On the Cuts to Asian Studies at ANU

By now, many readers of this blog will be familiar with the recent decision to restructure Asian studies at the Australian National University, in particular through the elimination of professorial positions in the School of Culture, History, and Languages. These cuts have garnered wide attention, both because they include the shocking decision to fire giants in the field of Asian studies such as Professor Robert Cribb, and because they have stark implications for the ANU’s ability to be a world leader in fields such as Indonesian studies.

Much of the commentary has focused on Professor Cribb. For example, the Southeast Asia Research Group (of which I am a part) recently released a statement about Professor Cribb, and there is an active trans-species movement to protest his “voluntary separation package”.[1] Personal stories surely abound as well. I count Professor Cribb as an inspiration, someone whose work I have read ever since graduate school, whose research has been foundational for my own professional journey. He has shared his time to talk about topics of mutual interest. Although our disciplines are different, I view us as engaged in a common intellectual enterprise.

But to my mind, the entire package of proposed cuts is the problem. It amounts to a tragic mistake that will destroy Asian studies as we know it at one of the world’s leading centers for Asian studies. The implications go beyond just the elimination of faculty and teaching staff. Going forward, how can the ANU ever hope recruit top faculty without the rich intellectual resources that a deep area studies environment provides? Add to that the university’s inability to credibly commit, going forward, that faculty positions and academic units in Asian studies will be secure. Given the importance of undergraduate instruction as part of the revenue-generating model that the ANU seems to be following, it is surprising that academic leadership has concluded that cutting major faculty and teaching positions is a way to encourage enrollments. The proposed cuts to CHL set in motion a dynamic reactive sequence that can only undermine what was very recently considered a jewel in the ANU’s crown.

Why would someone like me care so much about Asian studies at the ANU? After all, there is an interpretation in which another university, like Cornell, where I work, now has the opportunity to snap up some foreign talent. Maybe an opportunity to rise in some ranking scheme?[2]

The answer is both personal and professional. Personally, I feel indebted to the ANU, a place that has generously accommodating me as a visiting researcher several times and which employs colleagues and friends with whom I can share my work. Many U.S.-based academics who work in Southeast Asian studies will tell similar stories. I have never visited CHL itself, but my goodness I don’t care which particular unit is which, it’s all ANU[3] to me. The proposed cuts to CHL mean that one leg upon which that community stands has been hobbled. It will have university-wide repercussions.

Professionally, though, we all benefit from the ANU having a dominant position in Asian studies in general, and in Southeast Asian history, culture, and language in particular. The English speaking academic world does not pay enough attention to Southeast Asia. We need institutions such as the ANU that are bastions for cross-disciplinary, area-focused scholarship on this region. It’s hard to do this from North America. It ought not be so hard to do this from Australia, so long as university leaders are committed preserving existing areas of excellence. The proposed cuts to CHL will have repercussions beyond the ANU, and beyond Australia, for the production of knowledge about Asia. This is one area where the ANU really and truly leads.

It is fine to be critical in this way, and to talk in the abstract about the consequences of deep cuts. But it does not offer solutions; and I have no reason to doubt that, as various published reports have indicated, CHL’s budget was ultimately unsustainable (although I’d want to see how that particular sausage is made). So what is the way forward? My expectation would be that those faculty and staff who themselves do the intellectual and pedagogical work within CHL would be tasked with developing a “change management” strategy. Were they to prove unable or unwilling to do so, then the case might be different. Perhaps this is an odd bit of American academic idealism, and U.S. universities are certainly capable of implementing big changes that have major effects on instructional staff [4]. Yet if the budget situation is dire, then CHL stakeholders have an incentive to work together to put the unit on a sounder footing. This is for the good of the faculty and teaching staff, as well as for the university and the wider academic community.


[1] Which is Australian for “firing.”
[2] To Americans reading this: as much as we are obsessed with rankings and metrics here in the U.S., our obsessions pale in comparison Australian and other university systems based on the British system (see e.g. Britain itself, Singapore). Seriously. I mean, the Australians ranked every f*cking journal in the world a couple years ago so that some bureaucracy could interpret research output. It’s part of the DNA of Australian academia.
[3] Which is American for “the ANU.”
[4] I know that you looked here because you thought I might have a comment on something specific. \Nelson{Ha Ha!}