Science in Society Archive

Re-instate Ted Steele Unconditionally!

Dr. Ted Steele, senior academic and researcher in Wollongong University, well known for pioneering work in immunogenetics, was dismissed without warning and without pay more than a year ago. The legal battle to reinstate him has continued to this day. In the latest hearing, the Federal Court Judge Murray Wilcox expressed shock at the University’s behaviour, the sacked academic is treated ‘worse than a murderer’. Steele won his case, but to his dismay discovers he will be re-instated, only to be immediately dismissed again. Please write to express your support. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho updates on this crucial battle for independent science and scientists.

Steele was sacked in February 2001 for defending academic standards (see "Senior scientist sacked defending academic standards" ISIS News 9/10 July, 2001; "Independent scientists an endangered species, ISIS News 11/12 October, 2002, Unprecedented support to reinstate Steele came from all over the world. Academic unions and individuals sent thousands of letters and e-mails. Celebrities in Australia spoke out on his behalf. The Australian federal court ruled in his favour. But the University vice-chancellor abused his power to appeal against the ruling. The Federal Court judges in the subsequent hearing were shocked by the University's behaviour. One admitted that soft-marking is "legion" in universities in general.

In a unanimous ruling, the Federal Court rejected the appeal by the university on 28 March and ordered it to pay Steele's costs, estimated to be about $40,000. The vice-chancellor, Gerard Sutton, said he accepted the court's decision that he breached the university’s enterprise bargaining agreement. But that is not the end of the matter.

Gerald Sutton issued a press release indicating that Steele will be reinstated as Associate Professor at the University of Wollongong. But, he calls on the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which has been representing Steele, "to honour its commitment to the staff of the Department of Biological Sciences for the substance of the claims against Dr Steele to be examined."
"The University is offering the union three options to facilitate the required process: (1) a Misconduct Investigation Committee with an external chair reporting to the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Operations); (2) a Misconduct Investigation Committee with an external chair which will determine whether any action should be taken or (3) an external independent arbitrator."

Sutton said the University will not reinstate Steele until "there’s an agreement on a process to address the substantial issue of the allegations and the merits of the dismissal."

He dismissed claims that he had damaged the university's reputation by summarily sacking Steele. Steele was one of dozens of academics who contacted the Sydney Herald early last year with examples of "soft marking", but the only one who let his name be published.

"Fair play would be that, if they’re going to try me again, it has to be in a proper court of law where all the truth comes out," Steele said. "I've been through almost 14 months of hell, and I'm not going to go through a kangaroo court at the University of Wollongong."

A spokesperson for the NTEU agrees. "We think that for the university to try and embark on another investigation of Dr Steele about the events that they've already sacked him for [is] not only double jeopardy - he’s already been through a lot - but we would be concerned about bias," She said. "How can Dr Steele get a fair hearing when the vice-chancellor has already determined that he should have been sacked?"

Students at the University of Wollongong have called on Sutton to resign. The president of the postgraduate students’ association, Dave Coffman, said Sutton had lost the respect of many academics and senior administrators in higher education because "he had infringed a basic tenet of academic life: the right to speak out on issues of public importance". He also criticised the huge amount of taxpayers’ money wasted in unnecessary legal bills that could have been better spent addressing the crisis in provision of library journals or creating scholarships.
Steele has other allies. High profile radio talk-show host Alan Jones tore into VC Sutton and his press release. Jones rang Sutton and invited him to listen to his interview with Steele. "Then he said all this on air," Steele recalls, "that he would be presenting all the documents (a dossier on the matter) to Premier Bob Carr when he gets back from China and have a chat with the premier about Gerard Sutton's behaviour down in Wollongong".

Jones probably had in mind the $110 million funding plan for Brandon Park "which Sutton trumpeted with Carr a few weeks back," Steele said.

"I am now preparing to sue Sutton and the UoW for substantial damages to me personally and my academic/scientific career in a civil court(s)," Steele said. "The battle could continue for some time before I get justice - it could go another two years."

On 4 April, Chris Grange, the Director of personnel and Financial Services in the University sent a letter to Steele stating that he is being re-instated and his salaries for the past year will be paid. But it also stated. "The outstanding issue of a factual investigation of the assertion of your Dean, Head of Department and colleagues that you made
false allegations will need to be investigated by the University."

But Steele points out that VC Sutton has made a public e-mail announcement (3 April 2002) that Professor Rob Whelan will be the next Dean of Science. "So I go back and my new Dean is the very man who chaired/officiated at both Honours assessment meetings (1997,2000) in which both my sub-standard Honours students had their final marks set way above what the expert(s) decided!" Steele wrote in a letter to his union. "He gets the promotion; I have been put in 14 months of purgatory and remain in double jeopardy; and he will be one of the prosecutors/organisors of the investigation of "new charges"! This makes the UOW kangaroo court environment just about complete."

Ted Steele’s case must be seen in a much wider context of the reign of terror that has been visited on independent scientists by the scientific establishment and academic institutions acting on behalf of corporate business in pursuit of profit. It is the same whether academic standards or safety of GM food is concerned. Few of us have the stamina to pursue our case through the courts as Steele has done.

Following Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz, other scientists, Elaine Ingham, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela are currently being attacked for scientific findings against GM and GM crops. There have been calls for their dismissal, and a campaign of vilification continues (see "Astonishing denial of transgenic pollution", ISIS Report 8 April 2002

Neither our governments nor our learned societies are willing to take a firm stand against the persecution of independent scientists and the suppression of dissent. Your action is crucial.

Please write to the University of Wollongong Council to demand that Ted Steele is to be reinstated unconditionally, with full damages and compensation paid for unfair dismissal and hardship.

Here are most of the e-mail addresses of UOW Council members: (Mr J Scimone) (MLA Col Markham)

Council Secretariat:

Note : John Steinke, Dr B Hickman, Deputy Chancelor Mr G Edgar, the Chancellor Michael Codd can be contacted via the Secretariat

Article first published 09/04/02

Sources and background:

  1. 1. Dr. Ted Steele, personal communication
  2. "Axed academic treated ‘worse than murderer’" by Aban Contractor, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February, 2002.
    Justice Murray Wilcox, presiding at a full bench hearing of an appeal by the
    university against a judgement that it had erred when it sacked Dr Ted
    Steele, said he was shocked by the university's behaviour.
    "I find it remarkable that a university, of all institutions, of all employers, an institution that we've been brought up to regard as open and liberal and fair, should seek to exercise the power to sack somebody for discipline reasons without giving notification to them - I find [it] extraordinary, I have to say.
    "Look, even murderers are entitled to be heard in their defence. The suggestion that an academic, whatever his or her offence, is not allowed to make a defence - for a university to put that proposition, I repeat, I just find it a shocking proposition."
    Another appeal judge, Justice Richard Conti, said the kind of allegations made by Dr Steele appeared to be "legion" as a result of the funding difficulties faced by universities in recent years.
  3. "Sacked whistleblower gets university job back" by Aban Contractor, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 2002.

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a tripod?