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Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom And The Pavlou Problem Down Under

A sorry state of affairs has descended upon Australian academic institutions like a suffocating cloak. Vice-Chancellors and their overly remunerated toadies are getting human relations departments to scribble their apologias for sins against thought. Overt political opinions, notably when expressed in a manner that might threaten brands and compromised lines of funding, are being hunted down by cadres of paranoid officials. This process is being undertaken against both staff and students. Terrible that it should happen to the staff, but when university officialdom turns against the students, it is perhaps time to go into ignominious retirement or advertising.

The move of suspending fourth-year humanities student Drew Pavlou from the University of Queensland had more than a rippling effect. The May decision made a splash in the New York Times, which started with the sort of description no university would surely wish to be associated with. “A student activist has been suspended from one of Australia’s leading universities after calling for democracy in Hong Kong and repeatedly criticizing Chinese influence on campus.”

Pavlou was in little doubt why he had received the two year suspension. “It’s a calculated move to silence me. It’s because the University of Queensland wants to do everything possible to avoid offending its Chinese allies.” In Foreign Policy, he explained that he was facing suspension “on the grounds that I ‘prejudiced’ the university’s reputation by using my position as an elected student representative to express support for Hong Kong’s democratic protesters.”

Pavlou was duly served with a dossier of 11 allegations stretching 186 pages. It would have been interesting, particularly for students, to see what bill was drawn up for that effort, especially given the tight budgets institutions face with diminishing student numbers and the losses caused by the coronavirus. Typical of the law and order approach that captivates university pen pushers, Pavlou was supposedly not targeted for reasons of free speech but those of safety and reputation. It was alleged, for instance, that Pavlou had harassed, bullied and threatened a student in a Facebook exchange.

As it transpired, the student in question poured cold water on the whole thing. Pavlou’s lawyer, Tony Morris QC, received a tart email to the effect that “two of the people involved in the exchange did not make formal complaints to UQ – and I certainly have not.” Pavlou might well have been “characteristically crass”, but the complaint seemed “largely manufactured.” This led Morris to the obvious suspicion: what else had been confected in this whole charade of accusations?

Among the hollow allegations was the apparent prejudice caused to the reputation of UQ from a February 14 posting on Facebook advertising a “fictional UQ event” on campus: “US Confucius Institute Panel – Why Uyghur’s [sic] Must be Exterminated”. The measure of such a university’s vengefulness in terms of guarding its corporate brand knows few bounds.

Pavlou’s suspension at the time was flimsy, poorly executed, a mockery of natural justice. The disciplinary panel, constituting two academic staff and a student, was always questionable. Staff members tend to be tenaciously compliant to the sirens of orthodoxy, unless they are not seeking promotion. And anyone willing to be associated with such show trial efforts is bound to have a “sold” sign on their easily purchased conscience.

On appeal, the sentence was not quashed but merely reduced. Pavlou was notified in July by the university’s Senate Discipline Appeals Committee that he would be suspended for the rest of the year and required to complete 25 hours of “campus service”, which had the stench of Iron Curtain re-education about it. Of the 11 charges, only two “serious misconduct” allegations were said to hold water, one involving the fatuous ground of online abuse towards a fellow student, the other involving Pavlou sporting a Hazmat suit outside the office of the UQ vice-chancellor. The skin of authoritarianism is truly thin.

The Appeals Committee was “of the view that the University’s reputation should not be regarded as a fragile or easily bruised thing” but nonetheless took a dim view of Pavlou’s behaviour which showed no signs of “remorse or insight’.

With jaw dropping disingenuousness, UQ chancellor Peter Varghese thought the episode closed. A reduced sentence, modifying the initial finding he himself had considered stiff, “should finally put to rest the false allegations that this process has been an attack on freedom of expression.” In another statement explaining Pavlou’s automatic disqualification as a member of the UQ Senate, the chancellor reiterated that the relevant findings of serious misconduct had nothing to do with Pavlou’s “personal or political views about China or Hong Kong.” Lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

In a July 17, 2020 email to UQ alumni, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj showed a mealy-mouthed disposition to be jeered as any politburo missive. There was no mention of Pavlou; no mention of critics; no mention of a crisis in how universities deal with criticism from the student body. But the reader was left in no doubt. “At UQ, we live and breathe an ongoing commitment to the protection and promotion of free speech every day.” Such freedom had “been fiercely protected by staff and students for decades – exemplified by demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the 1971 anti-apartheid protests.”

Høj, in an effort to court some understanding, recalled his time as a student when he was “actively involved in demonstrations on and off the campus including arguing for a switch to renewable energy solutions following the 1973 oil crisis.” Having to constantly remind people about a legacy worn and decidedly irrelevant in a corporatized university is a sure sign that a disease has taken hold and is killing the patient.

Significant in the note is how far Pavlou’s activism, the roaring elephant in the room, rattled the functionaries, much of it to do with the China connection. Høj promised that the university had changed its approach to the Confucius Institute, making sure its staff were “subject to Australian laws and UQ policies.” Serving foreign government officials would “no longer be offered honorary or adjunct positions”. Sources of international income would also be diversified “to ensure a sustainable financial position.”

Pavlou was crestfallen but keen to take the matter to the Queensland Human Rights Commission. “UQ still achieves its main goal of removing me as an elected student representative, their supposed lenience is just a face-saving PR move.” As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch wondered, “Free speech? Academic freedom? What’s that?” What, indeed.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at SelwynCollege, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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