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.

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