Attempt to downgrade Sydney University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

March 21, 2016
Director of Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Associate Professor Jake Lynch

Sydney University is attempting to downgrade the status of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS).

A university spokesperson said they were “currently considering the possible transition of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies from a centre into a department”. The spokesperson claimed the move followed an external review of the viability of the centre, raised because of a decline in student numbers.

But the director of CPACS, Associate Professor Jake Lynch, has rejected the claims as “both wrong and misleading”. He said enrolments for the Centre's summer school and first-semester units study were 177, a 29% rise from the same time last year.

“The Centre's program has in recent years outperformed all of its peer specialist programs in the School of Social and Political Science, in political economy, human rights, human rights and democratisation, development studies and international security,” he said. “There is … no evidence of a declining trend.”

Lynch said the Centre had a “distinguished record as a world-recognised centre of expertise on important issues of public policy through its West Papua project, human survival project and Sri Lanka human rights project”, much of the work contributed on a voluntary basis.

Lynch has been the victim of an ongoing campaign for his dismissal from the university in Jewish and mainstream press, particularly the Murdoch press over his support for the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

He faced dismissal last year after he was accused of anti-semitism and breaches of the university's code of conduct. The accusations sprang from a vocal student protest at a lecture delivered at the university by British Colonel Richard Kemp, a supporter of Israel's war on Gaza.

But Lynch was cleared of the accusations of anti-Semitism and serious misconduct after an investigation, and the university found no grounds on which to dismiss him. Lynch remains a key member of Sydney Staff for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions.

He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Rachel Evans about the attempts to downgrade the centre's status.

* * *

What does CPACS teach and why is it unique to the Humanities and History departments?

CPACS sits in the School of Social and Political Sciences, which is part of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. We teach Peace and Conflict Studies, which is a value-explicit field of study, with a positive value of peace with justice, and a commitment to considering trade-offs between different values.

How has CPACS assisted the communities and oppressed countries they teach about?

CPACS embodies the twin traditions of public intellectuality and speaking truth to power through its roles in advocacy and community outreach.

In recent years, the Centre has played a key role in enabling peace and antiwar groups in Australia to unite under one banner; raising the diplomatic status, in the Pacific region, of the aspirations of the West Papuan people to peace with justice; and catalysing debate in Australia about the academic boycott of Israel in general, and Sydney University's links with Israeli higher education in particular.

CPACS people have also facilitated dialogues between communities here in Australia who are affected by violent conflict overseas, such as the Sudanese and South Sudanese communities. These are just a few of many examples of where the Centre has engaged in the wider world, as well as in the traditional academic activities of research and teaching.

Did Sydney University management consult CPACS before it sent the email about turning it into a mini-department?

The proposal to downgrade CPACS to a “mini-department” was made unilaterally and without consultation, by the Acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Barbara Caine. It has never been discussed with anyone from CPACS, still less agreed. It first surfaced in a report in The Australian newspaper in February.

What does it mean for CPACS? What department are they proposing to merge you with?

There is no threat to merge CPACS with another department, merely to downgrade us from our present status as a centre.

Much of the advocacy and community outreach work of CPACS arises organically from our unique structure of governance as a centre. Our governing council has debated and adopted motions confirming our support for the academic boycott of Israel, for example. Members of our special projects, including the West Papua Project and the Human Survival Project, report regularly to the CPACS Council and in our Annual Reports.

Downgrading us from the status of a centre would strip away this structure and jeopardise our links to the wider peace community.

Why do you think management is targeting CPACS? Have they threatened this before?

Getting to the bottom of the University's rationale for this proposed change has been something of a challenge. I was eventually told, late last week, that it is on the basis that CPACS does not fulfil the functions of a centre under the university's policy on centres, specifically that we do not work with university colleagues, across borders of unit, school and faculty, on multi-disciplinary initiatives of research, teaching and community outreach pertaining to peace.

This is somewhat puzzling, given our longstanding reputation for doing just that, and our distinguished and continuing record of such activities. I wrote to the Acting Dean, pointing this out, last weekend. As of the afternoon of March 18, I have had no reply to, or even acknowledgement of, my email. Meanwhile the threat to the Centre's future continues to hang over us, even after its stated rationale has been refuted.

The longer this hiatus continues, the more the university risks giving rise to an impression in the community at large that its real motivation is to silence CPACS' voice in the public sphere on matters vital to peace with justice, on which the mainstream of Australian political and media discourse looks the other way.

I have no evidence that this is the motivation, but I have abundant evidence of its effect. Such an impression would be detrimental to the University's global reputation for rigorous scholarship, informed by access to the widest possible range of views on matters of public interest.

How can those campaigning against war and for peace help?

Write to Professor Barbara Caine, Acting Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, to protest this proposed change:

If you know of anyone in any prominent position in Australian life or globally, who would be prepared to write such a letter and have it publicised, that would be better still!

Happily, we are conducting this dispute in a context of rising student interest in our degree programs, and rising Unit of Study enrolments. That helps. We have begun to seek donations for a Scholarship Fund, to enable more students to join us, and we recently received a generous donation of $25,000, which will provide partial scholarships for five students to enrol in our Masters degree program. If you know of anyone with the means to help us further, whom I could approach, please let me know.

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