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Foreign academics threaten black list over sacked Steele

Update on Prof. Ted Steele, sacked for protecting academic standards by Wollongong University Chancellor, who wants to protect commercial interests instead. By Aban Contractor, Higher Education Writer, Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 8 June 2001

The sacking of Dr Ted Steele by the University of Wollongong has attracted unprecedented international condemnation, with overseas academics threatening to black-list Australia's university of the year.

Britain's largest education union and the 30,000-member Canadian Association of University Teachers are among those to criticise the decision of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gerard Sutton, to dismiss summarily the tenured academic.

Other academic associations, including those in the United States, Ireland and New Zealand, have written to the Wollongong University Chancellor, Mr Michael Codd, urging him to reinstate Dr Steele immediately.

Academics are boycotting conferences at Wollongong and black-listing it as a place of work.

The president of the Canadian association, Professor Thomas Booth, said it was wrong that Dr Steele had been dismissed without due process.

"The Vice-Chancellor's actions show contempt for academic freedom which is the foundation stone of any university," he wrote.

"His actions bring the University of Wollongong into disrepute and casts a shadow over the entire Australian university community."

Yesterday, Professor Sutton said the letters would be given "due consideration but would not affect the legal course of action taken by the National Tertiary Education Union against the university".

Dr Steele, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, was sacked without warning on February 26 after claiming he had been told to increase the marks he had awarded two of his honours students - both were upgraded by two grades.

A union prosecution against the university, claiming that Wollongong breached its own enterprise agreement by sacking Dr Steele summarily, will be heard in the Federal Court on July 5.

Professor Sutton has argued that Dr Steele made knowingly false allegations that had brought the university into disrepute.

Today, the university's governing body, the 18-member council, is expected to discuss the Steele case. It is believed it is being urged to consider several resolutions, including that academic staff have the right to speak out without fear of instant dismissal.

A letter signed by nine prominent Australians, including the winner of the 2000 Albert Einstein World Award of Science, Professor Frank Fenner, and novelist Peter Corris, will be tabled.

"Academic freedom is a right and a responsibility of academic staff. It entails the rights to freely discuss, teach, assess, develop curricula, research and publish," the letter says.

"It also entails the right of all staff to freely express opinions about the institutions in which they work. This right reflects the historical role of universities as 'critic and conscience' of society."

An online petition organised by the union with almost 5,000 signatures will also be drawn to the council's attention.

In its letter to the Wollongong Chancellor, the New Zealand Association of University Staff reminded the university that Australia was a signatory to the UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, which says that all staff have the "freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work".

Article first published 08/06/01



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