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Making a Difference: Fifty Years of Indigenous Programs at Monash University, 1964–2014


With the establishment of the Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs (CRAA) in 1964, Monash became the first university to support research and teaching about contemporary Aboriginal Australia. In subsequent years, with the establishment of the Monash Orientation Scheme for Aborigines (MOSA) and other initiatives, Monash was at the forefront of moves to widen educational and employment opportunities for Indigenous people. The CRAA’s work, its purpose, as interpreted by Colin Bourke, Director from 1977 to 1981, was ‘to undertake and stimulate research [into] … the problems Aborigines have in living in a predominantly white society with the aim of helping [to] bring about an improvement in that situation’. Whether consciously or not, the Centre’s work was inherently political; inherently activist. In seeking to improve the material circumstances of Aboriginal people via research, it necessarily sought to change society. Now fifty years old and renamed the Monash Indigenous Centre, it, together with the Yulendj Indigenous Engagement Unit, continues to strive to make a difference in Aboriginal peoples’ lives because there is still more work to be done, more improvements to be made, and better understandings to be reached.

Convinced that Monash’s fifty-year engagement with indigenous issues was worth celebrating, and learning from, in 2014 the directors of MIC and Yulendj – Professor Lynette Russell and Helen Fletcher-Kennedy respectively – invited Graeme Davison, Emeritus Professor of History and co-author of University Unlimited: The Monash Story, to advise on the process of writing a history of Monash’s Indigenous programs. Davison recommended that a committee be established and an historian commissioned. Initially conceived as a six-month part-time commission to write a 20,000 word manuscript, the project was later extended to twelve-months part-time and 40–50,000 words thanks to a generous donation from the Eggleston Foundation, matched by in-kind support from Monash University.

I was commissioned to write the history. A Monash history graduate, my background is in twentieth-century Aboriginal political history and biography. Knowing very little about the history of Monash’s Indigenous programs, I approached the University Archives with mixed feelings of trepidation and excitement. Fletcher-Kennedy, in briefing me about the project, related an experience in the University Archives. She had accompanied a small group from Yulendj on a reconnaissance mission to try and get a feel for the nature and scope of the collection. An archivist had shown them a random file which contained a letter from a Catholic priest to someone involved in MOSA. Fletcher-Kennedy hadn’t taken note of the author, its addressee, when it was written (though she thought early 1990s), or which file it was in, but she remembered the statement at the bottom of the letterhead: ‘Don’t study Aboriginal languages – If ENGLISH was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for you’. For Fletcher-Kennedy and the team at Yulendj, the letter exemplified the entrenched racism that Monash’s Indigenous programs had sought to shift. Unsure what I would find, but determined to find the letter, I commenced work in January 2015. I was thrilled to discover on my first day in the basement where the University Archives are housed a handwritten note from Charles Duguid to Louis Matheson, Monash’s Vice Chancellor, congratulating him on the establishment of the CRAA. Duguid, a leading campaigner for Aboriginal rights, was the subject of my doctoral thesis; I felt right at home.

It took me six months to find the priest’s letter. In the meantime a picture emerged of burgeoning academic and wider public interest in contemporary Aboriginal Affairs that was led by Monash researchers; of attitudinal shifts helped along by the teaching of ‘Black Studies’ by Aboriginal people at Monash; of increasing numbers of Aboriginal people undertaking tertiary study at universities around Australia in the wake of MOSA’s establishment; and of changing government priorities and increased funding for Aboriginal research and education that saw the number of Australian universities engaged in Aboriginal research and teaching swell to such an extent that Monash became marginal in the new environment. Finding the letter with the shocking letterhead during my final week in the University Archives was a real ‘Eureka’ moment; I literally whooped with relief! It was not that it contained anything of a revelatory nature – the priest merely reported on mundane matters concerning a number of MOSA students – it was more a matter of closing a circle. I still had interviews to conduct, but locating the letter helped to confirm in my mind that it was time to write.

The cornerstone of Monash’s Indigenous programs, MIC in its various iterations is the main focus of this book, although MOSA, the Gippsland Centre for Koori Studies, and Yulendj are also included. Taking a roughly chronological approach and utilising the rich (though uneven) records of the Monash University Archives, its main theme is change, internal and external. Changes in name, location, personnel, and structure, affected the programs’ ability to bring about positive change for Aboriginal people. Among the wide array of factors considered, the role of individuals and the role of context, or wider events, stand out as key determinants of change. From the outset, the Centre was led by people of exceptional talent, foresight and ability; passionate individuals committed to making a difference in Aboriginal peoples’ lives. Strong personalities also led Monash’s other Indigenous programs. Several of these leaders, notably Dr Colin Tatz, the CRAA’s founder and inaugural Director, and Professor Merle Ricklefs, a key person in the establishment of MOSA, were outsiders, newcomers to Australia. Not having grown up in a society where Aboriginal peoples’ second-class status was normalised, they viewed the situation with fresh eyes, asked different questions, exhibited new outrage, and sought bold new solutions to the problems they perceived in Australia. Reflecting on this, Emeritus Professor of Law, Louis Waller, called to mind a Yiddish proverb that in English translates as ‘a guest for a while sees for a mile’. The outsider, he explained, is often ‘equipped with a better pair of glasses than many insiders whose glasses are inevitably smeared by a variety of things, like self-interest’. However, it is also true that, having left their native land and chosen Australia, the newcomers had high hopes of their adopted country which the impoverished situation of Aboriginal people most likely upset. Viewed in this light, their efforts to redress this can be seen as an important part of their own (self-interested) self-identification as Australian. In any case, they were joined by Australian-born Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and women who refused to accept the status quo; who knew how things worked, and pressed on regardless.

Each Director brought a different set of life experiences and skills, personality and temperament to the role; each left his or her mark on Monash’s Indigenous programs in different ways. Yet unpacking the puzzle of leadership is about more than determining whether individuals were sufficiently inspirational, motivational, and forward-thinking to make change happen; close attention must also be paid to the political, economic and social context within which they worked. Change is often easier to effect at certain times than others regardless of one’s efforts. Then it’s a matter of recognising that the time is ripe for change and having the courage and audacity, or ‘chutzpa’, as Tatz would say, to act.

This is a story of people with plenty of chutzpa. Chapter one examines Tatz’s efforts to establish and maintain the CRAA during the 1960s, a time of growing political unrest and increased awakening to the plight of Aboriginal people. A political scientist and recent émigré from South Africa, Tatz’s research interests informed the Centre’s early research priorities and determined its focus on contemporary Aboriginal issues. The story of his successor, Dr Elizabeth Eggleston, Director from 1972 to 1976, is told in chapter two. Eggleston’s background in law and passion for social justice allowed her to make significant inroads into Aboriginal communities in Victoria, expanding the Centre’s work in an era of growth in Aboriginal affairs. Colin Bourke became the first Aboriginal Director in 1977. His emphasis on ‘Aboriginalisation’ runs through chapter three which covers the period 1977–97, taking in the Directorships of Bourke, Dr Eve Fesl and Sharon Firebrace. Covering a similar time period, 1983–97, chapter four examines the establishment and work of MOSA. Bringing the story up to the present, the recent history of Monash’s Indigenous programs is told in chapter five.

As a non-Indigenous person, I benefited greatly from the advice of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the Steering Committee established to oversee the writing of this book: Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison, Professor Lynette Russell, Emeritus Professor Colin Bourke, Professor Andrew Markus, and Jason Brailey. In the end, however, the views expressed in this book are my own, not those of the Steering Committee, or the University. I was commissioned to write a critical history that everyone agreed would probably (perhaps inevitably, by virtue of its subject matter) be mostly positive. And that is what has happened.

Making a Difference: Fifty Years of Indigenous Programs at Monash University, 1964–2014

   by Rani Kerin