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Peak body warns ANU over 'beleaguered' music school

Australia's peak body for music academics has taken aim at Australian National University management over the damage it says has been done to the School of Music - and the wider damage being caused to the music profession, both nationally and internationally.

The Musicological Society of Australia, which is a 260-member professional body representing music scholars, academics and managers, took the "unprecedented step of expressing its concerns" directly to Vice Chancellor Ian Young on Thursday.

Society president and Head of the School of Arts at the University of New England Professor Alan Davison said "many MSA members have been observing the continuing difficulties that have beleaguered the discipline of musicology - and music in general - at ANU during the last several years.

"This comes both through attention in the press, and from collegial information that circulates among music academics throughout the nation."

A spokesman for the ANU said on Thursday that the university "has taken strong measures over the past three years to ensure the School of Music has a healthy and sustainable future".

The School of Music was the subject of extensive media coverage in 2012 when Professor Young instituted savage staff and budget cuts and moved the school away from its conservatorium roots.

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But the sudden departure of head of school Professor Peter Tregear last month has further fuelled debate about a toxic culture at the school, untenable workloads and staff churn.

"Given that ANU is one of the foremost research universities in Australia, and that it receives National Institute funding, we are concerned about the way in which the university's role in promoting music scholarship and academic training of the highest order in Australia is rapidly diminishing, and consequently its custodial role in matters of cultural heritage," Professor Davison said.

"It is of great concern that the ongoing instability at the School of Music is impacting negatively upon the status of our profession nationally and internationally, and on its prospects for the future.

"At this point in time, we would like to feel confident that ANU can offer a safe, thriving and supportive environment for our members and our profession. We know that the School of Music's programme as it was revised from 2012 is solid, and so cannot help but be concerned by the university's inability to retain the most excellent members of its staff."

This week, another academic handed in his resignation, bringing total staff numbers to nine - down from 24 prior to Professor Young's financial reforms. Concerns about how the school was going to operate and how students were going to complete their courses over the coming months were expressed to acting head of school Dr Royston Gustavson on Thursday when he met with concerned PhD students.

Professor Davison said: "As you well know, several of the most recent appointees to the school with strength in musicology and ethnomusicology have departed within a relatively short time of their arrival, and that some of the school's most dynamic academic staff members engaged with music research appear to have been disabled by the current workplace environment. Some of them are the rising stars of Australian musical scholarship.

"It is well known through the profession that this is not a result of the revised academic program, but that it arises from a more general malaise concerning the university's management and culture within and between the colleges, research schools, and School of Music. "

Professor Davison said that as well as the society expressing its concerns, it was "eager to see stability and leadership return to the School of Music, and for it to be effectively supported by the university.

"We are aware that this will present challenges, and our society would be happy to assist in offering expert input on any matters related to musicology. We look forward to the day that we can view the School of Music, and ANU more broadly, with restored confidence in its reputation and with renewed capacity to contribute to our disciplines."

Copies of the letter were also forwarded to Chancellor Gareth Evans and incoming Vice Chancellor and Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt who will replace Professor Young in January.