Dark Dreams: Waikato’s and the van Leeuwen thesis
How Waikato University’s handling of the van Leeuwen thesis created the worst academic scandal in years
By Joshua Drummond
In September last year, the University of Waikato did a strange and dangerous thing.
What was strange is that it took the unprecedented step of removing graduate student Roel van Leeuwen’s published, marked Master of Arts in Philosophy thesis, which had earned first-class honours after internal and external examination. The thesis, entitled Dreamers of the Dark: Kerry Bolton and the Order of the Left Hand path, a Case-study of a Satanic-Neo-Nazi synthesis, was removed from Waikato University’s library and online publishing repository, without the University notifying van Leeuwen or his supervisors, Professor Dov Bing and Marg Coldham-Fussell.
What was dangerous is that it did so
following a “complaint” (actually an implied legal
threat) from a former National Front secretary and
occultist, Kerry Bolton.
Nexus found out about this, and when we published, everyone else found out too. It was an academic scandal that was reported around the globe, because of its implications for the doctrine of academic freedom – a right enshrined in New Zealand law.
Since this happened, the University has been nearly silent for almost a year while the thesis was subject to internal review. The process has taken around ten months, but finally, last Friday, the University announced that the thesis has been returned to the library and website, having been found worthy of its mark, with Waikato University Vice-Chancellor Roy Crawford’s full blessing.
"The university has found the processes around the supervision and assessment of the thesis were sound," he told the Waikato Times. "The University of Waikato is a place of academic rigour… We don't shy away from tackling controversial research and we have sound processes around the supervision and examination associated with thesis research."
However, Nexus has discovered information that reveal these claims to be hollow, and show that, in the course of the van Leeuwen affair, academic freedom came under attack at Waikato University as never before.
Lies, damned lies, and theses
At this point, it might help to go back and
consider how the affair began.
It seems to have stemmed from a letter from Kerry Bolton to Professor Crawford, dated 25 August 2008. What appears to be the entire letter was posted to the website of the Adelaide Institute, an Australian website dedicated to “Holocaust Revisionism,” (a euphemism for Holocaust denial.) The Institute was founded and directed by Bolton confidante Frederik Toben, who was sentenced to three months in jail in May this year after he breached Australian Federal court orders to “stop implying Jewish people offended by Holocaust denial were of limited intelligence.” At the time of writing, Bolton’s work appears to have been removed from the Adelaide Institute’s site. Fortunately, Nexus cached it last year.
“During the course of an internet search, I inadvertently came across the above named thesis, posted by Waikato University, and approved for public dissemination,” begins Bolton’s post. He followed this with around 3400 words on how the thesis was “personally abusive and libellous,” and “lacked academic merit.”
“I have had loss of sleep, anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, and loss of concentration as a result. I am on medication for high blood pressure, and this type of stress causes it to rise to unacceptable levels,” Bolton wrote. At the end of the letter, he made the following demands:
“1. Immediate removal of the
thesis from public access, including the internet.
2. Guarantee that the thesis will neither at any time nor in any form or medium be published or made publicly available.
3. That Leeuwen’s MA Degree is revoked.
4. That Dennis Green, Dov Bing and Marg Coldham-Fussell be answerable as to their involvement in encouraging Leeuwen in the direction he took.
5. An explanation as to why the thesis was passed by examiners as being of sufficient merit.
6. Financial compensation from Waikato University for the emotional and physical stress caused and the time and energy expended in dealing with this matter.”
It appears that Waikato University quickly bowed to the first demand, and began work on the fourth and fifth. The thesis was suddenly withdrawn around mid-September, without notifying van Leeuwen, Professor Bing, or Dr Coldham-Fussell. At the time, van Leeuwen told Nexus he was “surprised,” – unsurprising, given that he first learned about the thesis’ withdrawal from Nexus’ initial phone call.
“I haven’t been informed or anything,” van Leeuwen said at the time. This trend was to continue. For the upcoming months, van Leeuwen was to be kept in the dark about what was being said and done to his own work, to the extent that, earlier this year, he contemplated suing the University.
The University, apparently surprised at the fact that someone had noticed them abruptly yanking a document from the library and internet, were quick to do absolutely nothing. It took weeks for a public statement to be made to the media about the affair. Nexus did succeed in interviewing Deputy Vice-Chancellor Doug Sutton about the affair. Sutton denied that van Leeuwen had not been notified about the withdrawal, saying, “I believe he was told… I have to allow for the University having sent him an email that he hadn’t picked up, sent him a letter he didn’t pick up, phoned him and left him a voicemail message he didn’t pick up, whatever. I’m just not able to respond to the suggestion that you told him. I just can’t do that, I’m sorry.”
In the meantime, Kerry Bolton kept busy. Sometime in late August or early September, he set up a website called Dreamers Exposed, (at http://www.freewebs.com/dreamers-of-the-dark/) with which, as the name might suggest, he exposed what he called “Zionist smear-mongering posing as scholarship.”
He used this platform to launch vituperative and rambling attacks, aimed variously at van Leeuwen, Professor Bing, Dr Dennis Green, and other Waikato University targets, including Nexus. The website is still up today – although it underwent some abrupt changes shortly after Professor Bing sent Bolton a defamation writ, which Bolton has reproduced on the website.
Meanwhile, the implications of thesis story reverberated around the mainstream and academic media. Most major New Zealand media outlets picked it up, with the Waikato Times paying particular interest. It ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Jewish Chronicle, as well as other international outlets. Importantly, it was compared to two other New Zealand academic scandals - what have become known as the “Hayward” and “Kupka” affairs – both of which had involved, in some way, factions of various far-right and Neo-Nazi organisations, holocaust deniers, Waikato University, and Professor Dov Bing. Critics of the van Leeuwen affair held that by quietly yanking the thesis without informing students, examiners or supervisors, the University of Waikato had impinged upon the academic freedom of all involved, while irreparably smearing their reputations – all on the word of a man who once, in writing, compared Hitler to Jesus.
The Hayward and Kupka scandals
It’s worth providing some background
on both these incidents for the light they shed on what will
probably become known as the van Leeuwen affair.
The Hayward case began in the late 90s when Canterbury University accepted the Master’s thesis of graduate student Joel Hayward, which, according to the New Zealand Herald, “…alleged that there was never an official Nazi policy to exterminate the Jews in gas chambers and questioned whether six million Jews were killed.” It earned praise from Holocaust deniers, including British “revisionist historian” David Irving, who served time in Austrian prison for “glorifying and identifying with the German Nazi Party.”
In a mocking funhouse mirror of van Leeuwen’s situation, the University stood by its student and refused to withdraw the thesis, even after Hayward publicly recanted its contents and asked for it to be taken out of the Canterbury University library. At the time, Professor Bing told the Herald that the decision not to strip Hayward of his degree was scandalous.
“This is a contradiction in terms. They say it is flawed, that the supervisor didn't have the expertise, that the method is faulty, but they say they can't take away the degree. It's bizarre. Canterbury University now has the dubious distinction of being the only Western university which has given a masters degree for a Holocaust denial thesis,” Bing said.
The Kupka affair had similar overtones. Also widely reported in the New Zealand and international media, it began when a German graduate student at Waikato University, Hans Kupka, who had planned to interview Holocaust survivors as part of his research into the German language, was found to have posted over 3000 pages of Holocaust denial on various revisionist and Neo-Nazi internet forums. Professor Bing, alerted by one Geof Leavy, was one of the first people to lay his concerns with Waikato University administration.
In April of 2000, the scandal was blown wide open in the pages of Nexus, and ended with a costly external review by William Renwick, a former Director General of Education – and a public apology to the Jewish community from former Vice-Chancellor Bryan Gould.
Both affairs prompted both ire and praise from – variously – far-right, Neo-Nazi and Holocaust revisionist factions; ire because, ultimately, the protagonists were found to be in the wrong, and praise because the hubbub threw them a tasty bone of academic legitimacy and publicity. Bolton’s take on the Kupka case, cited on Dreamers Exposed, was that “Waikato University is… noted for its bigotry in hounding out a student, Hans Kupka, in 2000, for being a German.” Likewise, David Irving praised Joel Hayward as "New Zealand's leading Holocaust historian."
Back in the present, it would seem as though the van Leeuwen affair ended relatively happily for the student – he says he is “extremely happy,” and can get on with Doctoral research at the University of Queensland. Professor Crawford’s final letter to Kerry Bolton appears quite unequivocal – from this alone, you might assume it’s all over, and there had never really been a problem to begin with.
Complaint regarding W R Van Leeuwen Thesis
In response to your letter of 25 August 2008 and your subsequent correspondence, the University has carried out an investigation into whether or not the University's regulations, policies, processes and guidelines were adhered to in relation to the thesis, and whether or not the thesis was of an adequate standard to be passed.
The investigation has taken longer than anticipated but it was essential that the process carried out in considering your complaint, was fair to the student and to the staff concerned.
After careful consideration, the University has found that the thesis is worthy of the award of a Master's degree.
As a result of the investigation, the University has found that the process of supervision and examination were sound. Of particular note is the fact that the thesis was subject to examination by two academics external to the University who were well qualified to examine it, both of whom judged it to be at the standard of a 1st Class Honours degree.
Therefore, the University finds no grounds for upholding the substantive complaints brought by you. Accordingly, the thesis will be placed back for public access in the Library and on the ADT database.
I now regard this matter as closed and will not be entering into any further correspondence in relation to this matter.
But it was this “careful consideration” that nearly brought Waikato University into international disrepute, according to a letter addressed to Professor Crawford by Sharn Riggs, National Secretary of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union, as well as various internal University documents obtained by Nexus.
The letter in particular is vehement
in its criticism of the University’s internal review
“[We are] outlining our growing concerns regarding the conduct of the University’s investigation into the content and supervision of Mr W.R. van Leeuwen’s 2008 Master’s thesis, Dreamers of the Dark,” the letter begins. “This letter has been prepared at the request of several of our members: specifically. Professor Dov Bing, Professor of Political Science, Ms Marg Coldham-Fussell, Lecturer in Religious Studies, the principal supervisors of the thesis; Associate-Professor Doug Pratt, Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies… and Professor Jim Veitch, of Victoria University of Wellington, who was one of the two external examiners of the thesis.”
The letter reveals that several internal reports were compiled. The first was a report to Deputy Vice-Chancellor Doug Sutton, dated 14 November 2008, and was prepared by Professor Gisele Burns and Dr Rosemary De Luca – of the Department of History and School of Education, respectively – which the “staff we represent” and van Leeuwen were denied access to.
The second was a report to Professor
Crawford from Professor Sutton, dated 27 January 2009.
According to the letter, “versions” of this report were
made available to staff and van Leeuwen. Another document
was a “statement of evidence” dated 5 March 2009, which
was also prepared for Crawford by Sutton.
Nexus has seen portions of the 5 March document, in which Sutton (whose own background is in anthropology) holds that “…the student has not approached the topic from the perspective of the detached scholarly observer.” Later, Sutton opines that, “In this case, the possible conflict of interest was Professor Bing’s well-known and longstanding views against neo-Nazi groups and ideology which could be seen as preventing him from being objective in relation to this thesis… Irrespective of how well and how objectively Professor Bing supervised this thesis, the fact that his views are publicly so well known, leaves him open to criticism that he may not have viewed this research objectively – using rational, well-considered, balanced and thorough-going assessment of the evidence…”
This is the key claim of the whole saga, and the TEU letter from Sharn Riggs takes issue with it in no uncertain terms.
“Thus, in addition to maintaining his attack on the quality of the thesis, and of its supervision and assessment, Professor Sutton effectively supports Mr Bolton’s accusations by challenging the rights of persons with stated and known anti-Nazi views to ‘objectively’ conduct or supervise research on Nazi-related topics, while failing to demonstrate any evidence of the inferred bias. The obvious logical extension of Professor Sutton’s assertion is that innumerable other research fields might similarly be declared off-limits to scholars and supervisors who lack the required degree of ‘detachment’. For example, Pakeha society for Maori activists; creationism for mainstream scientists; Western colonialism for Third World nationalists; patriarchy for feminists; militant Islam for committed Christians; upper class privilege for the working class; Irish Catholicism for Protestant Ulstermen. The list is endless.”
The letter also reveals that Sutton thought the thesis “was of an adequate standard to be passed, but it does not merit First Class Honours,” – a statement Riggs also tears apart.
“Very clearly the last clause of the latter statement goes well beyond your own terms of reference – which, we add, had been in principle agreed to by the student and staff involved. By concluding that the thesis does not merit First Class Honours, Professor Sutton effectively undermined the integrity of the whole process of supervision and assessment… No facts are provided… to justify this bald assertion of his. Did Professor Sutton reach this opinion after carefully reading the thesis? Was he repeating a conclusion of the… report by Professor Byrnes and Dr De Luca? What are his/their qualifications for judging a thesis of this sort, on this particular topic?” (Emphasis original.)
The letter goes on to say that “it is our view that Professor Sutton’s above statements on the van Leeuwen thesis fundamentally contradict [the Education Act’s guarantee of academic freedom of staff and students to, within the law, question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to argue controversial or unpopular opinions,] and for that reason alone must be rejected.
Then Riggs drops a bomb. She states that “members of the academic staff at the UoW are already talking of withdrawing from postgraduate supervision because of the ‘unsafe’ research environment they believe is being created in your institution… it is possible, too, that academics in other New Zealand and overseas institutions may refuse to examine theses from the University of Waikato, or to cooperate on research generally, because of your institution’s heavy-handed response to the examination process undertaken by two eminent external scholars.”
So, to paraphrase: the way
Waikato University handled the internal review of the van
Leeuwen thesis, under the supervision of Doug Sutton, nearly
set a precedent which could have seen staff across the
university downing tools on postgraduate supervision. By
infringing on academic freedom, it jeopardised all
research being undertaken at Waikato University.
It seems Vice-Chancellor Crawford must have, in the end, agreed in principle with the letter sent by the TEU; his final letter to Bolton and statements to the press contain no criticism of the thesis, only support. But there is no mention by anyone at the University about the terrific wrangling behind the scenes, or the fact that research at Waikato was cast into doubt and disrespect by the way the internal review was carried out.
On the matter comes only a deafening silence, particularly from some of the main actors, and a rumoured edict that any questions on the matter are to be answered only by the University’s PR and Marketing department.
Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to
Professor Konrad Kwiet, a historian at the University of
Sydney, who was asked by van Leeuwen to comment on the
thesis, and whose report the TEU recommended to Professor
Crawford as “dealing with all the issues that need to be
“In my view, this study bears the hallmarks of a first-class MA thesis – highly innovative, clearly structured, thoroughly researched, well written and convincingly argued. It is a case study that must be regarded as challenging and significant,” Kwiet writes.
Later, in an appendix titled “Personal Opinion,”
Kwiet is damning in his summary of the University’s
“[Kerry Bolton] can attack and insult Mr Roel van Leeuwen and his supervisors [with impunity.] What is equally disturbing, if not scandalous, is that the University of Waikato does not feel compelled to protect the academic integrity of one of its postgraduate students and two of its staff members. It seems that after the Hayward controversy and the Kupka affair, the Bolton campaign will damage the reputation of a renowned University.”
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