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The public should be concerned when academics must battle bureaucrats for academic freedom

A FairWork decision has found in favour of a researcher disciplined over controversial racism research. Flickr/palg1305

The public should be concerned when academics must battle bureaucrats for academic freedom

The three-year dispute between the University of Queensland and academic Paul Frijters has finally been resolved, with the Fair Work Commission finding in Frijters’ favour.

But this is a case that should ring alarm bells not just for all academics undertaking controversial work - but for the general public, which has a right to expect that the institutions funded by its tax dollars will support and protect academic freedom, rather than work against it.

The decision, by Fair Work Commissioner Michelle Bissett, found UQ had breached its enterprise bargaining agreement by disciplining Frijters for his research into racism on Brisbane buses.

The Fair Work decision was immediately picked up by the Australian media (see here, here, and here.

Academics around the country, who had previously expressed outrage at the university and support for Frijters, took to the cyber-streets in vindication.

The facts, in brief

Frijters and his PhD student Redzo Mujcic conducted a study (academic paper here) that found evidence of racism in the behaviour of Brisbane bus drivers. After the research was picked up by media outlets, university bureaucrats yanked the UQ press release about the study and launched a vilification campaign against Frijters, accusing him of research misconduct.

Frijters resisted the university’s repeated attempts to pin a charge of research misconduct on him. The case that he brought against UQ asked the FWC to consider whether or not UQ management repeatedly broke the enterprise bargaining agreement, and thus its own procedures, in order to suppress his research.

Why vilify?

Undisputed evidence documents that UQ funded and signed off on the racism-on-the-bus research project, but that the Brisbane transport company objected to the study once its findings were released, and advised the university of its concerns.

The picture painted by Frijters’ lawyers was that someone occupying a powerful position within the University of Queensland hierarchy didn’t like Frijters’ research findings, and pulled various back-room levers - such as initiating the research misconduct case, pre-cooking letters that furthered that case, and installing favoured persons as key decision-makers in that case - in order to try to suppress and/or discredit the research.

UQ rejects this interpretation of what happened. Yet it has not offered an alternative reason for the appalling chain of events, much less motivations for smothering the research.

When UQ’s suppression of the research was first suggested in the media in February 2015, Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj claimed that UQ had acted appropriately.

The Fair Work Commission has now found otherwise, with Commissioner Bissett writing that Frijters was denied procedural fairness, which included not being given opportunity to respond, unacceptable delays and not being told of supervision changes affecting him.

“In addition the University expressed a concluded view with respect to the conduct of Professor Frijters to the Brisbane City Council without giving Professor Frijters an opportunity to be heard…These are not minor matters and cannot and should not be swept aside.”

The (start of the) revolution has been funded

The public service provided this week by Australia’s EBA/FWC institutional structure, and by Paul Frijters himself to the entire Australian academic community at significant personal cost, is gratefully received.

Nonetheless, the fact that this drama has extended for almost three years should appal Australians. Were it not for Frijters’ obstinate refusal to let UQ management get away with a private settlement or other resolution that implicitly cast doubt upon its own culpability, no public take-down of university bureaucrats behaving badly would have occurred.

The whole matter would have been sucked back down under the radar, as UQ seems to have been hoping would happen for close to three years now. Frijters would have been thanked for his unmasking of racism on Brisbane buses by receiving a demotion, training in ethical research, or other wrist-slaps that the university has periodically offered as settlement terms.

University academics’ right - their duty - to conduct potentially controversial yet important research is supposed to be protected by universities. The role of academics as an independent and unflinching voice of objectivity in the face of others’ partisan incentives is something readers of The Conversation should particularly value: it is the main ingredient that means you can trust what you read in this space.

The case also underlines the pressures facing Australian academics. This is not the first time Australia has seen academics punished by university bureaucracies for doing their jobs.

Dozens of continuing academic staff members were sacked at Sydney Uni, allegedly a “re-structuring” for “budgetary repair” although the affected staff attributed the motivation more to politics than financial necessity (see here and here).

After the furore over international students and university corruption that reached a peak last year, several whistle-blowers received no more teaching contracts and/or were declined further access to the data needed for their research.

In this last case, as in the present one, academics had discovered an inconvenient truth in the course of doing their jobs, and they were saying something about it.

Protection and accountability

Human subjects in research projects are protected by the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (which, UQ’s claims notwithstanding, was in no way violated by the Frijters/Mujcic racism study). What about the researchers who work with those human subjects in order to uncover truths, including inconvenient ones, in order to benefit all of society? Who defends their right to speak? Institutions like university ombuds and the NTEU do not play this role, and were interestingly peripheral in the present case.

Ensuring that academics in our universities are free to investigate the nature of Australia’s society and institutions is at the end of the day our job, as Australian citizens, consumers and students.

We do it through what we old-fashioned types call the system of institutional accountability. Accountability means that universities found to have failed in their public mission must change because we, the people they supposedly serve, will not accept anything else from them.

The truth has been aired. What will the leaders of UQ do to make amends to the public whose trust it has broken? Our eyes should be on them, and we should not look away until they have restored our faith.

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