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ANU's School of Music intransigence failure of leadership

JUDITH CRISPIN fears for the future of a university that appears to have stopped listening to its community

When I first began at the Australian National University in 1995 as an undergraduate, every young musician in the country wanted to study at the School of Music. In those days John Painter was the director, and he had built the discipline into a truly international force.

I abandoned two years at Melbourne Conservatorium to begin my degree anew at the ANU, just to have the chance to study with Larry Sitsky, Australia's finest composer. With help from the Friends of the School of Music I was able to attend summer courses at the Paris Conservatoire and Stockhausen's school near Cologne. Later, as a postgraduate, I presented academic papers in musicological conferences all around the world.

As a fledgling composer, I was astonished by the generosity of ANU staff who performed my first serious works. To hear my own compositions played by musicians of the calibre of David Pereira, Barbara Gilby, Larry Sitsky, Anthea Moller, Gary France and others was truly extraordinary and it gave me the confidence to continue as an artist.

My story is not unique - the School of Music staff walked alongside each one of us until we began to believe in our own ability, until we found our own voices. Years later, working in Europe, I often ran into performers I had known as students at the School of Music. In 2007, during my first week as a Humboldt fellow in Berlin, I saw Komische Oper's production of La Traviata with my old classmate Adrian Strooper in a leading role. School of Music graduates have taken the ANU's name into the most famous concert halls of Europe.

The path to becoming an international performer, composer or scholar is one of rigorous study and studio training. Normally this takes about 10 years, a period that exceeds the length of an undergraduate degree. For this reason, students finish their Bachelor of Music and stay on for honours, masters, doctorates - not for the sake of a qualification, but rather, to gain the necessary knowledge and skills required of a high-level musician. These young performers, composers and scholars come to the ANU to study with a particular teacher who has inspired them - rarely do they come for the university or the degree in itself. In my case, it was Sitsky who was the ANU drawcard. Had Larry been teaching in Wagga or Townsville, I'd have found my way there. This is what the proposed restructure of the school fails to understand - it is the excellence of individuals that brings music students to the ANU, something that generalists will never be able to reproduce.

Last year I arrived in Canberra after three years in Germany and it was to a much-changed school to which I returned. Morale had fallen to an all-time low after a clear message from ANU that music was no longer valued, that it belonged to an elite and unwelcome social demographic.

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So when the proposed restructure was announced, a plan to replace 32 world-class musicians with 13 general academics, nobody was overly surprised. Not that respected music academics had been consulted about the plan to replace an internationally competitive Bachelor of Music with a Mickey Mouse degree bearing the same name, but the writing had been on the wall for some time.

On May 23 at the National Press Club, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, formerly the vice-chancellor of the ANU, presented his Health of Australian Science Report. Professor Chubb pointed out that sometimes universities need to support disciplines simply because they are valuable, because they make people's lives better, and not just on the basis of economic return.

This was the kind of leadership that saw the ANU blossom into a university that Canberrans are proud of, a university that understands its relationship with the community, that represents the whole country on the international stage. But in recent weeks I have started to wonder if the ANU has changed.

When a petition supporting the School of Music has 25,000 signatures, when 1500 Canberrans cram into Llewellyn Hall for a protest concert, when a thousand march on the chancellery, when the newspapers publish scores of letters from artists and intellectuals begging for music to be retained … and yet the university remains unmoved in its resolve to dismantle the discipline - well, one begins to wonder if the ANU is still listening. And a university grown indifferent to the needs of the community that supports it, no matter how accomplished, is a university in trouble.

Dr Judith Crispin is director of Manning Clark House, which presents programs of poetry, music and visual art alongside its season of public lectures, forums, debates and book launches. A forum on Australia's treatment of refugees will be held on Saturday at the National Press Club.