff to the artform of music and its transformatory potential in the wider community.
"I have done the best I can to take a very difficult situation in 2012 and turn it around, leaving the ANU absolutely convinced that both the university and the ACT need and deserve a school of the highest ambition and quality."
He would not comment on his relations with university management or whether he was one of the staff whose treatment was being investigated by Comcare.
A spokesman for the ANU on Monday denied any Comcare investigation at the school, but The Canberra Times has obtained internal Comcare documentation from last month in which Comcare confirms "the ANU is now well aware that Comcare is monitoring the situation" and it was now "corroborating information" provided by a number of individuals.
Questions regarding Professor Tregear's future at the ANU began circulating in May when ANU management ran a job ad which was widely interpreted to be a replacement for Professor Tregear, who was on study leave at the time.
When asked to clarify Professor Tregear's continuing status at the university, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Marnie Hughes-Warrington issued a statement in which she said the ad had been a mistake and the job would be in addition to, not the exclusion of, Professor Tregear, who had just been offered a new contract until the start of 2017.
But in an email to staff on Monday, Professor Young said "Peter Tregear has announced plans to leave the university at the end of August …The university is particularly grateful to Peter for leading the school through its difficult change management process in 2012."
A staff member at the school said that despite coming into the position with "considerable energy and enthusiasm", Professor Tregear had been "up against it from the beginning".
While the school was reported to have lost 14 of its 27 academic staff when the original redundancy packages were announced, this year the number of remaining staff is understood to be just 11 with one part-time permanent staff member – two fewer than planned.
A spokesman for the ANU maintained that academic staffing was at 15, although its own internal staff directory lists only the 11.5 positions.
Student numbers have also fallen to new records. While there were 76 enrolments prior to the 2012 cuts, these dropped to 45 in 2013. Numbers bounced back to the mid-50s last year but have since dropped to around 30. The spokesman said "enrolments at the School of Music have declined over recent years consistent with falling enrolments at schools of music and music conservatoria around Australia. A new program of market research is being developed to further promote the School of Music and its activities to future students".
The National Tertiary Education Union said it was aware of a number of industrial issues within the school and was working with staff to address them, according to ACT division secretary Rachael Bahl.
"We are supporting a number of members … ANU management's rhetoric concerning the School of Music does not match the reality."
Professor Young told staff on Monday that the interim head of school would be Dr Royston Gustavson "while the university undertakes its search for Peter's replacement".
The intervention of Comcare to the School of Music comes just 12 months after revelations that the School of Politics and International Relations was also subject of claims of bullying and a toxic work culture.
Both the school of politics and school of music are managed by the College of Arts and Social Sciences.
In the case of the school of politics, The Canberra Times reported last year that seven formal complaints had been made against senior academics and two Comcare cases had been found in favour of two academics who suffered psychological damage at the hands of one senior manager.
Senior managers connected to these claims have since left the ANU.