La Trobe: be the difference (and be fired)

If you walk towards the La Trobe library from carpark seven, you will be greeted by a bleak field bearing a lonely “No Ball Games” sign. Ahead looms the brown façade of the social sciences building. In recent months, the view has been adorned with a towering red banner bearing the message:

“We are a diverse community that believes we can be the difference. Together, we’re solving some of the most significant problems of our time.”

This is one of the quotations of vice-chancellor John Dewar. “Be the difference” is La Trobe’s main publicity slogan. You see it on trams, in broadsheets and at bus stops. The slogan is often accompanied by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed alumni who have miraculously and inoffensively combined social justice and capitalism (usually by adding the words “ethical” and “sustainable” to “business” and “entrepreneurship”).

La Trobe began urging us to “be the difference” at roughly the same time as they sacked 350 staff members in 2014. Therein lies a clue. This slogan and banners are part of a concerted ideological campaign. For example, courses must now conform to the Three Essentials: “Global Citizenship”, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”, and “Sustainable Thinking”. These values will make La Trobe “Future Ready”.

The imposition of these painfully vapid liberal sentiments has largely been met with irritation and cynicism. Having to re-write a course guide for, say, philosophy or a language, in order to include bureaucratic buzz words is mildly intellectually offensive. All the more so when it is a criterion for funding.

But there is something else going on here. Just like the 2014 sackings, the suspension of Roz Ward, over a private Facebook post which criticised the Australian flag as racist, reveals the coercive side of this neoliberal kitsch. After all, it could easily be said that Roz Ward, was “being the difference”. She is a founder of the Safe Schools program, and, as a socialist, has been a tireless activist for years. Her success in these fields is precisely why she was targeted.

La Trobe’s decision to suspend and investigate her came after former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett demanded that she be sacked, or else the program might lose funding from beyondblue. HR’s letter to Ward accused her of undermining Safe Schools, damaging the reputation of the university and wasting the Victorian government’s time as well as that of senior university staff. Finally, she was accused of having “drawn [colleagues] into the negative publicity around Safe Schools and this has impacted on their ability to continue with their research in a safe environment”.

These accusations patently blamed the victim of a witch hunt for said witch hunt. As many noted, including the National Tertiary Education Union, they were an attack of freedom of speech. But, on top of this, they reveal the hidden authoritarianism of La Trobe’s institutionalised liberalism. According to John Dewar, by standing up for the safety of LGBTI kids, Roz has allegedly compromised the safety of those kids and her colleagues.

The backlash against Ward’s suspension was swift and widespread. In the space of a day, the We Stand with Roz Ward Facebook page garnered 5,000 likes. An online petition accumulated more than 10,000 signatures. Condemnations of La Trobe’s decision flowed in from all corners. Opinion pieces defending Ward proliferated, first from the usual suspects such as Crikey and New Matilda. Then, the Guardian joined in, followed by the Age.

It was probably the NTEU’s threat of protracted legal action and an angry rally that made John Dewar think twice. But I like to imagine him opening up the Herald Sun and murmuring “et tu, Brute?”, upon seeing that even the Murdoch rag had run an opinion piece defending Ward. So on Friday afternoon, Dewar emailed the university community notifying us of his backdown.

His email is worth reading closely. He admits no wrongdoing on the part of the university – neither legally nor ethically. He offers no apology. Rather, his backdown is expressly pragmatic, intended to save the university further bad publicity. Denying that Ward’s sacking was politically motivated, he writes:

“The reason the university took the action it did … [was] because [Ward’s comments] were made at a time, and in a context, when there is intense scrutiny of a program which is closely associated with La Trobe, and which she could have foreseen would further inflame opinion about the Safe Schools program and her involvement in it.”

By these standards, John Dewar should be subject to disciplinary proceedings. After all, his actions came at a time of “intense scrutiny” of La Trobe University, and it didn’t take a vice-chancellor to predict that they would bring La Trobe into disrepute.

More than this, his reasoning demonstrates a greater disregard for freedom of speech than most of his critics dared imagine. Not only can we be fired for our views, but for the time at which they are expressed. Good news for PR consultancies, but for the rest of us, troubling.

La Trobe also hosts the “Ideas and Society Program,” convened by Robert Manne. The program regularly runs talks on a range of issues – “Islam: what are we afraid of?” featuring Waleed Aly, or “Hope at last? Prospects for the planet after Paris”. I once endured one of these talks, in which Manne (in true John Dewar form) argued that the Labor Party should retain its support for mandatory detention because to do otherwise would produce a racist backlash. But aside from occasional painful intellectual acrobatics like this, the talks are neither here nor there. In fact, from time to time, they host serious radical intellectuals, like Tariq Ali.

That’s the same Tariq Ali who inspired the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”, and who ran in the 1974 British elections on an openly Marxist platform. The same Tariq Ali who, in response to ISIS’s attack 2015 in Paris, condemned Western violence in the Middle East as a greater evil (rightly so). His timing was impeccable.

And despite this, a sentiment at least as radical as Ward’s condemnation of the Australian flag, La Trobe was happy to invite him. Why? He is safe. This is the point: La Trobe is fine with free speech, provided it is marketable.

This is more than cowardice. This is what liberal censorship looks like, justified by self-evidently false concerns for “safety” and progress but motivated by political and financial concerns.

As you walk from La Trobe’s Agora towards the health sciences building, another vast red banner reads: “The true measure of a university’s greatness is the total effect it has on human welfare and progress”. This week has proven that the only people at La Trobe to whom this applies are the staff and students who stood with Roz Ward against the cynicism and hypocrisy of the administration.