Safe Schools Dangerous Universities: LaTrobe Academic Responds to the Roz Ward Affair

La Trobe University has suspended academic Roz Ward, the co-founder of anti-bullying program Safe Schools Coalition, ostensibly because she described the Australian flag as racist in a Facebook post. In the recent past, Ward had been attacked by right-wing columnists and the Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham for her ‘extreme views.’ Ward’s university colleague, Julie Rudner, discusses the ways that free speech can be curtailed in the corporate university.

My initial response to the news about Roz Ward was visceral. I was and am filled with fear and pervasive disquiet. Although I try to dismiss it with my usual cynicism about the neo-liberal business model of public education, I can’t.

I can’t drop the feeling because what happened to Roz Ward could just as easily have happened to me or any of my colleagues in Australia or overseas. Some of us are more eloquent than others but we all have opinions. For me, I am at my best when being facetious – but that requires a context to understand the critique. Sometimes I tangle my words due to tiredness or distraction, but only later do I realise ‘it came out wrong’ and could be misinterpreted. I have no control if others take my words out of context or give me the benefit of the doubt – whether it is online, on the tram or in the class-room.

The roles played by others have been eclipsed by focusing on the dynamic between Roz and La Trobe. Why leak the post unless purposely to inflict harm? Why print a leak when the public interest of doing so is highly questionable? Why threaten to defund a program when a different tack could be taken?

In all three cases, including that of La Trobe, there were choices – and a basic choice was to acknowledge Roz has views that not everyone agrees with, but she has done excellent work with Safe Schools. Instead, her political views and Marxist perspective were portrayed as harmful – something that would be unlikely to occur in relation to someone with a neo-liberal perspective. Ironically, it suggests Roz has an immense power to influence systems and people – far more than being one member on a committee would suggest.

However, the issue is much bigger and goes to the heart of why we should have public universities that are properly funded. When research and programs rely too heavily on private sources of funding, private funders have too much sway over who and how research is conducted.

This warning bell rang in 2014 when La Trobe and Swisse pharmaceuticals embarked on discussions to form a partnership. Serious ethical questions were raised about potential conflicts of interest and the ability of the university to maintain independence when doing research commissioned by the company.

These questions have transformed into reality, leaving La Trobe to choose – take the money and remove Roz or reject the money and keep Roz.

This scares me. It terrifies me.

I know that queasy feeling of taking out the most important parts of government commissioned reports when my analysis isn’t palatable, doesn’t support the political ideology of the time, or requires deeper change cultural change. I can justify it on the grounds that I will also do a scholarly article.

I know the feeling of anxiety and dread, when I realise that something I thought was innocuous was incendiary. Part of my research is about risk and how to increase kids’ independence like walking to school on their own, so some people have accused me of wanting to give kids to paedophiles.

But what happens now?

What about my tweets about Roz – however carefully I have worded my response?

Importantly, what about my scholarly articles in my area of urban and regional planning? I question the impacts on corporatisation of universities on community-based research and experiential learning. Therefore, being a ‘reflexive’ research and teacher inevitably links my critique to my own institution. Does that criticism bring the university into disrepute?

I write for Charivari in the full knowledge my VC chaired the Government Post-Budget Higher Education Implementation Committee.

While La Trobe features here, it is because this is my university. But it could just as easily be a different academic at a different university.

And therein lies the problem. We must fight for principles of academic freedom or the loss of freedom will be pervasive.

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author.