Thursday, 27 September 2018

More on Massey-Uni-Gate

Massey University is a Joke That's No Laughing Matter

Jarrod Gilbert
NZ Herald

Massey has recently made an interesting decision. Instead of being a university, it has decided to be a joke.

Setting the scene for the madness to come, Massey vice chancellor Jan Thomas wrote a piece for the paper that was weak on free speech. Except she didn't write it, somebody else did and she put her name to it. But that is the least of her problems.

Thomas then cancelled a speech by Don Brash organised by a student politics society citing security concerns. That she never engaged the police raises questions about that, but Thomas assured the chair of Massey's Academic Board that was the true reason and that she had "not considered cancelling the event" before security issues were raised. The chair, in good faith, communicated that message to all staff.

Perhaps Thomas wasn't aware her emails were subject to the Official Information Act.  Thomas' emails show that she is no fan of "racist" Brash and as soon as she heard he was coming she began plotting how to cancel the event.

One of her ideas was to restrict funding to the students' association. In itself that is utterly extraordinary. It's also a pretty creative playbook for somebody claiming to have given no mind to cancelling the event.

And let's consider what it was that Brash was going to talk about; the incendiary topic that was going to corrupt the minds of fragile staff and students alike. His speech was on his experience of being the leader of the National Party.  This is where we begin to see the university as a joke. Unfortunately, the punch line is no laughing matter.

Universities have built long traditions around being places to air controversial topics, it's part of their very mandate, something Massey is happy to cast aside for the sake of an old man lamenting how he came within a whisker of leading the country.  But even if Brash's talk was more controversial, he should have been allowed.

At his worst, Don Brash is not a direct threat to order or to individuals. At his worst he's mild compared to Australian politicians, not as extreme as some of our own, and a gentleman compared to the US President. If Brash is where we draw the line on free speech at a university, it's a precedent that will exclude swathes of people.

Massey is free, of course, to allow their VC to be the arbiter of who students and staff are allowed to listen to, but let's be clear they will not be a university.  They will be a chamber of propaganda run by the tastes of whoever is in charge. That idea used to be an anathema to liberal thinking, yet for many – including many who should know better – it is becoming a comfortable default. We know what's best for everyone is as pompous as it is dangerous.

I think of the Roger McGough poem:

there are
to be
on a healthkick
eating only

Those who cheer on Thomas do so without the foresight to recognise how the worm turns. That when a person takes the VC's position who has different politics, be it next year or in 10 years, the arguments used to repress them will be the same ones they use to repress now.

This is why rights are universal. It's why they ought to be enduring. In the 1960, 70 and 80s when Universities were a hotbed of protest, the sides were the reverse they are now.  There was a hint of this when National argued to ban Chelsea Manning.

Make no bones about it, none of the above means having to agree with or like Don Brash. Nor is it an attack on Thomas' commitment to Māori. Nothing I have said is mutually exclusive to those issues. It isn't one or the other.  If you have a firm view on Brash then battle with ideas or express yourself in protest. These are the weapons of a university.

I call on my Māori academic colleagues to speak out. To assure people that kaupapa principles and Māori partnerships with education institutions don't mean that free speech is stifled, that race relations issues can't be debated, or that we can only hear from people who hold certain views.

Because, if this is the case, partnerships with Māori are much less likely to occur.

A test of all this is just around the corner. On October 17 Don Brash is again scheduled to speak at Massey.  How Thomas gets herself out of the mess entirely of her own making will be watched very closely. One hopes she will be honest. One certainty is that she will be mindful of what she writes in emails.

If she again gets it wrong, watch the high quality academics at that institution begin to jump ship and student numbers drop. Nobody wants to be branded as a joke.

• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.

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