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'Shock, sadness': Flinders restructure plan prompts fierce backlash

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UPDATED | A reform proposal from Flinders University has drawn international criticism, with the planned closure of the respected Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity leaving its “superstar” director set to walk to a rival institution – taking millions of dollars of grant funding with her.

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Decorated public health expert and Order of Australia recipient Professor Fran Baum is set to depart with the university this afternoon confirming it will forge ahead with plans to close its influential Southgate Institute as part of a move to “expand and refocus its disciplines related to Public Health”.

The move is not a cost-cutting exercise but a restructure, “including an overall increase in staffing through the appointment of early-and mid-career academics”.

However, it will “incorporate the functions of the Southgate Institute, so that the reach and impact of those research and education activities aren’t confined to a single institute but are more broadly integrated across the discipline”.

“It would also prioritise the employment of academics identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander,” Flinders said.

“It is proposed that the lead of the new discipline will be one of the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander academics.”

But the move has drawn a strong backlash, with Baum and three of the institute’s current staff’s roles to be “dis-established”.

“It’s a very strange decision,” Baum told InDaily.

“Universities are judged by how much grant money you get, and publication – and we’ve more than met those.”

Bizarrely, the move comes just weeks after the University publicly lauded Baum for securing a new National Health and Medical Research Council grant worth $2.24 million, which the professor last month said would “mean our Southgate team can continue to research the policies that are most likely to create a more equal society”.

“A lot of overseas colleagues can’t believe the decision -it’s hard to know what’s behind it, other than the uni’s saying they want to change direction with their public health,” Baum said today.

“But it seems really strange to cut a really successful research group at a time of global pandemic.”

She says she’s actively exploring new research opportunities, which would strip Flinders of millions of dollars in existing grants.

“Our grants will follow us wherever we go – I’m talking to a number of universities at the moment,” she said, adding of her staff: “Hopefully we could re-employ them at the new uni.”

“What worries me is a whole strata of mid-career academics with uncertainty about where their career is,” she said.

“Two weeks before this was unveiled, we were celebrating this grant, which would have given them more security.”

I always stayed at Flinders because of its commitment to social justice – but I’m not sure that’s the case any more

She said while she supports the ambition to bolster Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander representation, that is an area the Institute has long focussed on, arguing: “I know the community controlled health movement are very upset by the decision.”

“I’ve been working with that group for over 30 years – so that really doesn’t make sense,” she said.

“The services have made it clear they’re not happy with the decision.”

She said she now had a $2.2 million grant with no institute to spend it on, and “I need to find a home for it”.

“I’ve been at Flinders for 30 years and had quite a few job offers to move elsewhere,” she said.

“I always stayed at Flinders because of its commitment to social justice – but I’m not sure that’s the case any more.”

In a statement released this afternoon, Flinders confirmed it was pushing ahead with the plan to “reshape its public health disciplines to broaden capacity, create opportunities for early and mid-career academics, and increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and employment”.

The University’s College of Medicine and Public Health Executive Dean Professor Jonathan Craig said in a statement that “following consultation with staff, the College is creating a new discipline of Population Health” which “importantly… will be led by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander academic”.

“Combining the dual elements of Public Health and Social Determinants of Health into the new discipline will deliver a more holistic approach to public health,” he said.

“The changes will see the work of the Southgate Institute distributed across the new Population Health discipline.”

He said the move would “position Flinders to seize an opportunity to strategically grow our education and research in public health”.

“Flinders acknowledges the sustained contribution to public health research and education by current staff [but] it’s important to look to the future and create career pathways, which is why we’re bringing in more early/mid-career academics, positioning the discipline to foster a new generation of growth,” he said.

The shake-up will abolish four current roles but create six new ones, two of which are “identified positions for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander academics”, one of whom will lead the new program.

It’s understood the University has not yet identified specific people to fill these roles.

“The health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people cannot be improved by goodwill alone,” Craig said.

“There are distinct health priorities that require not just clinical and public health expertise but a unique cultural focus, and need to be Aboriginal-led.”

He said the existing staff would “have the ability to apply for newly created positions, redeployment, or voluntary redundancy”.

But the proposal has prompted a broader backlash, both locally and more widely.

A letter to Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling from Jennie Popay, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Lancaster University, expresses “shock at the decision… to disestablish Professor Fran Baum’s post (effectively making her redundant) and abolish the highly regarded Southgate Institute she directs”.

“I understand [the] desire to increase and diversify the college’s national and international profile for public health teaching and research, enhance its relationships with the SA and Australian health system, and improve its performance in relation to indigenous health,” she writes.

“The aspiration to create a senior faculty position for an indigenous scholar is particularly commendable.

“However, to me, and many in the international public/population health community, the decision to pursue these reasonable objectives by forcing one of the global stars of public health out of the university and abolishing the internationally renowned Southgate institute is a grave mistake.”

Baum, she says, “has made an immeasurable contribution to public health globally, nationally and locally [and] it is simply incomprehensible that Flinders would knowingly pursue its reasonable aspiration for your future public health ‘offer’ by jettisoning one of your highest profile public health academics”.

“Does the university’s leadership simply not understand the role Professor Baum plays in sustaining Flinders as a public health centre of excellence for research, teaching and policy engagement on health inequalities within Australia and on the world stage?” she writes.

“The reputational damage sustained by Flinders University on the international public health stage will be considerable… the university will lose her extensive global networks that are a vital component of the public health developments you want to achieve.

“I urge you to reverse this decision.”

Professor Ronald Labonté, Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, wrote to Professor Craig saying he was “utterly stunned” by the move, similarly calling Baum “one of global public health’s superstars”.

“You can imagine my shock, then, to learn of the elimination of her position, especially when I had only recently viewed the Flinders news… announcing her just-awarded $2.2 million National Health and Medical Research Council grant…

“The work of the Southgate Institute is highly regarded in Australia and internationally, and the research undertaken under its mantle is always highly collaborative and respectful in its engagement with key stakeholders.”

Labonté also commended “the focus on Aboriginal Health in the proposed restructure” but noted Baum’s “long history of conducting research and program development and evaluation in collaboration with many Aboriginal organisations”, adding that “several of her (still active) grants are in that policy area, and have been instrumental in mentoring junior and mid-career Aboriginal researchers undertaking health program and policy work”.

“Why building on Fran’s legacy in Aboriginal health work should involve eliminating her position is unfathomable,” he writes.

“It is also profoundly disrespectful.

“With regret, sadness, and profound shock, I hereby resign my affiliation with Flinders University.”

Feedback on the University’s business case from Southgate staff, seen by InDaily, expresses “our grave concern at the proposed dissolution of the Southgate Institute which has well-deserved national and international recognition in public health, and the decimation of Public Health Discipline academic staff”.

In a joint statement dated October 12, they argue the business plan “is based on flawed thinking without consideration of the flow-on effects for staff, students, and the breadth and quality of public health research at Flinders University”, warning: “Its execution will come at a considerable reputational cost for Flinders.”

Staff argue the proposed case “contains errors of fact, provides no clear rationale or justification for this proposal, and dismisses Southgate’s contribution to the College and the University”.

“The proposal dismisses and undervalues the contribution that Southgate makes to the College, including the grants won, its significant international profile and extensive work on the social, commercial and political determinants of health and equity,” it continued, arguing the proposal “specifically targeted four senior public health academics” who had “met and exceeded the expected performance”.

“Exclusionary practices have been applied to these staff in the past year, including taking away their teaching resources and College roles,” the submission said.

“Key reasons for change in the draft business case include ‘new opportunities’ for research partnerships with [government preventative health agency] Wellbeing SA… however, if implemented, the business case will in fact undermine significant research partnerships already occurring with Wellbeing SA.

“These relationships with Wellbeing SA and this work will be undermined by the planned changes, which are therefore likely to result in real reputational risk for the College and University.”

Shadow Health minister Chris Picton, under whose portfolio the agency’s responsibilities sit, has already criticised the university’s planned move, tweeting in response to an article by health news blog Croakey News: “I hope Flinders will reconsider reported plans to abolish the Institute and its important work.”

SA’s Council of Social Service – which last year published a report on increasing health inequities in SA, in collaboration with the Institute – has also written to Flinders, expressing “utter dismay at learning that the University was proposing the disestablishment of [Southgate]”.

SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley told InDaily the group had “enjoyed a long and productive relationship and collaboration with the Institute and its staff over many years now [and have often been a key conduit to many organisations across our sector who have been interested in and gained from [their] work”.

“We are frankly surprised that in moving to disestablish Southgate, the University shows such scant interest in valuing the enormous contribution of the Institute and its impressive record in the advancement of both public health and driving understanding of the social determinants,” he said.

“It’s such a great shame.”

Baum has been a vocal critic of the Flinders hierarchy in the past; she was one of several academic staff to oppose a controversial 2018 restructure, telling a tense governing council meeting at the time that “the rich forest that was the Flinders academic community has really been clear-felled” by the proposed changes.

“There’s a really low level of staff morale at Flinders,” Baum said at the time.

“Many people have commented they’ve never seen morale so low in the institution… we’re being asked about it when we go to conferences – it’s affecting our reputation.”

Academics, she said, had been “treated in an unfair way” in the restructure process, which she described as “heartless, cruel, disrespectful and unnecessary”.

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