Solidarity rally held outside Melbourne Law School. Image: Indigenous X Twitter.
The student body at Melbourne Law School are frustrated by what they say is a failure to address institutional racism at the sandstone university.
Indigenous students met with the Dean of the Melbourne Law School, Professor Matthew Harding, twice last week to discuss the racist treatment they’ve faced at the school and what actions the faculty is taking to create a culturally safe environment for First Nations students and staff.
However, Palawa woman and Juris Doctor student, Maggie Blanden, said they left both meetings feeling disheartened and their concerns downplayed.
“It’s really disappointing. We heard a lot of, I don’t have the power to do anything, we saw a lot of inaction, and we saw a lot of scooting around the issue and not getting to the facts. We left wondering how we’re going to feel safe here if that’s how they’re going to address our safety concerns,” she told NIRS News.
At the open forum on Thursday, which was also attended by non-Indigenous students, the Dean and an MLS Executive were given time to prepare answers to anonymous questions ahead of the forum, which Maggie says the students weren’t told about.
MLS did agree to extend special consideration for exams given to Indigenous students who have been bearing the cultural and emotional load of the situation, which Maggie called a small win.
The open forum follows the resignation of Dr Eddie Cubillo from his part-time position as Associate Dean of Indigenous Programs after giving a lecture at the University of Sydney last month on his experiences with racism at law school.
The Larrakia, Wadjigan, and Central Arrernte man has gone on record to state, Melbourne Law School is the “most culturally unsafe place he’s ever worked,” despite his personal experiences, Dr Cubillo continues to support Indigenous students through his role leading the university’s Indigenous Law and Justice Hub.
Since his resignation, students have held a solidarity rally outside the campus and continue to put up posters around the law school featuring quotes from Dr Cubillo’s Wingarra Djuraliyin Public Lecture, calling for an Indigenous Voice to law school, and slogans like “Mob are not safe here”, “First Nations academics make MLS better”, and “we stand with Eddie”.
Maggie, who was one of the organisers of the rally, said the posters continuously get ripped down by security while other posters are allowed to stay up.
She also said the institution’s treatment of Aboriginal students at MLS is no better, with scholarships ripped away after the first year, a lack of financial and emotional support, racist remarks, and some lecturers openly mocking Dr Cubillo and the unfolding situation at MLS.
A petition, titled ‘Open letter to the Executive of the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Law School’ has already attracted 1,400 signatures – including from dozens of Indigenous advocates and academics.
The online petition states the “failure of the institution to take meaningful action on, listen to, and support First Nations staff and students is unacceptable” and calls for urgent, genuine, and generous engagements to address the lack of cultural safety at MLS – in line with Melbourne University’s 2008 Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for “any past wrongs carried out in the name of the University”.
It offers a list of demands, supported by Indigenous MLS students, including an apology to First Nations students and staff, an Indigenous-led anti-racism committee that review experiences of direct and institutional racism, ongoing anti-racism training for MLS staff, a commitment to quotas for permanent identified roles, a mandatory Indigenous subject to be included by 2025, and the full report and recommendations of the Indigenous Cultural Safety Report commissioned by Melbourne Law School.
An anti-racism body, mandatory Indigenous legal subject, and cultural safety review have been called on by Dr Cubillo in the past, but MLS chose to disregard the suggestions until cultural safety issues at the university became more public.
In a statement regarding the allegations of cultural safety and racism at MLS, a University of Melbourne spokesperson said: we are “aware of and deeply concerned by cultural safety issues that have been raised.
“Those experiences have challenged us to consider what we are doing to address Indigenous cultural safety and to demonstrate that racism is not tolerated at the Melbourne Law School.
“It is not acceptable that Indigenous staff and students have been made to feel unwelcome or under-valued.
“Meanwhile, other major university-wide initiatives are in train. These include a mandatory Indigenous cultural education program for staff, the university’s first anti-racism action plan, and Murmuk Djerring which was launched in August. That strategy details more than 20 projects designed to help us reach our ambition to be the university of choice for Indigenous Australians.”
After the forums, Maggie said the Dean will take their demands in full to the University of Melbourne Executive, have a comprehensive discussion about each of them and hopefully get back with what they can and can’t do over the next few months.
In the meantime, Indigenous students will continue with their studies, but Maggie fears the number one law school in Australia is fostering an environment that will lead to future lawyers not respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people they might one day represent.
“We’re learning that Indigenous students and people don’t deserve to be respected in their institutions and organisations, is that really the world that Melbourne Law School want to send students out into, and especially our non-Indigenous peers, are they going to go through this education and not have the expert Indigenous knowledge from Dr. Cubillo, or from having Indigenous students around them?”