A couple of months ago contract negotiations between University of Auckland vice chancellor Stuart McCutcheon and the Tertiary Education Union broke down, as McCutcheon refused to abandon his demand that academic staff members surrender many of the conditions laid out in their contracts. If McCutcheon achieved his goals then research time would become a privilege rather than a right at Auckland, and many academics would become overloaded with work.
Since the standoff with McCutcheon began, university staff and students and their supporters have staged a number of pickets and rallies. Last Friday four hundred protesters gathered in the heart of the university campus to hear speeches from union activists and from opposition MPs. One of the themes of last Friday's rally was the threat posed to freedom of speech at the university by both McCutcheon's ideas and his methods. Speakers warned that if McCutcheon's ideas prevailed and staff research rights disappeared, then the university would struggle to play its traditional role as the 'critic and conscience' of society. Others noted that McCutcheon's blustering, bullying way of dealing with his opponents was in itself a threat to academic and political freedom, because it was aimed at shutting down discussion and dissent.
The intolerance which McCutcheon and his management team feel towards even the politest dissent became very clear last Monday, when staff and students attempted to wear pro-union rosettes to a graduation ceremony. University management reluctantly allowed academic staff into the ceremony with rosettes pinned to their gowns, but both graduating students and general staff members were kept out unless they removed their decorations. In a press release issued shortly after the ceremony, the Tertiary Education Union revealed that McCutcheon's team intimdated a star student intent on wearing his rosette:
Vernon Tava, who graduated with first class honours, Masters in Law, was told to remove the small rosette pinned to his regalia which calls on staff and students to unite to defend the university...Tava was told that unless he removed his rosette his degree would be witheld...Tava says, "When I pointed out that there were no grounds for them preventing me from entering the theatre, a male staff member put a restraining hand on my chest and another official asked rhetorically "Would you like me to search your pockets, Sir?"
The treatment of Tava outside Monday's ceremony made a mockery not only of the notion of free speech but of university regulations concerning graduation. Once a degree is fairly earned, a student can only be denied the right to graduate, either in person or in absentia, if he or she is convicted of a serious crime and imprisoned. Not even the massive library fines which I clocked up and failed to pay stopped me from picking up my PhD a few years ago.
Unhappily for Stuart McCutcheon and the goons who threatened Vernon Tava, the Aotea Centre theatre was resplendent with bright yellow rosettes during last Monday's ceremony. In direct defiance of the vice chancellor's orders, ninety-five percent of the academic staff members attending the ceremony wore the design. Like many an authoritarian leader before him, McCutcheon is finding that his heavy-handed attempts to repress dissent only create more protest. Vernon Tava is not the only scholar who has been in trouble for expressing his opinions over the past few days. Anthropologist Chris Knight, who is a British citizen but holds a professorship at the University of Bratislava in Slovakia, was arrested in central London last Friday and charged with the very Orwellian crime of 'conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace'. The sixty-eight year-old Knight is a veteran left-wing activist and a member of a street theatre troupe called the Government of the Dead, which has performed at many of the recent anti-cuts and anti-capitalist demonstrations in London. Knight and his comrades deliberately set out to shock audiences, and they reportedly planned to stage a mock execution of a member of the royal family last Friday, in an effort to dramatise their call for the abolition of the monarchy and their condemnation of the links between royals like Prince Andrew and foreign dictators accused of massive human rights abuses.
The Government of the Dead might offend many Britons, but nobody has suggested that the group was planning real violence against the royal family or anybody else. Knight and his comrades deal in paper mache and puppets, not plastic explosives or hijacked planes. Their lowbrow satire of the powerful is arguably part of a British tradition that encompasses the Fools of Elizabethan plays, Punch and Judy shows, and the punk movement of the 1970s. The arrest of Knight only highlights the inescapably undemocratic nature of British monarchism.