Murdoch University is prosecuting a whistleblower -- to send a warning to any future whistleblowers
The issue is an old one in Australian universities: Do you admit overseas students even though they are not really qualified and do you give them a pass when they have really failed?
Why is that an issue? Because overseas students bring in a rich harvest of fees -- so you want as many as possible of them. And you don't want to upset any of them
So do universites really do those things? The official answer is a scandalized "No". The real answer is: Frequently. The professor let the cat out of the bag
In my days as a university lecturer I saw how easily favoured students could be granted marks they did not earn. In my case the favoured ones were student activists and Aborigines but it would work equally well for Asians
Whistleblower mathematics professor Gerd Schroder-Turk, and his young family, must be wondering if they will be pushed into bankruptcy by his employer, Murdoch University. His crime was to expose on the ABC’s Four Corners program alleged corruption at Murdoch University’s enrolment section. According to Schroder-Turk, Murdoch was letting in students with inadequate skills in the chase for cash.
Murdoch University has ignored universal adverse media reaction against it. Condemnation by the union, staff, students, and a huge public petition have made no difference. It is continuing its legal action against Schroder-Turk, claiming he has affected its reputation and profitability. Schroder-Turk could lose everything he owns.
Murdoch’s legal action is not about retrieving lost earnings. I am guessing that Schroder-Turk’s entire wealth would be less than vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen’s overly generous yearly salary. It would certainly be less than a day of the university’s operational cost.
This court action is about power. It is the university sending a message to the academic staff — “speak out and we will destroy you”.
It does not matter about the truth. It does not matter if Murdoch was acting disgracefully.
A frightened academia is a compliant academia. Just the way a modern university administration likes it.
The other universities, most of which have similar authoritarian streaks in their administration, will be cheering Murdoch from the side of the courtroom. It is in their interests for Schroder-Turk to be crushed. They also want fearful academics.
History is littered with examples where people stood by and watched bad things happen when they had the power to stop it.
Such a person appears to be the West Australian Education Minister, Sue Ellery. Murdoch University is set up under West Australian state legislation.
The state government has huge influence over Murdoch through the university’s governing senate. But Ellery seems too often silent about Schroder-Turk.
Another is federal Education Minister Dan Tehan. His department gives Murdoch hundreds of millions of dollars each year. There are many things he can do to persuade Murdoch that it is doing the wrong thing and not acting in the interests of the public that funds it.
But the minister seems to be showing signs of being captured by the universities he administers. This is a common problem and an occupational hazard in politics.
One must have some sympathy for him. Universities are very powerful organisations with slick media departments. Through their peak body, Universities Australia, they are ruthless in publicly pursuing their interests. A minister decides to cross an Australian university at his or her peril.
Nevertheless, the universities look at the Schroder-Turk case and see the inaction by Tehan and Ellery. I worry the collective university vice-chancellors are laughing at how easily and quickly Tehan seems to have been caught, reeled in, and brought to heel on a nice short leash.
Murdoch University has interpreted the inaction by both state and federal education ministers as a green light to do whatever it wants.
In the meantime, Tehan needs to lay down the law to show a little steel to Leinonen and her chancellor, Gary Smith. He should call Leinonen and Smith and tell them he is commissioning a review of Murdoch’s activities under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s objective 4: “Take prompt and effective action to address substantial risks to students or the reputation of the sector.”
He would appoint an investigator who was sympathetic to the cause of academic freedom and critical of some of the tendencies of modern universities. I am sure the National Tertiary Education Union — which, again, has stood by Schroder-Turk throughout his ordeal — would be very happy to put forward some suitable names.
The minister should tell Leinonen and Smith that if Murdoch were found wanting by this investigation, they could lose their accreditation to operate as a university.
He has the power. He has the duty to protect whistleblowers such as Schroder-Turk. Although universities should be independent of government, they must behave like universities to deserve that privilege.
As it is, Murdoch University has forfeited that right.
That simple phone call by the minister to Leinonen would shatter Murdoch’s illusion that it can ignore the taxpayers who fund it.
Happy public, happy Gerd Schroder-Turk, happy university staff, happy students, happy union.
Popular Dan Tehan.
There is no public support for Murdoch University.