Emails clarify UTS influences on Snelling thesis failure

Posted by Davina Jackson 18 August 2014
UTS Professor Desley Luscombe.

UTS Professor Desley Luscombe.

Two senior research leaders at the University of Technology, Sydney, have emerged as persuasive figures in RMIT's late 2000s processes of sabotaging its scholarship PhD thesis on Douglas Snelling, written by Davina Jackson (author of this blog).

RMIT's own-goal decisions wasted its $56,000 (approx) in scholarship funds and cost it the $90,000 subsidy that Australia's Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research would have paid for Jackson's successful PhD 'research training'.

Emails just released by UTS (under New South Wales freedom of information legislation) reveal that Professor Desley Luscombe, Dean of UTS' Faculty of Design Architecture and Building, persuaded her Chancellery colleagues that Jackson (in general) was 'often innovative' but did not show 'the depth required of academic research.' This view was expressed in September 2007, one year after Jackson was named by New York/London publishers Phaidon as one of the world's top 10 architecture writers (Phaidon's 10x10_2 and Jackson's other publications are listed here).

Luscombe reinforced her negative views of Jackson in off-record talks with her colleagues. These were interpreted in an internal email from UTS' Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Sue Rowley (now retired), as meaning 'Desley thinks she (Jackson) is flakey' (February 2009).

Emails also show that Luscombe instructed her faculty's staff professors and lecturers to avoid collaborating with Jackson. Luscombe emphatically rejected several early 2008 suggestions from UTS colleagues, including the University of Queensland's current Dean of Architecture, Professor Sandra Kaji-O'Grady, that UTS DAB would benefit from appointing Jackson as an adjunct professor.

From 2007 to 2010, Jackson was targeted with subtle yet persistent rejections via her principal supervisors at RMIT, Professors Harriet Edquist and Richard Blythe. They have collaborated for many years with Luscombe, as fellow heads of Australian architecture schools, and as leaders of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and NZ (SAHANZ). During Jackson's PhD candidacy, Edquist hosted a vist by Luscombe to one of RMIT's invitation-only postgraduate research weekends.

Luscombe gained her PhD for analysing cultural meanings in the frontispieces (title page drawings) of five classic Italian Renaissance architectural books – positioning her as one of Australia's small clique of post-modern architectural 'historiography' (theories from historical literature) scholars. (Her UTS staff research profile is here).

Other members of this SAHANZ-affiliated clique, Dr Andrew Leach (Griffith/UQ) and Dr Christine McCarthy (VU, Wellington) were the two (of three) examiners who failed Jackson's history thesis for its lack of theoretical analysis of 'contextural literature'.

The examiner who passed Jackson's thesis as an original historical research project, Professor Peter McNeil, now works closely with Luscombe as her Associate Dean of Research. He replaced her former UTS ADR, Professor Andrew Benjamin (also a post-modern theory scholar, now at Monash), who in 2009 published a monograph promoting Blythe's architecture practice, Terroir, in 'philosophical aesthetics' terms. (Benjamin had cancelled cordial relations with Jackson in 2005, when she won a multi-faculty associate professorship at the University of New South Wales, where Luscombe had spent most of her academic career.)

In October 2007, UTS' DVCR Rowley contacted RMIT's Professor Mark Burry (then nationally funded as a Federation Fellow), to discuss his association with Jackson's UNSW (and later NICTA)-funded proposals for a national and global digital cities research network. Rowley and Burry agreed that Jackson's proposal did not have 'legs' and Burry contrasted his 'very slow' style of working with Jackson's 'very different' style; suggesting Jackson would be more successful outside of academia. In emails obtained by Jackson from QUT and the University of Melbourne, Burry and other professors agreed that Jackson must not be allowed to  'gain credibility' in academia. Some of Luscombe's emails indicate this view was being circulated around members of the Australian Deans of Built Environment and Design (ADBED), effectively cancelling Jackson's potentials to work with any Australian architecture faculty.

In 2010, Jackson's failed Snelling thesis was the subject of an RMIT appeals process, supported by Blythe after belatedly agreeing with Jackson's claims of a 'hatchet job'.

RMIT's Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Daine Alcorn.

RMIT's Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Daine Alcorn.

The university appeals committee unanimously found that the thesis was wrongly failed and began a process to have it re-reviewed. RMIT's Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Daine Alcorn, then led an exceptional process which misled RMIT's three portfolio (super-faculty) deans to shut down the appeal process, reject the committee and school's findings of earlier process errors, reject the committee's recommendation for the thesis to be reviewed 'in light of the examiner's reports', and instead officially confirm RMIT's support for McCarthy and Leach's claims that Jackson was not academically competent.

Postscript 20 August 2014 From these FOI emails, and discussions with academics who have fact-checked this article and explained 'the way Desley works', Jackson has concluded that Luscombe ignited the beliefs and conversations among other professors who directly persuaded RMIT's Chancellery to refute its own mea culpa evidence and formally state that the Snelling thesis, and its author, have no academic merit.

In 2013, Jackson's Australian PhD failure was ignored by assessors at the British Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities, who approved her 'post-PhD' credentials to win a UK 'Exceptional Talent' visa until 2016. Jackson now is a visiting research fellow with the computing school at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and an associate editor with German science publisher De Gruyter, assessing arts and architecture PhD theses for peer-reviewed publication.

Postscript 26 November 2014 Following the recent appointment of Martin Bean, replaced now by Gill Palmer as RMIT's new Vice Chancellor, Daine Alcorn has retired as DVCR to an emeritus professor role with health, while Mark Burry has moved to the University of Melbourne.

Postscript 6 March 2015 Since October last year, UTS' Provost and Senior Vice President, Professor Peter Booth, has been supervising 'a full process' and 'unbiased review' of Desley Luscombe's activities relevant to Jackson's allegations of misconduct, using email evidence assembled by the UTS freedom of informaton office. Luscombe since has advised some colleagues that she is leaving UTS this year.

Postscript 14 September 2015 UTS Provost Peter Booth belatedly announced his review findings, from an analysis of email evidence by his departmental officer, Margaret Connolly. Connolly's analyses are here, Booth's review findings are here.

Booth's key decisions were that while there were 'clear indications that Professor Luscombe did not support' [Jackson or her academic roles and research projects], 'there is nothing indicating the level of bias or discrimination that would sustain a breach of the UTS Staff Code of Conduct or the UTS Responsible Conduct of Research Policy 'which embeds the principles of the national research code'. He said that there is 'no clear evidence of any concerted campaign inside and outside UTS to undermine [Jackson and her research projects]. ... [Luscombe] did give non-supportive views.'

Booth said that while Luscombe 'did raise the matter [of Jackson and her research] at one national Deans meeting, it wasn't a forum over which UTS has any jurisdiction and also has no direct standing in making decisions.'

Booth separately clarified that his investigation excluded any specific analysis of the 'external' matter of Luscombe's influences on the organised failures of Jackson's Snelling PhD at RMIT. His review focused on Luscombe's opposition to Jackson's general involvement with staff at UTS DAB and specifically to her broader opposition to Jackson's UNSW and NICTA-funded roles to 'catalyse' a national and global research network focused on data solutions for cities (see dcitynetwork.net, dcitynetwork.net/manifesto and virtualanz.net).