Friday, 27 February 2009

Griffithgate: what happens next

Yesterday emails have been sent to some of the staff at Griffith University informing them about the modified welcome page (95 in all).
What they make of it is anyone's guess at this stage, if indeed Griffith's server allowed them to have it at all. Their reaction would be an amalgam of several factors.
Currently Australian universities are mostly run as businesses, providing room for feedback. On the other hand they are also considered autonomous, which means hardly any third-party entity is prepared to interfere in their internal affairs, and they know it. In addition there is such a thing as group-think which tends to dampen an individual member's willingness to advocate along self-critical lines.
Beyond the institution itself Queensland features a culture of hostility when it comes to general criticism towards any system that has been found wanting. Insiders who speak out are threatened, bullied into submission, even sacked. Especially if dismissal is not possible protective walls are erected making any engagement impossible. Only pressures from official enquiries or commissions are able to breach those ramparts.
The law's adversarial system has an interesting side effect regarding the role of lawyers. On the occasion of a trial the defendant's representative is required to enter a stoush with the prosecution where the outcome depends as much if not more so on either side's dexterity rather than on the facts of the case. Pre-trial scenarios therefore occupy the shadowy space of preparing for the fight where the potential impact of this or that item gets evaluated in terms of its assumed potential later on. It is not so much about ethics or even legality but what a branding exercise under forensic conditions might achieve.
The law firm Minter Ellison has Griffith University as one of its many clients. They have been contacted in the past but decided not to respond. Instead there came a reply from one of the university's pro vice chancellors, which may or may not have been the result of mutual correspondence.
What would they make of the above-mentioned web page - brush it off altogether, create an entry in their file, or start seriously advising their client?
Given the negative effects of any publicity for Griffith in this matter, it is an interesting exercise to consider the possible aspects as they apply to its wider status measured against this issue. Add the not inconsiderable resources available to the university as well as Minter Ellison (but virtually none on my side) and the strategy may well move from the purely financial to one containing elements of a psychological, even philosophical, nature.
Let's not forget, Griffith's recent foray into seeking support from the fundamentalist regime of Saudi Arabia could, in conjunction with a certain religious ambience surrounding the evaluation of my thesis, set the scene for some interesting public discussions once the conditions are in place.
It won't matter to Minter Ellison where a client's money has priority over anything else, but their place in this world is not the world.
Under more radical jurisdictions subversive elements are put against the wall, but in Australia lawyers enjoy the luxury of living in an essentially secular democracy.
Then again, misusing such freedom starts paving the road towards exactly the opposite. There are millions on this planet who understand what that means, but slick suits aren't one of them.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Griffithgate: the latest

There are many websites dedicated to student feedback about their experiences with this or that tertiary institution, and Griffith University is no exception.
The topics focus on subjects available, the rapport with lecturers, or what a degree gained in one place means compared with one gained from another.
Reading through them it is difficult to discern any actual difference beyond the subjective. After all, a university is not a high school and so it is largely up to the student to get as much out of a course as possible.
Yet I haven't found any mention of what happens when things go wrong. How is the appeal process being handled, how much does the staff (any staff) cooperate with the student to resolve the matter, and are there any obstacles deliberately placed before the student to protect the university?
These matters could easily be far more important than the seats in the lecture hall, what books the library has (Australia does have an integrated library system), or whether a lecturer is accessible during the course.
Once the exams have been done and the degree issued the student is no longer part of the university's contingent, and it is at that point its general ethics really come to the fore.
Let's say a student brings in evolution in his or her thesis and is being criticised for that - what are the religious leanings of the lecturer, indeed would the university favour superstition over science in order to appease its backers?
Last year we had this little episode where Griffith had been caught out secretly asking for funds from Saudi Arabia. Not only did it raise serious concerns by someone like Judge Clive Wall, deputy judge advocate-general in the Australian Defence Force, the subsequent response by Griffith's vice chancellor Ian O'Connor made matters even worse (read about that saga; how pathetic in itself: here is Ian O'Connor weaseling up to the Saudis for $1.37 million but they tossed him only $100,000).
Perhaps the student searches the university's website for persons who would be interested in their plight. In the case of Griffith they may well come upon the assurance by none other than Professor Sue Spence, Pro Vice Chancellor for Learning and Student Outcomes. It said there (interestingly, the page has since been removed), "Many students have asked me whether we listen to the feedback you provide about your courses and teachers at the end of semester and whether we take it seriously. The answer is - definitely yes".
Not really. A letter sent in early December last year asking the good professor how the assurance above can be reconciled with the vice chancellor calling the police to remove you from campus rather than talk to you, or destroying pertinent records so that a request under the Freedom of Information Act becomes useless, went unanswered. Words come easy; it's action that counts.
These days image and the associated spin is all important. On 14 January 2009 the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General in conjunction with Griffith University ran an advertisment in the Courier Mail titled, "Mediationworks". The idea was to invite businesses and the general public to make use of training courses in mediation, facilitation and dispute resolution. With something like the Justice Department and a university to back the claims who would argue? If potential clients only knew ... does locking a complainant into a police van or destroying evidence sound like exceptional skills in dispute resolution to you?
Perhaps it's all part of the culture, where achievement can turn into a liability in no time and respect is shifted over to the dysfunctional and useless. Walk through Brunswick Street in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, any day or night and you'll find reeking bodies lining the footpath (the hundreds of people passing them would confirm the observation - Brunswick Street is no side alley). Or have a group of people engage in a drinking session on the pavement and the police dutifully carry away their discarded bottles (observed in West End one sunny day).
Hence the web page suggesting what the vice chancellor's welcome to students should really look like, compared to what Vice Chancellor Ian O'Connor has to offer.
I am all for choice. Do the courses, do exactly what's asked of you and no more, and get out with paper in hand - then the ethics and culture of the institution may not be of any concern. But just in case you're more serious about your career then other factors come into play. Whether this matters or not is up to the students, but at the very least they should be informed.