Academics from across the country have urged vice-chancellors to urgently address a lack of diversity and equality in universities in the wake of the exposure of racist and sexist emails sent by poetry professor Barry Spurr.
In an open letter to vice-chancellors, almost 130 academics and professional staff have warned that much more needed to be done about educating and fostering respect for gender equality, multiculturalism and Australia’s Aboriginal and Indigenous heritage.
Professor Spurr has been suspended from Sydney University over the inflammatory emails, including derogatory references to Aboriginals, Asians and women.
But he has claimed the emails were written in jest as part of a “whimsical” game of linguistic one-upmanship.
The letter, dated October 31, said the public debate triggered by Professor Spurr’s emails showed there was a need for Australian universities to be proactive and reflect on their anti-discrimination policies.
“This means much more than noble sentiments in the guidelines or on the website, but a review process to ensure that procedures and policies are put into practice and outcomes reviewed,” the letter said.
“The current investigation of Professor Spurr by the University of Sydney must take its course, but universities more broadly must become more proactive in the future, to address such behaviours not as an individual but as a systemic problem.”
Too often, the letter said, complaints of harassment, bullying and vilification are often not taken seriously, or victims do not speak up for fear of retaliation.
The academics also warned that universities needed to ensure students were protected from inappropriate behaviour.
“There is a culture of treating sexual harassment and assault (for example, that take place within student accommodation) as an internal administrative issue,” the letter said.
“However, sexual assault is a criminal offence, and those who experience assault must be fully supported to take whatever measures they deem appropriate, including referral to the police.
“We would like to see Australian universities – starting with vice chancellors – demonstrate greater political will and ethical obligation towards protecting their staff and students.”