Science in Society Archive

Senior Scientist Sacked Defending Academic Standards

This is yet another blatant example of a university administration in bed with corporate business, and all too ready to sacrifice academic standards and academic freedom for commercial reasons. How you can help. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Tenured Associate Professor Ted Steele, internationally renown for his pioneering work in immunogenetics, has been a tenured staff member of the University of Wollongong for 16 years when he was dismissed without notice on February 26 2001. The Vice Chancellor Gerard Sutton accused him of "knowingly spread false allegations" about the University. This amounted to no more than publicly opposing the upgrading of student marks. The grades of two students were upgraded within Steele's department, against his recommendations and those of an external referee. Steele rejected demands from Sutton to withdraw his remarks.

Ted Steele says his position has always been very simple, " I knowingly spread the truth about a shonky B.Sc/B.Biotech Hons assessment process which allowed fail/borderline pass students to be upgraded to mid range pass (Hons 2. II) or PhD entry (Hons 2.I) against expert evaluation and opinion".

The story hit the press when Steele was interviewed by a journalist asking him to comment on a nation wide survey of academics carried out by the Australia Institute [1]. The results made it plain that Steele was not alone in his concerns. The survey found widespread dissatisfaction with the erosion of academic freedom, with many respondents complaining of management pressure to produce "commercially favourable research and student results".

Of the 165 teachers and researchers who responded, 92 percent expressed concern about the general state of academic freedom. Of those, 81 percent blamed the increasing commercialisation of their university.

Almost one in five reported that they had been prevented from publishing contentious research results, and 41 percent said they had experienced discomfort with publishing such results.

Almost half had experienced reluctance to criticise institutions that provided large research grants or other form of support. Approximately 5 percent said they had experienced pressures to admit and pass full fee-paying students and more than a quarter expressed low levels of satisfaction with the freedom to determine student standards.

Sutton dismissed Steele in the midst of a campaign by the Australian Universities Vice Chancellors Committee, joined personally by the federal Education Minister David Kemp, to denigrate and discredit the Australia Institute survey, in order to protect the Australian tertiary education sector's $3.4 billion-a-year market among overseas fee-paying students, particularly from Asia.

In the weeks following, staff members at Wollongong and other universities began to voice concerns about Steele's case. On March 29, about 60 staff members attended a union meeting at Wollongong University and overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that the dismissal set a precedent that "if not fought, is a threat for every member of staff".

Michael Head, lecturer of law in the University of Western Australia drew attention to context of Steele's dismissal: the slashing of government funding and the general restructuring of universities along business lines, which sounds all too familiar for those of us in Europe and the United States.

The Howard government has slashed tertiary education funding by some $800 million a year since 1996, forcing universities to increasingly rely upon private student fees, corporate sponsorship and business research partnerships. Even basic teaching must now be financed from such sources.

"For their part, university managements have engaged in cut-throat competition with each other, vying for big business backing and launching their own commercial enterprises." Michael Head said. Wollongong University has been at the forefront of this drive. For the past two years, the government has named it "University of the Year" largely on the strength of its success in attracting corporate patronage.

Just two weeks before sacking Ted Steele, the university announced a new $2.5 million grant from resources giant BHP to fund the BHP Institute of Steel Processing and Products for five years. According to its media release, the university "collaborates with BHP on projects ranging from steel processing metallurgy and coatings technology to management of innovation and technological change". BHP, whose nearby Port Kembla steel plant is

Wollongong's biggest polluter, also funds the university's chair of Environmental Science.

According to Head, similar contractual commitments are becoming prevalent at all universities. In a submission to a Senate committee inquiry into higher education, Queensland University academic Dr William De Maria reported that large companies have funded some 100 professorial posts at universities.

These ranged from the Colgate-Palmolive chair of general dental practice at the University of Queensland to the Microsoft chair of computing at Macquarie University and the University of Western Sydney's chair of gambling research (!), funded by Aristocrat, Australia's largest poker-machine manufacturer.

"Ted Steele's dismissal is a warning that these arrangements and the accompanying ideological climate are increasingly incompatible with free speech. His sacking is a test case for the defense of academic freedom and tertiary education itself." Head calls on students and all those concerned with public education and democratic rights to join in demanding his immediate rein-statement".

"Reinstatement at age 52 yrs is the only possible outcome for me" says Ted Steele, "the second option is winning massive compensation for damages in the courts- but I need to be reinstated so I have some infrastructure to continue my research until normal retirement at age 65 years."

The University of Wollongong management was served with a Federal Court action by the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), and the case comes up in the week of July 23-27 under the Australian Federal Industrial Relations commission in Sydney.

An e-mail/Internet site was set up by the NTEU to have Ted Steele reinstated. ISIS has reported and circulated the story widely, and more than 5,000 have signed the NTEU petition so far.

On June 8, Wollongong University's 18-member governing council met to debate Steele's case. Vice Chancellor Gerard Sutton used his privilege as first speaker to block the debate and to get a motion adopted to await the outcome of the legal proceedings against the University.

But the fuse has been ignited. There is widespread international support for reinstating Ted Steele and condemnation of Wollongong University. The president of the 30,000-member Canadian Association of University Teachers, Professor Thomas Booth, wrote: "The Vice-Chancellor's actions show contempt for academic freedom, which is the cornerstone of any university. His actions bring the University of Wollongong into disrepute and cast a shadow over the entire Australian university community."

Britain's Association of University Teachers general secretary David Triesman said his union had called on British academics to avoid all dealings with Wollongong University because, "The standards universities must follow have to include an exacting requirement to foster and support academic freedom. This is sometimes tested when criticisms come close to home, but that is a test no university can afford to fail."

Nine prominent Australians sent an open letter to the university council stating that the university's actions "are cause for concern for all members of the academic community, and more broadly among members of the public who care about the integrity and accountability of public universities". The letter insisted that "academic freedom is a right and responsibility of academic staff" which "entails the right of all staff to freely express opinions about the institutions in which they work".

Eminent science professors Frank Fenner and Ian Lowe signed the letter, joined by novelists Jean Bedford and Peter Corris, composer Roger Woodward, media commentator Eva Cox, Liberty Victoria president Chris Maxwell, Association for the Public University president Paul James and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Sharan Burrow.

The NTEU has received some 2,000 messages of support from academics and faculty unions around the world, including Europe, Asia and South Africa.

Nevertheless, the NTEU has come under criticism for remaining " silent on the key question raised by Steele and many other academics - the subordination of the universities to market requirements" [2].

Statistics released by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Com-mittee on May 29 show some of the impact of budget slashing and restructuring in universities in the continuing deterioration in student/ staff ratio. Between 1989, when the Labour government launched a major reorganisation of the university system, and 2000, the ratio rose by 40 percent, from 13.50 to 18.84.

These figures translate into larger classes, over-crowded facilities and less attention paid to students, increased workloads and stress for staff. Again, this rings familiar to all of us in Europe and the United States.

Ted Steele's sacking has become "a critical test for the defence of academic freedom and the future of tertiary education itself".

What is at stake is not just academic freedom or academic standards. It is the freedom to research by dedicated, independent scientists who have not been corrupted by the corporate take over.

Please add your name to the petition, send the web address to others, asking them to do the same. http://www.nteu.org.au/rights/wollongong.html

  1. A story on the Australia Institute survey (on declining academic standards in Australia) is in the current issue of the ANU Reporter at: http://www.anu.edu.au/pad/reporter/
  2. "Australian university refuses to reinstate sacked academic" By Mike Head, World Socialist Web Site on Ted Steele's case: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/jun2001/acad-j19.php19 June 2001

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