The idea of universities being bastions of free thinking, free speech, and places where intellectual and social boundaries can be pushed are a thing of the past. Today, in Australia at least, those who run universities are behaving more like CEOs of big companies or government departments. Dissent is restricted, and universities are using legal sledge hammers to rid themselves of those in their ranks who are outspoken or radical in thought, word or deed.
To fortify this observation, one only has to examine the conduct of officials from two of Victoria’s universities this year towards members of their academic staff. Last week, the Chancellor of Victoria University, Frank Vincent, a sitting Supreme Court judge, has had the Victorian Government Solicitor, John Cain, write a threatening letter to James Doughney, who is a member of the University’s Council and a union rep for the National Tertiary Education Union. Dr Doughney’s sin was apparently to write a six-page letter to federal and state MPs earlier this year in which he accused the University’s Vice Chancellor of manufacturing a financial crisis to justify cutting staff positions.
How this accusation could possibly be defamatory is anyone’s guess — it is the sort of statement or assertion made every day in the normal world of political and industrial relations debate. Doughney is not happy and is standing his ground as he should.
Perhaps he might care to contact another academic, Paul Mees, formerly of Melbourne University, who was charged by Melbourne University with misconduct after he savaged, in some very colourful language, some Victorian government bureaucrats at a conference last year. Melbourne University later dropped the charges against Mees, but not after Mees had to switch jobs and suffer the indignity of adverse publicity.
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The rough house treatment of Paul Mees and James Doughney by university administrators are not isolated examples. In tertiary institutions right around the country over the past decade or so, university administrators, the vast majority of whom were once researchers and teachers themselves, are increasingly resorting to the heavy hand of regulation and legal threat to rid their campuses of troublesome characters.
Universities today are obsessed with marketing, making money and corporate image. Those in charge of them see their role as being akin to that of a CEO selling a product or a service. In such a world there is no room for the messy business of freedom of speech and protest. Everyone has to be “on message.”
The case of Dr Doughney is the latest example of this disturbing trend. So what should he do? He should stand his ground, and hopefully other staff at Victoria University will rally around him and force the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor to withdraw their threat of legal action.