Home > Oz Politics > Another attack on academic freedom

Another attack on academic freedom

December 5th, 2005

James Farrell advises me that Professor Tom Valentine[1] has been dismissed from the University of Western Sydney for “misconduct”, which apparently consists of criticising the (mis)management of the University in relation to matters such as the creation of a new medical school.

I’ve rarely agreed with Valentine about anything, but I’m unreservedly opposed to the University’s action in this matter. Obviously, it violates everything a university is supposed to stand for. Unfortunately, that consideration doesn’t weigh much with the managerialist hacks who’ve been pushed into positions of power by the reforms of the past 15 years.

A more general problem is that, with the scrapping of the collegial role of faculties and academic boards, universities have some of the least accountable governance structures of any institutions in Australia. There are no shareholders as there would be in a private company. The universities derive most of their funding from the Commonwealth but operate under state acts of Parliament. Although DEST imposes all manner of burdensome reporting requirements, it lacks any effective power to constrain rogue vice-chancellors, of whom we have seen quite a few. On the other hand, state governments have the legal responsibility and power, but no budgetary control or interest.

For an institution so unaccountable to victimise and suppress internal critics and whistleblowers is deeply concerning. This affair should be investigated by ICAC.

fn1. I’ve had several disputes with Valentine over a variety of issues, but I’d be the last to deny that he has played a significant role in Australian economics, notably in his work with the Campbell Committee.

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  1. Bring Back EP at LP
    December 5th, 2005 at 11:33 | #1

    this is a disgrace.

    I remember Tom from his days at Macquarie uni and he was very good.

    I prefer tom to JQ on monetary economics.

    this and Peter Abelson’s example is far more important concerning standards on Universities.

    both were very good in their areas of expertise and neither unlike Fraser ever made silly uneducated remarks outside their area of expertise.

  2. Katz
    December 5th, 2005 at 11:45 | #2

    No news on the UWS home page about this.

    But the University does have a media unit that promotes itself thus”

    UWS Latest News
    We are here to help
    The University of Western Sydney employs a team of dedicated journalists to assist the media.


  3. conrad
    December 5th, 2005 at 14:00 | #3

    I wonder how those buried library books are going at UWS. Perhaps they are generalizing from books to people….

    It isn’t just vice-chancellors who are unaccountable, incidentally — most of the HODs are as well. Its just than when they make a bad/corrupt decision, no-one usually cares.

  4. December 5th, 2005 at 14:23 | #4

    Of course this is very wrong. But don’t get the idea that this is an assault on academic freedom, it’s just the bill falling due; “we already settled that question, we’re just arguing about the price” (attributed to Bertrand Russell in an analogous context).

    These are not true universities, any more than “colleges” here or in the USA re usually true colleges. A true college resembles a corporation, except that its essence resides in its members – surgeons are surgeons by virtue of their skills rather than their membership of a college of surgeons, and similarly for dons, cardinals, and sundry other creatures to be found in a bestiary.

    But calling a university a college, or calling an educational institution or its fixtures and fittings a university, is a transference. Australian “universities” simply aren’t universities in the original sense, to which the term “academic” can really be applied. Professors at such as these already gave up the true independence of collegiality long ago, the techniques that founded the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. They are no more academics than a PhD working at GCHQ Cheltenham. (Exceptions do remain, like Peter Dixon’s mob of economists roaming from institution to institution like so many itinerant mediaeval scholars in search of both patronage and academic freedom.)

    The collegiality allowed the academics to acquire first bargaining power and then privileges and endowments over time. The acceptance of governmental messes of pottage and vice chancellor usurpation as intermediaries led naturally to today’s pass, just as the BMC accepting government money led inexorably to British doctors declining from being true professionals with their skills their rationale, to “professional” being a mere courtesy title like teachers who can only function in someone else’s environment. That, of course, is where the decline of academia is headed – to the idea that they are there to teach, and they are hired for that, hirelings not professionals. We already discussed how universities are not primarily for teaching, only doing that incidentally as a paying hobby that comes easily to the pursuit of learning.

    There is a spurious counterattack to this encroachment, being mounted by British vice-chancellors. They want to convert today’s government funding into something more arms length from future governments by converting the funding into bonds held by the universities. This appears to be a reversion to the good old days, only the funding will be controoled Geral Secretary fashion by the vice-chancellors. Its appeal to governments is that they can do it at the expense of the future and gain current electoral kudos (the bonds will probably contain a hidden balloon element).

    But getting back to the point at issue, these sad developments are the birthright your predecessors sold. Either go on the road and start your own real universities from scratch, or if you can’t beat them join them. It’ll be Arch-chancellor JQ, DG…

  5. Dave Ricardo
    December 5th, 2005 at 14:35 | #5

    ” “we already settled that question, we’re just arguing about the priceâ€? (attributed to Bertrand Russell in an analogous context).”

    It was George Bernard Shaw who said it.

  6. December 5th, 2005 at 14:43 | #6

    I think that there is a significant case to be made that over the past decade individual autonomy has been rolled back in favour of insitutional authority. I can see some good reasons for it, most obviously in stronger border security systems, anti-terrorists measures and tougher law enforcement. But I am alarmed that people are not more alarmed at the steady dimunition of freedom in day to day life.

    The most obvious cases of unfreedom are occurring where the New Elites are firmly in the saddle, in financial and cultural affairs.

    The New Right (Dry) economic elites have been hammering freedom to protect their buzzworded financial interests: commercial-in-confidence, managerial prerogatives, intellectual property and “damage to reputation”.

    Likewise the New Left (Wet) cultural elites have set up any number of busy body agencies, appointed thought policemen and erected politically correct taboos to discourage independent research and criticism of their pet ideologies and schemes.

    In either case it is lawyers who are leading the charge against the laws of liberty. The powers that be always have the legal muscle and can stand on the fine print of some water tight clause. No one wants to be dragged through the courts or have their career ruined by a poor performance report.

    “A more general problem is that, with the scrapping of the collegial role of faculties and academic boards, universities have some of the least accountable governance structures of any institutions in Australia.”

    It is a great myth that the New Economy has created more individual liberty or organizational plurality. The “flattened hierarchies” have removed accountability up the chain of command. This allows the managerial elites to get away with murder.

  7. December 5th, 2005 at 15:32 | #7

    What, no reference to the plight of “Drew” Fraser? You’re slipping, Jack, though I do note you managed to work in your New Elite Aquaphobia Theory…erm…theory.

  8. Harry Clarke
    December 5th, 2005 at 16:12 | #8

    Terrible news but I am sure the university will find a convenient excuse. Tom has strong anti-managerialist views. In a sense he is disfunctional in a large modern university and that is to his credit. With the recent similar action on Peter Abelson at Macquarie I fear who will be next.

  9. December 5th, 2005 at 18:05 | #9

    The crackdown on peer-to-peer file sharing is also starting to get invasive. Lawyers are closing in from all sides. Freedom is in jeopardy.

  10. SJ
    December 5th, 2005 at 18:14 | #10

    Dave Ricardo Says: It was George Bernard Shaw who said it.

    Shades of Python.


    OSCAR WILDE: It sodding was not! It was Shaw!

  11. December 5th, 2005 at 20:46 | #11

    That uncertainty is why I merely put “attributed”.

  12. SJ
    December 5th, 2005 at 21:57 | #12

    GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: I, um, I, ah, I merely meant, Your Majesty, that, ah, you shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.


  13. December 6th, 2005 at 09:13 | #13

    The gossip mill running through Melbourne academia, suggests that Farrell had been a habitual critic of management for some time.

    The decision to fire was not exclusively linked to views expressed about the medical school, but was both an ‘icing on the cake’ as well as a convenient smoking gun for both parties.

    Academic freedom has its place, and significance. However, there is also the important balacing act involved in not unduly ‘biting the hand that feeds you’.

    I think you mean Valentine had been a habitual critic of management JQ

  14. James Farrell
    December 6th, 2005 at 17:05 | #14

    Some excerpts from the UWS Code of Conduct:

    From Section 12 (Public Comment)

    ‘The University embraces the ideal of fair and open discussion, recognising the rights of individuals to their own opinions, and supporting the principles of freedom of speech. However, it is expected that you will restrict your public expression of opinion or comment to matters that will not risk damage to the University’s reputation and prestige…’

    From Section 13 (Academic Freedom)

    ‘…academic freedom does not include a protected privilege to speak out on any matter, to deride or defame individuals, groups or the University or to ignore the policies or decisions that have been formally made within the University community.’

    This seems to mean that you can’t criticise the university management publicly, even if your arguments meet rigorous standards of scholarship and the matters are within your area of expertise. Apart from this, the university upholds academic freedom. I’m g*mbling that I’m free to quote this policy publicly, though it’s hard to do so without seeming to ‘deride’ it.

    I’d be interested to know in what circumstances people think academics should be sacked for public criticism of their institutions’ managers.

    Weekly: You seem to have a penchant for vague and guarded phrases. What about stating your argument in clear terms. Do you make a distinction between habitual and consistent? If so, explain why you prefer the former to the latter. If not, what’s your criticism? Is your last sentence meant to convey some point of principle, or are you just stating the obvious, i.e. that speaking out can be dangerous?

  15. derrida derider
    December 6th, 2005 at 18:12 | #15

    What are his colleagues doing about this? I don’t know Valentine personally – for all I know he might be a right pain in the arse. Also his economic and political views are probably unpopular. But neither of these are any excuse at all not to stand up for principle.

    If his colleagues have any shred of self-respect they should be doing all they can to “diminish the prestige of the university” by striking and by getting this all over the media. A university that behaves like this doesn’t deserve any prestige.

  16. December 6th, 2005 at 18:18 | #16

    It is a great myth that the New Economy has created more individual liberty or organizational plurality. The “flattened hierarchies� have removed accountability up the chain of command. This allows the managerial elites to get away with murder.

    I’ve found something to agree with Jack on!

    There seems to be a clear disjunction here between UWS “protecting its brand” and the traditional role of scholars – which can include, where prudent and necessary – being a pain in the bum about one’s own institution if it deserves it.

    I’d be interested to know if the NTEU has said anything about this.

  17. jquiggin
    December 6th, 2005 at 18:42 | #17

    DD, James Farrell is a colleague as is Raja Junankar who has written a strongly worded protest. I can’t imagine that eitehr of them find Valentine’s views congenial.

    And, in my experience, Valentine can certainly be a pain. The problem is, only that kind of person is going to stand up to an overbearing administration effectively enough to cause them grief. Freedom of speech for the meek and polite is no freedom at all.

  18. December 6th, 2005 at 23:28 | #18

    That last paragraph reminds me of some comments I once heard, that it’s easy to stick up for free speech for someone you agree with and find pleasant but the real test comes in upholding it for someone you detest whose views you abhor.

    BTW, and completely changing the subject, I’d be interested to know why my comment on the Gerrard thread got deleted.

  19. Terje Petersen
    December 7th, 2005 at 08:12 | #19

    PML, your first message on this thread was very insightful and appreciated. It gives food for thought.

  20. Chris Doucouliagos
    December 9th, 2005 at 05:39 | #20

    This is shameful.

    I remember Tom giving a seminar at Deakin Uni a couple of years ago. Tom noted, correctly, that once upon a time anyone with a vision was deemed to require treatment. Now they are elevated to esteemed managerial positions. And often their visions become our nightmares.

  21. jquiggin
    December 9th, 2005 at 06:24 | #21

    PML, I have no idea what happened to your comment. It’s not in moderation. Try reposting it.

  22. December 9th, 2005 at 20:16 | #22

    I think my Gerard comment did eventually get in, but after a misleading delay.

  23. SJ
    December 9th, 2005 at 20:48 | #23

    P.M.Lawrence Says:

    I think my Gerard comment did eventually get in, but after a misleading delay

    What comment? Quote it.

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