A respected academic at Auckland University has been summarily dismissed because of an angry email he sent to a struggling international student.

Security and intelligence expert, Dr Paul Buchanan, says he will fight the dismissal through New Zealand’s employment courts.

The senior politics lecturer has been supported by many of his former students who say he is a committed teacher and internationally renowned researcher in his field.

According to media reports in Auckland, the student in question was from the United Arab Emirates and had a poor academic record in many of the subjects she was taking. It is even being suggested that the student’s wealthy family and the UAE government were putting pressure on the university to dismiss Dr Buchanan. A claim the student denies.

The student was seeking an extension for a late assignment on the grounds that her father had recently died. Buchanan’s email said that he did not believe her and criticised the student’s attendance record. It also described her as being the “worst performer” in his graduate politics class, “by a far stretch”.

News of the dismissal, which took place in late July, only surfaced this week as Buchanan’s former students took their complaints to the independent Scoop news website. Today it’s on the front page of the New Zealand Herald.

The email incident occurred in May 2007 and while Dr Buchanan initially apologised for the strong language he used to the student, this has apparently not satisfied the university administration.

The academics’ union is supporting Buchanan’s appeal against his dismissal as it appears that the university did not use any formal disciplinary procedures to deal with the student complaint before taking action against him. The union says that there are “extenuating circumstances” and Buchanan says he was recovering from major surgery at the time of the email incident.

This case has echoes of the recent uproar involving Garry McLennan and John Hookham at the Queensland University of Technology. A section of Buchanan’s email criticises another of his senior colleagues, Associate Professor Steve Hoadley who supervised a class to prepare international students for postgraduate work in political studies.

Buchanan and Hoadley had argued about the quality of international students on the day the email was sent, 30 May 2007.

Like the QUT case, divisions are emerging among supporters and critics of the sacked lecturer. Many of Buchanan’s former students are rallying to his defence. But others say that Buchanan’s email contained offensive and potentially racist comments. In one line that Buchanan says he now regrets, he suggests that the student’s extension request is “culturally driven” and plays on “Western liberal guilt”.

In another interesting twist, there’s a rumour circulating in Auckland’s small academic community that Paul Buchanan was seen in the company of renegade British MP, George Galloway, during the latter’s recent visit to the Shaky Isles.

According to the gossip, this has outraged the very conservative Vice Chancellor of AU, Stuart McCutcheon.

Buchanan has been a critic of the Bush administration and has publicly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The speedy removal of Dr Buchanan has surprised many people. All references to him were removed almost immediately from the AU website. What ever the real motivation for Buchanan’s dismissal, it promises to be an important case when it finally reaches the employment courts.

Peter Fray

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