The managerial destruction of academic freedom

Whether the right actually believes in the substance of its panics about Safe Schools and respectful relationships curriculum – that such things are tools of a left-wing conspiracy of unions and teachers and Marxist academics infiltrating our schools and polluting the minds of our innocent children – doesn’t really matter. They saw in Roz Ward both their worst fears and their best hope for the program’s destruction.

From the perspective of Professor John Dewar, vice chancellor of La Trobe University, his institution had absorbed hit after hit from the culture warriors at The Australian, and indeed from the rest of the Murdoch stable, the federal Coalition, and the Christian Right over its association with the Safe Schools Coalition and its All of Us teaching manual. He had defended Safe Schools from many of those attacks; he was justifiably proud of La Trobe’s involvement with it. He had also defended one of his employees, Roz Ward, who was among those responsible for the development and implementation of the program, and who had for weeks been the increasingly singular focus of the Right’s venom for her socialist views, as well as her alignment with the Socialist Alternative.

Ward’s now-infamous Facebook comment, despite its joking tone, expressed an opinion about the connection between racism and Australian nationalism that aligned with her political beliefs, and that of many others, including in op-eds reproduced on La Trobe University’s own website. By itself, the flag reference was unremarkable. But once it had been leaked to The Australian, it turned out to be the proverbial last straw.

Professor Dewar agreed to speak to me about the Roz Ward dismissal in my position as an honorary associate in the university’s Department of Politics and Philosophy. It was a wide-ranging discussion, and he spoke candidly. I have no interest in ‘gotcha’ journalism, so I’ve reproduced only as much of our conversation here as is necessary to provide an insight into how these decisions were made. Nevertheless, questions should be raised about the way this decision was made, and the advice Dewar relied on in the process.

Perhaps a better metaphor for a moral panic is a flood: if a twenty-first century gay panic can be contained within the banks of the outraged group, it will eventually pass with minimal damage. But after the flag comment, Dewar watched this panic burst its banks. Among those whom the vice chancellor saw riding the tide were Victoria’s Gender and Sexuality Commissioner, Rowena Allen; the public face of Beyond Blue, Jeff Kennett; and the Victorian government itself, which had earlier stepped in to guarantee funding for Safe Schools after Malcolm Turnbull had failed to dam the panic in the Coalition’s rabid right wing.

Dewar had seen how quickly the ground could shift. Turnbull and his education minister, Simon Birmingham, had initially defended the Safe Schools program from attacks by Cory Bernardi and Barnaby Joyce and emphasised its arms-length distance from government. But it had only taken a fortnight of pressure for Turnbull to cave in. For the first time, he explained, Dewar and his executive team at La Trobe believed they had to confront the serious possibility that Safe Schools’ funding might evaporate. They knew that Ward wasn’t the reason the right had attacked Safe Schools. But her political views – her unfashionable socialism – had meant that she’d become for the Murdoch world the personification of all that was wrong with the program.

In May, Ward resigned from the Victorian government’s education advisory group to which she’d been appointed. Her resignation demonstrated the extent to which LGBTI activism has been co-opted by the state: activists are now ‘advisers’ whose demeanour must be sensible, reasonable and politically prudent. Commissioner Allen, who has substantial input into the makeup of that reference group and the LGBTI Taskforce under whose mantle it sits, told The Australian that Ward had agreed that the Facebook post was inappropriate. Also in the Murdoch press, the Acting Premier James Merlino called Ward’s Facebook comments ‘appalling’, ‘offensive’, ‘wrong’ and ‘stupid’. Merlino went further: ‘My understanding is that La Trobe University is investigating these matters and will be making a decision [about Ward’s employment] in due course.’ It was these comments that led Dewar to believe he needed to act.

Like all university managements, La Trobe employs a small number of employment lawyers. In consultation with them, Dewar determined that La Trobe would suspend Ward on full pay pending disciplinary action for ‘serious misconduct’. In a statement Dewar sent to La Trobe staff, he confirmed that the disciplinary process was based on ‘alleged breaches of the University’s code of conduct’. Within 48 hours of La Trobe’s letter being sent to Ward, all hell broke loose. Ward and her union, the NTEU, had passed the letter to New Matilda, which published most of it verbatim.

Almost immediately, Dewar lost control of the narrative. He wanted to see the issue largely as one of employee discipline. Civil society, however, saw it as one of academic freedom and its curtailment by a university administration. Ironically, the very action that was supposed to insulate the Safe Schools program and its university from a loss of public confidence was the action that undermined that confidence the most. After a storm of very public opprobrium from other academics (including La Trobe academics), lawyers, free speech advocates and civil society generally, Dewar withdrew all misconduct allegations against Ward as part of a negotiated agreement with the NTEU’s lawyers at Maurice Blackburn.

Dewar, I think sincerely, believes he was in a lose-lose position. He wasn’t so concerned about The Australian, but that the moral panic was threatening to engulf the Safe Schools program and La Trobe’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS, pronounced ‘Archers’) , which among other projects has developed The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships, another Gillard-era voluntary respectful relationships program that The Australian has been hunting for months.

But how justified were these fears?

Commissioner Allen’s public comments – as reported in The Australian – stopped short of saying anything substantive. Her position is an independent, statutory one; she in no way represents the Victorian government. James Merlino was acting premier, and even though his condemnation of Ward’s Facebook post was very strong, at no stage did the Victorian government ever suggest – publicly or privately – that it was considering withdrawing funding support for the Safe Schools program.

In fact, this prospect should have been considered very remote indeed. The Andrews government’s decision to pick up the tab for Safe Schools in Victoria is part of its broad commitment to LGBTI issues, and to progressive identity politics more generally, which it has demonstrated during its first year and a half in office. Indeed, the event that had triggered Ward’s now-infamous post was Andrews’ historic apology. The idea that Andrews would have ever risked pulling out of the funding arrangement with La Trobe for Safe Schools over Roz Ward’s involvement is actually quite ludicrous, to anyone who has followed Andrews’ efforts to allow no room at all for the Greens on social issues.

It’s one thing that Ward was asked to resign from the government’s advisory committee. But it’s another to expect that Ward should have resigned from her day job at a university.

The legal advice came from in-house IR lawyers. There must now be significant questions about their role, because some of the grounds for suspension are risible. Put aside for the moment its implication that Ward was being blamed for the decisions taken by others to subject Ward to the kind of vicious bullying that Safe Schools was all about avoiding. The letter made it clear that Ward’s suspension had only the most tenuous relationship with Victorian employment law.

Of course, it’s the politics that matter much more than the legalities here. Dewar was worried about the reputational damage to La Trobe and to Safe Schools, and about the possibility that the Victorian government would sever its funding agreement. He made assumptions about that risk based on Merlino’s public comments. He spoke to the Premier’s department in an effort to gauge the government’s thinking about Ward, but he never actually asked the government how substantial the risk of defunding actually was.

Dewar’s perception – that he was damned if he did or didn’t – seems to have been the result of not having had enough good information. Dewar didn’t really expect that by acting against Ward he would satiate the right. Indeed, by allowing its campaign a win, there was a risk that giving the right what it wanted would further energise it – and risk even more damage to Safe Schools. Did Dewar consult with experts on the way the right conducts its moral panics? He did not, at least not before taking the decision to suspend Ward. Among those available to him, at least in theory, were Robert Manne, emeritus professor at La Trobe and the author of a 2011 book on The Australian’s modus operandi, and Dominic Kelly, a doctoral candidate in the university’s Department of Politics and Philosophy who has been investigating the work of right-wing think tanks. Rather, most of the advice Dewar relied on came from sources internal to the university’s administrative wing, in the David Myers building. The discursive world that the crisis inhabited, for Dewar, was the world of employment contracts, funding agreements and codes of employee conduct. The crisis may have begun on the pages of The Australian, but for the vice chancellor its resolution lay in managerialism.

Unfortunately, it would be rare for an Australian vice chancellor to approach a problem like this as a steward of the public intellectual culture, rather than as a mere manager of a corporate institution. That is indicative of a much broader trend. Like most public corporations, universities have adopted many of the private sector’s managerialist reforms of the post-war period, with their emphasis on hierarchy, accountability and performance measurement. The transition is not complete – if it were, vice chancellors would be trained only in the discipline of management, and would not also be professors of the academy in their own rights. The changes have been good and bad. The old days of the ‘god professor’, with his tenured immunity from a range of consequences including sexual harassment actions, are largely gone. But like their counterparts in most other public corporations, university managements have too often lost sight of their institutions’ distinctive role.

Vice chancellors are now surrounded by professionals whose outlook reflects their own tertiary education, which has itself become increasingly vocational and less cultural. Universities have trimmed their degree programs to the quick, and administrations place a premium on the services provided by their marketing professionals, and on the marketability of their academic staff and programs. Like all Australian universities, La Trobe expends enormous resources attempting to control its messaging, branding and public image, employing dozens of public relations staff.

Within this environment, the more traditional ideals of the university – as a community of scholars working and thinking independently of government, business and organised labour sectors – can easily be lost. As Richard Hil demonstrates in his book Whackademia, the experience of being an academic in a humanities department is increasingly alienating. Much humanities research has very little saleable value in the marketplace, which is in part why the British government now requires undergraduates enrolled in humanities degrees to pay their own way. University administrations value their humanities departments and researchers for the research grants they bring in, or in rare cases – as with Robert Manne – for their sheer fame.

This is why Roz Ward – and ARCSHS – was and is so important to La Trobe and John Dewar. Ward is part of a team attracting both research dollars and acclaim (though of course not from The Australian). But this is also why Ward became such a problem. When an academic draws notoriety in such a way that might undo their careful work, administrations feel they must ‘do something’.

Two years ago, Deakin University’s journalism lecturer Martin Hirst was suspended without pay for three months after an abusive exchange on Twitter with various people. That exchange began when Tim Blair posted a photo of Hirst visiting Karl Marx’s grave in London. Blair is just one of Murdoch’s army of opinion-makers doing battle in the interests of ignorance and prejudice, and there’s not enough effort expended in naming the stupidity of much of their output (partly because it would take too long). But the range of responses acceptable to a corporatised and intensely image-conscious university administration is very narrow, and certainly does not include expressions of anger or insult. Hirst’s job was ultimately saved when 150 academics and doctoral students signed a letter addressed to the university, but Hirst’s caustic style meant he had fewer defenders than he might have had.

The liberal elements in civil society – what the Murdoch World calls ‘the left’ – don’t rush to the support of every ‘victim’ of university administrations’ desire to micromanage their public image. When Barry Spurr’s racist and sexist emails on the University of Sydney’s email server were leaked to New Matilda, also in 2014, it was left-liberals who campaigned for his removal. And when Hirst was discovered earlier this month to have been pseudonymously tweeting perceived insults and threats to several people, including at least one current undergraduate student at Deakin (though not in Hirst’s department), left-liberals have stayed largely silent.

To a managerialist administration, the examples of Roz Ward, Barry Spurr and Martin Hirst might appear similar: through their conduct, each has presented a risk to their respective university’s carefully crafted and branded public image. For civil society, the cases are entirely different. The views that Spurr expressed called into question his capacity to teach students. On the other hand, Ward had already become The Australian’s target – in accordance with its well-rehearsed strategy – for her unconventional but very legitimate political views, and it was for expressing those views that she was summarily cast out by her university. For a management worried about its public image and stakeholder relations, her timing was indeed ill-advised – though Ward had never been infamous before, and had no real way of knowing that there might be ramifications to an otherwise innocuous private Facebook post.

The point here is that managerialism is an entirely inappropriate discursive frame within which to be making decisions that carry implications for the idea of the university, and for the broader national culture. If university administrations and their teams of PR professionals, employment lawyers and risk management experts do not contain people who are able to advise sensibly on such matters as the political culture of the state and the nation, and if they have little understanding of a university’s role as an independent community of scholars, then those administrations are poorly serving their universities.

John Dewar and his administration scored a spectacular own goal when they decided to suspend Roz Ward. The important thing to identify here is how they were able to arrive at the conclusion that her suspension would be the best outcome in all the circumstances. It is far from guaranteed that another vice chancellor at any one of Australia’s corporatised, branded and bureaucratised universities would not make a similar decision given the same facts.

Ward is now back on full duties at La Trobe – which means she has returned to her role with the Safe Schools program. For the moment, The Australian is pleasuring itself by amplifying the possibilities of further antagonism between Ward and her employer. Whether it will eventually lay off Safe Schools, or ARCSHS, or respectful relationships education generally will have nothing at all to do with whether institutions which develop such programs employ socialists, or Muslims, or Greens Party members, or lesbians, or whichever political or identity minority The Australian and the Murdoch world feels like bashing at any given time. Australia’s commercial media culture is such that the institutions of civil society – including universities – must always be prepared to defend what is under attack: evidence, diversity, humanity.


Editor’s note: this article was amended 5 July 2016 to correct a reference to Martin Hirst.

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Image: Phil Lees/Flickr

Russell Marks

Russell Marks has worked as a criminal defence lawyer and academic. He is an honorary associate at La Trobe University, and author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015).

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