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Reflecting upon difficult times, an impossible situation and next steps: Professor Fran Baum

Last week, Croakey reported the news of Flinders University closing the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity, and the subsequent outpouring of support from health leaders around the world for the Institute’s director, Professor Fran Baum, and other academics losing their jobs.

Below Baum expresses gratitude for the support she and her colleagues have received, and calls for “a re-imagining of the role of public universities”, which seem to have lost their way.


Fran Baum writes:

What a roller coaster few weeks it has been. In mid-September our team was celebrating the fact that I had won an NHMRC Investigator grant (worth $2.2m) at the highest level and this would mean longer contracts for members of our research team.

Then within a fortnight we were blind-sided by the proposal (subsequently confirmed) from our College of Medicine and Health at Flinders University that Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity would be abolished along with four positions, including those of Professor Paul Ward, A/Professor Lillian Mwanri, Dr Emma Miller and mine. We all held tenured positions, and all performed at or beyond the benchmarks set for us.

This was justified by our College in that they want to take a new direction in public health and to do this they are establishing a Population Health group that will be headed by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader. The aim is for this new group to win more research money from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and to focus on Aboriginal health.

Yet I lead an NHMRC project which focuses on decolonisation of Aboriginal health services and am a Chief Investigator on another looking at the role of Aboriginal liaison officers. Paul Ward and I hold ten category one grants, and we are Chief Investigator on seven of these. Paul is supervising 15 PhD students.

Anyone who has been involved in research will know that we have heavy workload and the task of ensuring our research stays on track following the devastating news is no mean feat. We are also having to negotiate with other universities in the hope we will find a new home for our work.

Although the four of us were the ones who lost jobs, the University decision threw the staff and students associated with our research into uncertainty. Our research teams are largely employed on our grants and so when we leave the university so do our grants, which means those employed are very greatly affected by the decision.

The research being done by the four of us who were “dis-established” could not be more relevant during a pandemic. Paul Ward’s research includes obtaining deep understanding of the reason for vaccine hesitancy, Lillian Mwanri examines the health of refugees and migrants and Emma Miller is an infectious disease epidemiologist who has made regular media appearances about ways of dealing with COVID-19.

The NHMRC Investigator grant I won built on the work of our entire research team (Dr Matt Fisher, Dr Toby Freeman, Dr Connie Musolino, Dr Julia Anaf, Dr Jo Flavel, Dr Helen van Eyk, Dr Michael McGreevy, Associate Professor Anna Ziersch). Without them it would not have been possible. The program of work is called Restoring the Fair Go and is concerned with what policies will be required in the recovery from COVID-19 to ensure the trend towards increasing health inequities is reversed in Australia.

While I won the fellowship, I could not have done this without the research base we have created in the Southgate Institute and through our NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence on Health Equity, which we have conducted jointly with Professor Sharon Friel’s group at ANU and Patrick Harris at UNSW.

Between us we have made a massive contribution to understanding the social, political and commercial determinants of health and health equity.

Looking forward

The Flinders University decision has disrupted our research and will continue to do for the near future, but we are determined to re-establish ourselves and get back on track.

We have had phenomenal support from colleagues with whom we have partnerships in organisations such as the World Health Organization, Wellbeing SA, Aboriginal community-controlled health services, The Lancet, ACOSS and SACOSS and close researchers including Professor Ron Labonte and Professor Jennie Popay. These are people we have worked with for decades and who know the value of a social justice research team.

Our entire team will remain eternally grateful to Croakey for highlighting our plight as it gave a public voice and led to an outpouring of disbelief and heart-warming support from across the world. The value of independent journalism was on display and if you mourn the fate of the Southgate, then I urge you to make a contribution to Croakey so they can continue to be such an important independent voice in Australian health and equity debates.

The brutality with which my colleagues and I have been treated is sadly not uncommon in universities these days. Tenure used to mean that you had your university post for life unless you acted in an illegal way. Tenure enabled academics to speak up without fear and protected them from those who would seek retribution because they had spoken out or disagreed with someone in a management position. Such support for academics is vital because it protects academic freedom which is so vital to a healthy democratic society. When we erode tenure, we are also eroding one of the pillars that protects us all from tyranny.

As I reflect on the fate of the Southgate and the four of us who were “dis-established”, I realise that perhaps I should have been less shocked when the iron fist of the university came down on us. I am working with colleagues as part of a group Academics for Public Universities (APU) and we are questioning the direction universities have taken (or are perhaps forced to take by lack of government support).

We are calling for a re-imagining of the role of public universities and highlighting the ways in which they have lost their way. We are drawing on evidence such as the recent report from the South Australian ICAC on university integrity, which highlighted the many stresses reported by University staff including bullying, wage theft, discrimination and the high mental health toll any reported.

A thousand staff were surveyed and the ICAC noted many “were revealing of staff concerns about bullying and harassment, workplace culture, the impact of a suggested focus on student fees and revenue, favouritism/nepotism, and improper practices in student assessment and enrolment”.  Our task at APU is to examine the ways in which universities have moved from a public good model to a corporate model and develop and provide alternative visions of how public universities can be.

So to all Croakey readers a huge shout out for the support, concern, disbelief and many expressions of support and sympathy you have given us all. We’ve had a dark month.

But as well as being an academic I’m also a health activist (primarily through my role as co-Chair of the Global Steering Council of the People’s Health Movement) and in our movement we often say two things: “The situation is impossible and we must take the next step” (Pablo Casals ) and “Optimism is a political act”.

So now we move on from an impossible situation, take our steps forward and remain optimistic that we can continue our social justice research which is focused on making a real difference.


Previously at Croakey

Flinders University under fire over “shameful and stupid” move against leading academics

Flinders University urged to reverse “unfathomable and ill-conceived” decision to axe leading institute