Saturday, 28 July 2007

A culture most peculiar

In a previous post I mentioned some of the players at Griffith University who would have been of influence in this ongoing affair.

But, as every detective knows, there is such a thing as circumstantial evidence. Hints and signs that may not be directly relevant yet reveal the nature of someone's surrounds, their ambience and culture. Becoming familiar with this type of evidence opens doors and dissolves the mist.

Arriving at Griffith it didn't take long before the place struck you as somehow tendentious. On the very first day there was the introductory performance by Lisa Banyard, chairperson of the local student union, a body run by activists where membership is compulsory for every student and which never lost an opportunity to push its political agenda. In her talk to us newcomers she couldn't suppress mentioning her union's affirmative gender action policy resulting in The Women's Room, an exclusively female space. To the question by someone in the audience, "Why isn't there a place only for men?" Lisa's answer was, "Well, that's politics!".

Nothing wrong with a political agenda - especially if you're young, first time away from a cloying home, and are invited to rebel to your excited heart's content. Except that a body such as the Griffith University Student Representative Council demanded $111.00 membership fee per student per semester (to be paid in total at the beginning of the year - $222 in one hit do make a difference to those on a measly budget) and in 1997 for example the university counted 15,948 students. That translates into well over $3.5 million for an exclusive little club of intellectual narcissists to play with year after year.

If three-and-a-half million dollars makes you wonder what that kind of money can buy, a look behind the dingy office with its couple of photo copiers, the GUSRC's token service to those 16,000-odd students, and the monthly rag Gravigrrrl, a never-drying well of feminist rants, may provide the answer (re Gravigrrrl: in one of its articles I once substituted the word 'man' with 'black' and 'woman' with 'white' - my listeners reacted with horror). I almost forgot - there were the performances by some musicians on campus grounds once or twice or so during the semester; a friend of mine got to play there every now and then, but he never got paid a cent.

In 2000 the Shepherdson enquiry revealed big-party connections and references to the Australian Workers Union having retained control over the GUSRC through dummy candidates.

During 2001 for instance Griffith's band of protesters spent at least $40,000 on demonstrations, political activism that, for all the pious officiousness towards democracy, remained as exclusively left as it was unassailable. In 2002 it all became too much even for the university when it finally threatened to suspend funding (funding? - for someone who gets $3.5 million already??) unless the SRC abided by its own constitution. Clearly, the enquiries and emerging complaints in their wake had left their mark. Mind you, in all those years before no high-gowned mandarin could be bothered.

Enough of the wider framework, although it shows once again how interests further afield create a very particular set of characteristics where much goes unchecked provided it leaves the higher agenda to do its bidding. A typical dictatorial scenario, a breeding ground for abuse.

A culture thus promoted makes itself felt through the smaller detail. Suppose there is the subject "Ethical Issues in Computing", and suppose the female tutor decides to use its thema as an exercise in political correctness. The students are given the hypothetical (?) situation where 'illegal content' is discovered on someone's computer and the Assistant Manager (played by the student) needs to respond. A nice test of one's attention in class, political orientation, and dexterity with euphemisms! To the more critical it also affords the opportunity to collect some statistics about the extent of representation available to women vs men when it comes to workplace related issues - figures which predominantly favour women in every state and capital in Australia.

No response there, the marks were as high as usual. In the final and most important exam however the essay required three specific subtopics, identified by their headings. I certainly dealt with those topics, except that I changed the words in the subheadings to better relate to their content. As I discovered later I almost failed that subject because I allegedly did not do what I was asked - an assessment either based on nothing more than a perfunctory glance at the words in the subheadings, or done for a deeper reason. A complaint to the lecturer - away from Jenny Gasston the tutor - and he restored my marks without much ado. It was my first introduction to academic payback.

Perhaps the silly evaluation of my honours thesis was some grotesque way to get back at my supervisor, Grigoris Antoniou? After all, a successful student or otherwise does reverberate back to the lecturer.

I remember a scene one day. The lecturer - a female - took longer than usual to finish her own session and vacate the theatre. All hundred or so of us milled around the door unable to get in. Finally Grigoris couldn't wait anymore and he told us to enter anyway. As he walked up to the lectern the woman protested, "But I am ... (so and so) and how dare you ...", to which Grigoris replied, "And I am a professor at ... so get out!" Two minutes later our own lecture was underway.

Then there was the criticism of his clothes, or at least the rumour of it. Apparently his superiors had castigated him for his tendency to wear black jeans, insinuating a lack of hygiene. As whispers go, the cadence is on what they don't say. He may have preferred jeans and yes, they were inevitably black, but never had there been any untoward hint about their cleanliness (I should know, my nose is rather sensitive and body odours are more of a bane to me than to most others). Besides, the possibility exists for someone to own more than one pair of the same colour if they wish. So, why such rumours?

My idea of university comes from my European heritage, particularly the Age of Reason. Tertiary institutions would not be what they are today had it not been for the courage and diligence of those who rolled back the dark influence of religion. After all, in the beginning universities did exist as instruments of the church.

How curious then to detect so many traces of ideology, over and over, in such a place. Why does a lecturer in mathematics and logic (no less) see fit to decorate his office wall with examples of his church activities? Why are references to some scientist's homosexuality expressed in such a strange, discomfort-inducing manner during a lecture?

What can prompt a body like a university to build an Interfaith Centre at a time when even computer terminals are subject to budget constraints - an entity which is not dedicated to a methodical analysis of human beliefs and superstitions but designed as a meeting ground for spiritual ideologues of any shade to justify their existence?

Francis Crick resigned his fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, because it built a chapel at the behest of a benefactor (for this elucidatory piece of information I am indebted to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion). And here is Griffith University, not only building an entire religious faculty rather than a mere chapel, but using public funds instead of money given by a private individual!

In a god-fearing demographic like Queensland such matters are par for the course. If there should be a murmur there are measures in place to keep things quiet. Remarks made to this writer about such pressure and undesirable legal events confirm the general impression.

They all constitute a culture by merging into a whole which in turn affects its members. As in any such exercise one is judged according to one's submission to its principles. Accept, and you have it easy; criticise, and punishment follows.

Unless of course some outside arbiter is finally throwing the doors open.

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