Yesterday I linked to a couple of news articles relating to the suspension of two academics from the Queensland University of Technology (see here). Since then there have been further news reports and some interesting perspectives from the Australian blogosphere.
Today's papers continued the story, without really adding that much new information. Read The Courier Mail report here and The Australian report here. The Australian report, in particular, provides a useful summary of the controversy:
Academics banned 'for their behaviour'
Brendan O'Keefe and Andrew Fraser
June 12, 2007
TWO Queensland University of Technology academics suspended for six months were banned because of their behaviour and not for publicly criticising a PhD student's film that makes fun of disabled people.
Creative industries lecturers Gary MacLennan and John Hookham have been suspended without pay for six months.
QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake told The Australian the two were suspended because a staff member and a student had complained about their behaviour. A committee headed by former industrial relations commissioner Barry Nutter upheld the complaints.
At the centre of the dispute is a film by PhD student Michael Noonan originally called Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains, but since changed to Laughing with the Disabled.
Dr MacLennan was charged with abusing Mr Noonan at the confirmation hearing for the PhD project on March 20.
The charge reads: "You directed personal abuse at Noonan by stating to him in a raised voice words to the following effect: 'I have a handicapped child and I pray to God that my child never comes into contact with someone like you'."
The two also wrote an article for the Higher Education supplement of The Australian, in which they are charged with having "attacked Noonan and his thesis in a way that misrepresented Noonan's work".
In a submission to the QUT disciplinary panel, Dr MacLennan wrote: "When the university chose to confirm and give ethical approval to a project which sought to ... expose the disabled to mockery, it was the darkest hour of my career." He was shocked by the sentence: "I don't think the charges warrant a $40,000 fine (in lost salary)."
Read it here.
ABC News provides the other side of the argument, with a comment from the QUT Vice-Chancellor Peter Coaldrake:
QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake says the suspension of the men had nothing to do with the debate about how disabled people are treated.
"This committee focused on some allegations of misconduct which had been brought to my attention regarding the behaviour of some individuals toward other people," he said.
"That's really the beginning and end of it. I mean, people can say its an attack on academic freedom, people can say it's the university taking a side in the disability debate.
"Neither is reasonable, both are nonsense propositions."
Dr Coaldrake says the men stepped over the line by threatening the academic freedom of the student involved and his supervisors.
"Academic freedom is a great privilege it is also a freedom which has to be exercised with care with regard to the views of others," he said.
"It is not a license to ridicule or derogate others and of course if you did that you would be affecting other people's academic freedom."
Read more here.
The Australian blogosphere has largely been critical of the decision by QUT to suspend Gary MacLennan and John Hookham. Senator Andrew Bartlett blogs that he was "stunned to read" that QUT had suspended the two academics:
I haven’t seen all the specifics of the thesis or the film that was produced. But despite all the competing arguments, I still believe that suspending people for six months without pay for being publicly critical is excessive and very dangerous. I’m sure QUT didn’t like being criticised so publicly and harshly, or the people behind the thesis, but it’s hard not to get the feeling that all academics are being sent the very strong message that academic freedom of speech and debate ceases to apply when it comes to any criticism of one’s own University, and presumably their funding sources and opportunities too. As the Courier-Mail editorial notes, it will make every academic think twice before speaking out.
Read more here.At Ethical Martini, Martin Hirst describes QUT as "gutless":
Larvatus Prodeo is also critical of QUT:
My pals John Hookham and Garry MacLennan have been suspended without pay from the Queensland University of Technology for six months. This is an effective sacking for these courageous academics who have spoken out about a very poorly thought-out PhD thesis dealing with humour and disability.
The sacking is cowardly because it means that QUT does not have to deal with the substantial issues that Hookham and MacLennan raised (for the background, track down the blog).
If the two are suspended without pay they are effectively silenced and humiliated. As Garry said, the brutality of this action is astounding.
The university is defending itself against criticism of some of its ethics approval procedures and the intellectual rigour of some of the supervising academics who are managing the controversial thesis topic.
As Garry and John pointed out in their original article critiquing the Doctorate, the moral relativism of postmodern "theory" has won the day here.
This is a shameful day for QUT and signals very strongly that academic freedom in Australia is under the administrative hammer.
Read more here. Similarly, Chris Griffith, blogger for The Courier Mail's Vital Interest Blog, calls on QUT to "Overturn this penalty!":
Not only does QUT Vice-Chancellor Peter Coaldrake apparently think that humanities and social science are an unnecessary piece of flim-flam for a real world institution, he seemingly also completely fails to grasp the value of freedom of speech. I was critical, in an earlier post, of the actions of QUT academics John Hookham and Gary MacLennan in attacking a PhD student’s thesis (then titled Laughing at the Disabled) in the pages of The Australian. I still think their actions were wrong, both in terms of how the student was treated and in using his thesis as a pretext for a beat-up about the evils of post-structuralism. However, suspending those two academics for six months without pay seems a totally over the top reaction. QUT appears determined to trash its own reputation, and to act in any fashion other than what would be reasonably expected from a university.
Update: It’s been pointed out to me via email that Coaldrake hasn’t actually justified the decision of the disciplinary tribunal in detail. If it is the case that there are other grounds than those that are apparent from the reaction from Hookham and MacLennan, then the onus really is on him to specify what those are. A bit of transparency might help unravel this whole affair.
"Now is the time to be very alarmed”, rings out our editorial about academic John Hookham and Gary MacLennan’s six month suspension (worth c$40,000) for writing what can only be described as a thoughtful critique of a PhD thesis. They wrote it because they believed it poked fun at the disabled.
The action is more than alarming, it’s a disgrace that given what they wrote, an institute calling itself ‘a university’ would take action that could financially ruin the pair and has seen one of them suffer a nervous breakdown.
Read more here. John Quiggin also offers his perspective:
The committee that upheld the complaint against Hookham and MacLennan did so unanimously. It was chaired by former industrial relations commissioner Barry Nutter, a man with an extensive public service background. Mr Nutter was the general secretary of the Professional Officers Association from 1971 to 1982, and after the Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen years was appointed by the Ahern Government as industrial division director of the state Industrial Affairs Department. He was a member of the Public Service Board.
The final decision lay with vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake, a man who in the 1980s during the Joh era made a fine contribution to the cause of democracy in the TV interviews and analysis he provided as an academic at the time.
I remember in the 1980s during the Joh era one of these QUT lecturers Gary MacLennan being out there when it counted strongly expressing his concern about the lack of democracy.
It’s a real shame that 20 years on, it has come to this.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that QUT was one of a number of ‘institutes of technology’ that has been reclassified as ‘a university’. It’s great for the former QIT to have university status, but there’s also an obligation to uphold the academic principles universities foster—and a key one is ‘academic freedom’ coupled with vigorous, informed debate.
Read it here.
but unless there is more to the case than has been revealed so far, it’s hard to accept this claim - obviously a central part of academic freedom is the freedom to criticise the work of others. There’s a general expectation of a civil tone in such criticism and the Oz article could be seen as violating this, but such a breach hardly justified suspension or dismissal in my view.
A somewhat comparable instance, closer to home for me (since my appointment is partly in the School of Political Science), is this article, also in the Oz, by UQ Pol Sci academics David Martin-Jones and Carl Ungerer, attacking work on terrorism by fellow-members of the School. This made for some tension at morning tea, and there was a fair bit of annoyance that the writers hadn’t sought to engage in debate within the school before going public, but that was about the end of it, as far as I know.
Although the perspective of most bloggers (or at least the bloggers whose comments I have found or have been referred to), and the views of those posting comments to those blogs, have generally been critical towards QUT, some of the posted comments have been supportive of QUT's decision. For example, well2, commenting on Andrew Barlett's blog purports to offer a perspective from inside QUT's Creative Industries Faculty:
it’s unfortunate that the whole debate has become about freedom of speech. Gary and john have every right to speak publicly - they do not have the right to attack a student because they disagree with him, they do not have the right to encourage students to attack him, they do not have the right to lie about and misrepresent his research, and they have a duty of care towards all students within the faculty.
QUT has confidentiality policies in place to ensure that research is reviewed privately before it is made public. The idea is that in a supportive community of scholars, one can address sensitive topics, and adjust one’s research if it is problematic. The internal review process is to ensure that young researchers can do research in a supportive environment before being exposed to the blowtorch of the press.
we in the faculty are unable to speak about our experience publicly, not because we are afraid of QUT, but because we are afraid of Gary and John and Rupert. And many of us remember the last time Gary and John went on an anti Creative Industries jihad with Uncle Murdoch - makes it hard to, well, speak in public.
There has been a lot of support from some individuals in the CI Faculty over the years simply because Gary and John disagree. Why would anyone think that QUT would discourage the debate of ideas? It’s a strange suggestion.
What is at stake is the senior academics’ treatment of a student. The university received a formal complaint and it was processed according to their Manual of Policies and Procedures (MOPP). An independent panel found that the senior lecturers had breached the QUT Code of Conduct, hence the suspensions.
Read it here.
This is a difficult and controversial topic, and it seems that the publicity surrounding this matter may hurt the reputation of QUT. If there is more information relevant to the committee's decision to suspend John Hookham and Garry MacLennan that can legally be made public, then I'd hope it could be made available to facilitate greater understanding and debate of this matter.
Academics may face new charges
June 13, 2007 12:00am
TWO QUT academics suspended for six months without pay for publicly criticising a film project on "laughing at the disabled" could face further charges.
University documents show that the institution is reviewing material that could lead it to lay serious misconduct charges against Gary MacLennan and John Hookham, who were found guilty by a three-person Misconduct Investigation Committee of the lesser charge of misconduct.
The maximum penalty for serious misconduct is dismissal.
The committee which heard the charges included chairman Barry Nutter (former Queensland industrial relations commissioner) and senior QUT academics Professor Kar-Tin Lee and Paula McDonald.
In their unanimous judgment, they said an article in The Australian newspaper criticising the thesis project was "inappropriate and denigrates Michael Noonan (the student preparing the thesis) by implication."
The judgment also said that the article referred to university staff "in a derogatory and disrespectful manner".
"With respect we disagree that academic freedom gives a person the right to forward such an article which denigrates or derogates other persons (particularly staff and students) at the university."
The judgment also said that Mr Noonan was "taken aback" by a comment at his thesis confirmation seminar made by Dr MacLennan "to the effect that he had a disabled child and that he prayed to God that he never fell into the hands of people like him (Mr Noonan)."
The judgment said the comment made Mr Noonan "feel despicable, like he was a pedophile."
Mr Noonan could not be contacted yesterday.