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Institute of Postcolonial Studies to shut down amid calls for change from members

Dechlan Brennan -

The announcement that the Melbourne-based Institute of Postcolonial Studies (IPCS) will be dissolved by the board has been met with disappointment by the organisation's more than 200 members, many who say they were blindsided by the decision.

Described by one member as a "remarkable space for critical thought and interrogating settler colonial relations in Naarm," the IPCS is a registered charity operating out of North Melbourne.

However, tension has been building for over 12 months, with accusations the board is largely unaccountable to paying members and made up of white academics.

An open letter in Overland Journal in November alleged the IPCS failed to "use its resources in service of the self-determined aspirations of Aboriginal communities".

"For the past five years, there has only been a single Aboriginal director on the IPCS Board, who resigned earlier this year, and two People of Colour (POC) who have also resigned," the letter said.

"…(An) organisation committed to interrogating colonial relations must embody a diverse governance structure, which includes directors of the Board with a lived experience of colonisation."

The open letter had 240 signatories, including 56 active IPCS members.

The IPCS has grown substantially since its founding in 1996. With more than 200 members it has a scholarly journal (Postcolonial Studies) and a book series (Writing Past Colonialism).

However, in late October, the member sign-up link on the IPCS website no longer appeared to work and members said the space in North Melbourne was no longer as vibrant as it used to be.

Furthermore, members said "a number of actions by the Board, relating to activities, projects and staff, created an environment where members no longer felt comfortable contributing to or collaborating with the Institute".

On December 4, an email sent by the board and seen by National Indigenous Times said the project would be ending, in part due to an unprecedented "aggression and hostility directed to the IPCS project and its Board."

"The way this campaign has been conducted is directly at odds with the unique collaborative spirit that has characterised IPCS over 27 years and it has caused the Institute significant reputational damage," the email said.

It claimed the campaign for change has caused the IPCS to cancel events and consider the viability of the project. They also claimed the calls for board restructure to better represent POC were incompatible with the original vision of the IPCS.

"The recent trenchant demands that advocate for the appointment of a majority 'racialised' Board that would oversee an 'anti-colonial' project are starkly at odds with this vision."

The email was attributed to Board Members John Altman (Chair), J Paul Carter, Ross Lake and Joan Clarke, as well as Executive Director Melinda Hinkson.

In response to the board's email, the Transform IPCS Working Group - which also penned the open letter and set up by members in 2022 to facilitate change in the IPCS - said the board had "deceptively" implied IPCS founding members supported the shutting down of the project, despite director Phillip Darby saying he did not approve of the institute closing its doors.

"The announcement follows months of internal strife, with members raising concerns over poor governance and the Board's perceived lack of commitment to antiracist and anticolonial endeavours in Australia and globally," the group said.

In an email to members on November 20, they said a proposal was being put forward to seek the appointment of four Aboriginal scholar-activists: Prof Gary Foley, A/Prof Crystal McKinnon, Dr Evelyn Araluen, and Natalie Ironfield.

As well as this, they also advocated for the appointment of three "racialised community organisers and PhD candidates" who would serve as directors of the board alongside the current four.

Professor and Author Tony Birch labelled the IPCS building "a vital asset that we cannot afford to lose".

"The IPCS has always had the opportunity to engage with Aboriginal scholars and activists from Australia, as well as Indigenous scholars from across the globe," he wrote in a letter published on the groups Facebook page. Unfortunately, this opportunity has never been fully realised."

He said that while fundamental and necessary change can create conflict, it is a concept of growth that should be embraced. He urged the leadership to sit down and have discussions with the members who felt disenfranchised.

In an online forum on Thursday night, members expressed their frustration of the boards decision, along with their love of the institute.

Dharug person and IPCS member, Natalie Ironfield, said the board needed to listen to the people most impacted by colonisation.

"I strongly believe IPCS needs to be accountable to the communities who are most impacted by colonisation and who are engaging in anti-colonial study," they said.

Uncle Gary Foley told the same forum that the exercise was about revitalising the institute by allowing greater input by the colonised.

"It's a great pity that people on the other side of this have reacted in an unnecessarily defensive way," he said.

"I am disappointed. These people have been my friends for quite a long time and now they've stopped talking to me."

Five student tenants live at the North Melbourne premises and the group have asked what will happen to the premises, which they say is worth "several million dollars".

Prof. Birch urged the building to not be sold, arguing the "death of the building could also create a death of ideas."

The IPCS board was contacted by National Indigenous Times for comment.


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