Winking champs and the neoliberal university

Neoliberalism has little to do with the liberalism of civil liberties. Rather, it asserts the untrammelled freedom in the market for capital to do what capital does: extract surplus and realise profits. Public institutions that are not capitalist corporations are pressured under neoliberalism to mimic them – so leaders of the neoliberal university behave like apes taking selfies. Principled management of higher education and research would refuse the unethical dominance of the market and the imposition of its priorities where they don’t belong. That would be ethical, by contrast with the ‘ethics’ of university ethics committees, which are about risk management and preventing loss-making litigation or PR disasters. Instead, human resources at universities have practically merged functions with marketing departments.

On 8th June, the Fair Work Commission ruled that the University of Queensland’s (UQ’s) repeated and punitive investigation of economics professor Paul Frijters was so ‘infected by error’ as to be worthless, given its ‘substantial flaws and a lack of procedural fairness.’ So much for the investigative capacities of the corporate university itself – as against the research of its actual expert researchers on whom it passes damning and high-handed judgments perfumed with moral superiority to cover the odour of bullying and improper process. Paul Frijters and the PhD candidate he supervised, Redzo Mujcic, had committed the unpardonable mistake of publishing research findings from 2012 that showed significant discrimination in the practices of Brisbane bus drivers which looked pretty much like institutional racism. Their publication, entitled ‘Still Not Allowed on the Bus: It Matters If You’re Black or White,’reported on a trial which found exactly half as many ‘black’ as ‘white’ participants were allowed onto buses when their electronic card was faulty.

The bus company, undoubtedly embarrassed at the unfavourable publicity, complained ‘informally’ to the university, raising a spurious objection about purported ‘fare evasion.’  The university responded formally – though wrongfully – in pursuing allegations of academic misconduct against Professor Frijters. They did so twice: the first process was abandoned after legal intervention, so they went after him again. At first, the university made the risible objection that Frijters should have obtained ‘informed consent’ from the bus drivers to observe their work practices in dealing publicly with members of the public, and that he should have sought ‘gatekeeper approval’ from the council that employed the drivers – the same council whose institutional racism the research findings had demonstrated. The acting pro vice-chancellor said so in 2014 in an embarrassing and pusillanimous written apology to the council. Later, the patched-up management story was that Frijters should have submitted to an ethics committee determination over whether he needed such informed consent and gatekeeper approval. The fact is that the university had officially signed off on the research and its funding. This fact underlay their exposure in the Fair Work Commission, but perhaps it was this that also enabled UQ to quash the research findings that manifestly embarrassed it.

UQ is still reserving the ‘right’ to go for Frijters a third time: see this artful and archetypical piece of PR weaselling: As Frijters puts it to the Guardian, ‘university hierarchies can pretty much punish academics afterwards for any research they d[on]’t like.’ This is quite true, whether or not they misuse ethics procedures or misconduct procedures to do so.

The third cane toad court will likely not be convened; Frijters plans to ‘move on’ to somewhere more congenial to academic freedom. He may have to look beyond the neo-liberal university.

As well as suppressing research findings they don’t like, and repressing their researchers, neoliberal universities also interfere as employers to curb the everyday civil freedom of expression of views from academics which their bureaucrats find discomforting. This is distinct from infringement on academic freedom as such, but is also insidious and apparently contagious, if not epidemic. The neoliberal university punishes academics for public comment that they don’t like, usually because its PR+HR bureaucrats believe it damages their ‘brand’. Two examples must suffice here.

The media hounding and subsequent cowardly university disciplining of La Trobe University researcher Roz Ward is a prime case. Ward is co-founder of the ‘Safe Schools’ program which had come under massive homophobic and right-wing attack. No doubt coincidentally, she was suspended from the university on 1st June for a jocular remark made on her private Facebook page, to the effect of the red part of the LGBT rainbow flag needing to replace our current ‘racist’ one. It echoed a comment from the 1930s by an anti-imperialist, anti-war activist, who was threatened with his child being excluded from school if he did not salute ‘the’ (Union) flag: ‘Well, he’ll only be saluting the red bits’. Because of simian aggression in the right-wing press (which jealously guards its own freedom of expression), this is apparently unsayable in 2016. The university jerked its cowardly knees in the misplaced defence of its brand, but backflipped three days later in the face of a public campaign, union support and impending legal defeat.

It was also reported on 7 June that ‘outspoken’ journalism professor, Martin Hirst, had been suspended for seven weeks from his position at Deakin University for a 30 March tweet made on his personal Twitter account (associating Sky News with ‘masturbating chimps’). This may be a fair comment, though perhaps harsh on the chimpanzee community and offensive to onanists. But he also pictured a funny hat with a rude word, and had responded sharply to ‘trolls.’ Note that, just as Ward’s humorous remark was made on her personal Facebook page and not in any university capacity, so Hirst’s tweet was made via his own Twitter ‘handle’ as @ethicalmartini. The neoliberal university presumes to buy with its wages not just the wage-labour of its employees, but control over their public utterances as private persons.

The Guardian reported on 9 June that Hirst had been ‘sacked’ because, according to Deakin management, the ‘post to Hirst’s private Twitter account … was “offensive and/or disrespectful and/or threatening and had the potential to damage the reputation of the university.”’ The Guardian recorded that Hirst’s dismissal was effected in the face of protests from the National Tertiary Education Union. Gigi Foster notes that the union, and university ombudspersons, were peripheral in the Frijters case.  They were not peripheral in Ward’s case, and nor could they be in the face of the public campaign: her triumphal return to work was accompanied by purple NTEU flags.

Academic and civic freedom alike are undermined in the neo-liberal university. It is vital to defend both; they share the same enemies.

Scott Poynting

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