La Trobe University has a mission. In its vision statement it proclaims: “Advancing knowledge and learning to shape the future of our students and communities”. It sounds commendable, but as far as the university’s approach to the Modern Greek Studies program is concerned, its mission statement is devoid of any meaning, if recent events are any guide.
The abolition in January of the only full-time position in the program shows the university has an odd approach to advancing learning. How can one part-time coordinator contribute to the revitalisation of the Modern Greek program, and develop, coordinate, teach, participate in innovative course level curriculum design, and fulfil the administrative duties of the program in a part-time capacity, in less than 30 hours a week?
The university doesn’t appear to have any intention of ‘shaping the future’ of the students who choose to study Modern Greek at La Trobe; recent decisions by the university indicate that it does not believe the Modern Greek Studies program has any future at all.
This might be seen as a damning assessment but it is a fair one, and we can explain why.
Since the program’s inception 40 years ago, La Trobe has enjoyed the support of the Greek community. Fundraising events, grants from the Greek and Cypriot governments, and generous bequests flowed into the program, and they still do, albeit on a smaller scale. The Vasilogiannis bequest, which, according to our sources, supports the program with $50,000 of additional funding per year, is an example of the community’s continued contribution.
However, it has become apparent that this supportive relationship is no longer reciprocal.
About 10 years ago, La Trobe University gradually adopted a secretive, if not arrogant, attitude towards the Greek community about the program. The community’s concerns for the future of Modern Greek Studies fell on deaf ears at La Trobe. Its authorities weakened the program and failed to provide clarity about their intentions, while claiming they were committed to its continuation.
Decreasing student numbers in the program are no secret, nor are the issues that arise from this harsh reality, but the lack of transparency from La Trobe and its lack of a clear policy on how they are addressing the issue has created a deficit of trust between the Greek community and the institution.
The university’s latest decision to reduce the program coordinator role to a part-time position has angered the Greek community.
Dr Maria Herodotou served the program for about 40 years in many capacities. She was the program’s full-time coordinator for some years until her retirement 18 months ago.
Dr Herodotou has since decided to speak openly about the recent developments, and doesn’t shy away from expressing her utter disappointment.
“When I informed them (the university) of my decision to retire, I presented them with all the details of the program and asked them if they would maintain my position with all the conditions – full-time, ongoing employment – and they promised me that they would. Unfortunately, my retirement in 2017 coincided with a policy decision by the University to freeze any new appointments,” Dr Herodotou told Neos Kosmos.
The hiring freeze served the university’s strategy – it is obvious now that there was a strategy – to minimise its financial commitment to the program. Instead of replacing Dr Herodotou, a move that would affirm their commitment to the continuation of Modern Greek studies at La Trobe, they chose to employ two lecturers on a casual basis, with Dr Herodotou kept on as a part-timer assigned administrative duties.
Since the beginning of the 2017 academic year, La Trobe has not spent a penny on the Modern Greek program, while at the same time actually making money from it. Apart from the federal funding it received, the program generated additional income from the interest paid on the Vasilogiannis bequest, and fees paid by Melbourne University for its students pursuing cross-institutional studies in Modern Greek at La Trobe’s Bundoora campus. It is estimated that the additional income was about $70,000 – more than enough to cover the salaries of the two casual academics.
During a meeting with members of the Greek Community of Melbourne board last October, the then head of the College of the Arts, Professor Anthony McGrew chose his words very carefully, making no commitments about reinstating Dr Herodotou’s position. The only commitment he made was to ensure the program would continue.
In the meantime, Dr Herodotou approached the Head of the Language and Linguistics Department, Professor James Walker, several times to inquire about the the full-time position but she was not provided with any clear answers.
The delay to appoint a successor last year worried her.
“I expressed my concern about the delays in appointing a new program coordinator. The delays were harmful to the program. I told them,” she says.
Fast forward to November 2017 when Neos Kosmos asked La Trobe about its intentions to fill Dr Herodotou’s position. Our requests for information went unanswered, and according to sources, the university branded our efforts as an “unnecessary and unhelpful interference”.
Within days Dr Herodotou’s fears that the program would be eroded were confirmed.
There was not going to be a full-time staff member for the program and instead the position was downgraded to part-time (0.6 days a week).
“I expressed my concern immediately that the position was reduced to 0.6; a fixed term appointment entails a lot of restrictions and is an impediment to the development of the program,” says Dr Herodotou, who still thought that the university was going to at least fund the position from its coffers.
But the situation got worse. The position was now to be fully funded externally from the maturity of the Vasilogiannis bequest.
“That is contrary to what was previously discussed,” says Dr Herodotou, who, like the many in the community, feels misled by the university.
She comments on the best efforts of Professor Walker but won’t comment on his superiors, pointing to other recent developments which stand to prove that La Trobe can no longer be bothered with the Modern Greek program and appears to be doing all in is power to weaken it.
Among them is the authorities’ decision to withdraw the Greek Diaspora subject offered over summer. Despite 15 students enrolling in the subject in 2016, the university closed its doors on them without any explanation, either to the students or to Dr Herodotou. The subject didn’t run last summer either.
“I realised that they were not offering it and I raised my concerns. They opened it to enrolments just a day before the deadline to enrol was expiring,” recalls Dr Herodotou, adding that “the decision by the school not to allow subjects to be offered like this one for two consecutive years had a negative effect on the overall enrolments in the program”.
In the meantime, the development of new subjects that might help raise student numbers is becoming an impossible task; Dr Herodotou points out that “certain policies prevent the program from offering new and additional subjects to the current program”.
part-time program cordination: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
La Trobe maintains that its intentions are to keep the program alive. We asked it how it would be possible for it to not only stay alive, but be revived and become more attractive to future students when all its actions are condemning it to a slow death.
Professor Walker maintains the long-term plan is to revive the program, but the elephant in the room – how exactly a part-time coordinator can achieve this – is expertly avoided.
“Enrolments in Greek Studies have declined drastically over the years, to the point where the program is in danger of becoming unsustainable. In the current funding environment the program cannot be continued in its current form. The part-time, fixed-term appointment gives us a couple of years to re-imagine the Greek Studies program. The new Head of School and I are committed to working with the newly appointed staff member and with members of the Greek Community of Melbourne to put Greek Studies at La Trobe on this sustainable path. We have already started to make changes to the curriculum in 2019 that we hope will prove attractive to students in Greek Studies and beyond”.
APATHY FROM THE GREEK COMMUNITY – THE OTHER ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
In the past, the Greek community has supported the Modern Greek Studies program through a number of initiatives with well-off members investing not only time, but also a considerable amount of money to enhance it.
The decisions and lack of transparency on La Trobe’s behalf created a sizable deficit of trust between the community and the university, resulting in an apathetic response from the community.
It should be noted that there is an effort being made by the GOCMV to initiate a dialogue with La Trobe. But is that enough?
One thing is certain. It was not enough to save the full-time coordinator role.
As a community, in recent years we have shied away from asking ourselves some fundamental questions about the Modern Greek program: do we want a Modern Greek Studies program to be part of Melbourne’s academic landscape? If we do, what can be done to make this program sustainable?
And last but not least, who will lead the effort on behalf of the community?
There’s no denying the Greek community has accumulated substantial wealth during its limited presence in Australia, and with numerous associations leaving behind valuable assets, one thing is certain; the means to maintain a Modern Greek university program are there. Coupled with the human capital, the many exceptional people who have the knowledge and have earned the respect of the Australian community, there are certainly leaders to head the effort. The question is, will words translate into action? It’s yet to be seen.