THE University of Newcastle has ended a unique teaching relationship with seven of Australia's most honoured architects in a pre-Christmas move that has shocked students, and with an explanation described by one of the seven architects as not much more than a "See you later".
Architecture graduates are already reconsidering whether to pursue further studies at Newcastle, after the university signalled an end to the Professors of Practice initiative in a heavily-criticised email and Blackboard message this week that prompted a petition demanding the decision be reversed.
The email acknowledged the dedication and service over nearly a decade of Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal-winners Richard Leplastrier (who won in 1999), Brit Andresen (2002), Lindsay and Kerry Clare (2010), Lawrence Nield (2012) and partner Andrea, and Peter Stutchbury (2015), but failed to specifically say the Professors of Practice program had ended.
"They were trying to say something without actually saying it," said 2018 University of Newcastle architecture graduate Sammy Bailey. A petition started by students on Tuesday, and calling on them to boycott early enrolments for 2020, was the first real confirmation for many that the professors would no longer be associated with the university, she said.
"I've had other students messaging me all day saying 'Where are we going to go now?' For so many of us the Professors of Practice are the main reason we've gone to Newcastle University," Ms Bailey said.
"For us it's a real shock and we all want to know why?"
Professor Stutchbury, who started his relationship with the university in 1999 as a conjoint professor, and his six colleagues were also unclear.
"I'm still waiting to hear the explanation," he said, after replying to a letter from the university this week with a message that "It might have been important to discuss what was proposed, rather than just say 'See you later'," he said.
"There are six gold medallists at the one university which is unheard of, and they're actually sweeping that away," Professor Stutchbury said.
"Eight years ago the professors of practice was initiated. The University of Newcastle approached the top architects in Australia and they agreed to be involved. Other universities have been trying to catch up ever since."
Professor Stutchbury said all universities were "currently going through cost cutting exercises and are making assessments as to where they want to cut costs", but the university risked losing part of what makes it unique in a competitive tertiary sector.
The Hunter is a very strong regional community and its landscape represents a rich culture in which to learn and teach strong local issues, Professor Stutchbury said.
A rise in the number of institutional students in universities across Australia had introduced "an inclination in some areas to believe that teaching should become as diversified", but the risk was an emphasis on "quick learning, but it's not deep learning", he said.
"Having Professors of Practice has been about teaching students that architecture is not just pretty pictures. If you get rid of that you lose something precious that the University of Newcastle has had."
A change.org petition started by University of Newcastle student Brianna Lewis alerted students that the "beloved" Professors of Practice had been "removed".
"It seems that this unpopular decision has been announced just as we were all leaving for Summer break, to avoid a backlash," Ms Lewis wrote.
Relationships with the Professors of Practice was "THE NO.1 REASON we chose to study at this school in the first place", she wrote.
Ms Lewis called on petition signers to write to senior university representatives about their experiences with the professors and why they should continue at the university and "help us send a message to the faculty by boycotting early enrolments for 2020".
"Removing these key mentors from the school calls into question what this school of architecture stands for. What values does it truly stand for?" she wrote.
The university had consistently out-performed other universities in state competitions and awards and University of Newcastle architecture graduates remained "some of the country's most respected and sought-after".
Ms Bailey is working at Professor Stutchbury's Sydney office for a year, under a work program initiated by him specifically for University of Newcastle graduates before they start higher degrees.
"It's such an amazing opportunity he gives us," Ms Bailey said.
"I went to Mexico last year with Lindsay and Kerry Clare. To be able to go overseas with gold medal architects is a unique opportunity, and they're all such amazing people. It's just so sad."
Professor Stutchbury said the Professors of Practice initiated taking students to parts of the world where they could use architecture to assist communities. For the past few years he has taken groups of students to Brazil to work in favelas with that country's poorest people.
"We've been there for the students. I've been reflecting on the decision, trying not to feel bitter. We've had such a creative input, such a positive impact, it makes you want to do more," he said.
Professor Stutchbury said he and Richard Leplastrier were offered positions at Sydney University but "we chose Newcastle".
"Richard Leplastrier is 80 and is probably one of the most respected architecture teachers in the world, and they're getting rid of him. It's been a privilege to work with him."
Professor Stutchbury said he was "amazed and deeply pleased" that 250 students had responded to the petition by Wednesday morning after it was posted on Tuesday evening.
"I'm absolutely impressed the students have developed a voice on this one," he said.
The school of architecture changes follow news in early November that at least seven academic positions in the university's school of business are expected to go.
In a speech to the Hunter Business Chamber in June University of Newcastle vice chancellor Professor Alex Zelinsky said "We want to turn the campus inside out and bring the rest of the world into our community".
"We want to design it in a way where it really does open the doors to business. Every part of the [new] building is designed so the best teams across all disciplines can work together on cutting edge problems," Professor Zelinsky said.
A University of Newcastle spokesperson said the university was "enormously grateful for the support that our architecture Professors of Practice have provided to our university over a number of years".
"The School of Architecture student cohort has shifted over the past decade and as a result we are transitioning to a visiting architects program that will allow for a diversity of practitioners who come from a number of countries, a diversity of practice types, and collectively bring with them a broader mix of experience," the spokesperson said.