Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Academic (un)freedom

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.


Blogger AngonaMM said...

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4:01 am  
Blogger AngonaMM said...

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4:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Knight is an evil man who HAD to be stopped. Most people would like to HIM guillotined.

11:10 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Good to see MP David Clendon of the Green party supporting Vernon and the campaign to save working conditions at The University of Auckland:

2:13 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

This incident happened in the context of a dispute between the vice-chancellor and staff about key academic conditions of employment, which affect how academics do their teaching and research and engage with the wider community.

It is the VC trying to squash the union but also the voice of all staff. He wants it to run with him as the CEO who can tell academics what to do and how to do their job without them having a say about the conditions they work under. He doesn't see the university as a public institution governed by staff for students and the community.

If the VC gets his way the future of our university is at risk - we can't compete with wages with other overseas universities but we can attract good academics with our working conditions.

This case over the rosettes just illustrates how heavy handed he is - he wants to shut down free speech. There is nothing in the university's regulations that says students or staff can't wear a rosette to graduation.

The rosettes say "Staff & Students Unite to Defend our University" - hardly a controversial sentiment and actually a similar sentiment that is expressed in the graduation song we all sing together.

Many students wanted to wear the rosette to show their support for their lecturers and the future of the university they have been attending (they want to protect the uni for future generations of students and also to keep their uni degree among the best in the world - one that can attract world class researchers).

For other people wearing rosette supporting the union is cultural and an expression of who they are.

It's not as if staff or students were disrupting the graduation - it was all very tasteful and discreet - the UoA management have again made this mess - they need to stop being so obstructive and heavy handed and start talking to staff and negotiating with them rather than adopting a take it or leave it approach to bargaining.

2:30 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Staff and students have been showing strength and solidarity over the last few days. At a rally on Friday about 400 staff, students and friends came together to defend working conditions at The University of Auckland. Loosing these conditions will impact the future of good research, teaching and learning at our institution and will limit our ability to attract good staff. The crowd sent a message to the vice-chancellor that he must listen to staff and students and do everything he can to preserve key working conditions like research and study leave within the collective agreement.

Keynote speakers on the day were Carmel Sepuloni from Labour, David Clendon from the Greens, TEU president Sandra Grey and AUSA president Joe McCrory. All gave their support to the campaign and spoke against the corporatisation of our university. There was a roar of approval from those in attendance to escalate our industrial action.

2:41 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

The VC should bugger off to the neolib US where he belongs. As Mr Clendon said at the rally, this is about profit margins and quantity over quality. Students don't want this any more than the academic staff, as there will simply be the same resources but with far less research (and thus less grad students) and far greater student numbers. He's trying to turn the University into a factory. Or a bank. The university is the scholars and students, not the executives and not profit margins.

3:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The goons who harrassed students trying to wear rosettes need to be named and shamed. Let's have their names, job descriptions, staff phone numbers, and home addresses. Let them be hassled for their unacceptable actions. Let's put their details on the web so that everyone can know about their thuggish behaviour.

3:51 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Even though the general staff and the students felt bullied by the graduation officials in a way they were only the messengers - it's the vc who is the thug who needs to be told he needs to listen to his staff (and their union) and the students and resolve this situation now.

4:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree. Others must also pay the price.

4:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see what's Orwellian about "conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace", since it's been around since the Middle Ages and, at least in the UK, is a well-known misdemeanour. They might fine you for it, but they won't torture you to make you love Big Brother.
Also, things may well be different in NZ, but in the UK the charge is sometimes used by police to get "troublemakers" off the street and away from their opponents: not because the "troublemakers" may commit violence, but because the police predict that their *opponents* will. In these cases, the person arrested is usually quietly let go within a short time, and nothing comes of the charge.
So, far from being alarmed by this news, I'd be very surprised if Knight ever has to go to court, and if he has any sense (and I think he does have some), he may well thank the police for saving him from being beaten up by pro-monarchy yobs - who, sadly, are not in short supply in London.
Finally, staging a mock-execution of anybody is pretty distasteful - not all that different from burning books or effigies, I'd suggest - and conflating powerless and irrelevant airheads like William and Kate with Charles I, Louis XVI or Nicholas II is pretty infantile. Knight is not evil, he's silly, and his antics actually undermine his efforts to get his ideas across to a wider public.

10:02 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I'm not sure if Knight would have been in danger from monarchist yobs, anon - from what I understand he was planning to stage his performance close to a crowd of supporters in the Soho area, a certain distance from the nearest wedding street party.

Leaving all that aside though, I think that your idea that the police are justified in arresting someone who is in danger of being attacked by a mob is pretty problematic. There was a high-profile legal case which involved a New York man who stood on a street corner a few hours after the 9/11 attacks with a placard saying something like 'American foreign policy caused this terrorist attack'. He was soon surrounded by a group of angry people, and the cops decided to arrest him to get him off the streets. Eventually, though, the police case against the lone protester was thrown out: a judge ruled that the cops should have protected his right to freedom of expression, not thrown him in a cell. In other words, they should have policed the mob, not the protester being confronted by the mob.

One can argue that Knight, like the 9/11 protester, was being deliberately provocative, and might have found a less incendiary way to protest, but this is a political rather than a legal argument. Protesters should not have to pass some sort of etiquette test before they take to the street. Nobody has the right not to be offended.

10:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris K would like to bring you again to reason and mature awareness of the subtle differences between shit and clay.

11:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is for the students who were harrassed to decide whether they wish to take direct action against the harrassers.

12:04 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Students who felt intimidated or threatened by graduation staff are asked to contact AUSA confidentially on

“AUSA will be working on behalf of students to seek an official apology from the University of Auckland for their disgraceful conduct,” McCrory concluded.

Read AUSA's media release here:

2:32 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Vernon in the Herald today:

11:59 am  
Anonymous Stuart McCutcheon said...

I have no problem pooping in public. I'll poop on you in public if you'd like. That would be fulfilling.


3:00 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Great interview with vernon Tava on bFM:

1:56 pm  

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