“ANU prides itself on the principle of academic freedom and I am always proud to see our students standing up for issues they feel strongly about. I am disappointed this happened, and everyone has learned from it.”
Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, let go a sad tweet on 20 March. He was referring to the university removing the biographical information of a high achieving law student from university marketing material.
Odette Shenfield had refused to remove a reference to the government’s refugee policies, which she rightly described as “inhumane”. For that, she was erased from the promotional booklet. This was despite recently picking up a string of academic awards and accolades, including the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and Australian Government Solicitor Prize.
In the wake of student and community outrage when national media broke the story, the ANU College of Law took to Twitter admitting it “made a poor call” and quickly reaffirmed its support for students “speak[ing] out on issues they feel are important”.
It’s hard to take such a commitment seriously when correspondence between Shenfield and the marketing department had been leaked in the Canberra Times a few days earlier. It clarifies the reason for the omission and points to the priorities of the university more generally.
“I hope you can appreciate that the Commonwealth government is the donor for one of your prizes, and that should never stop you from speaking out against policies that you feel strongly about, but part of our job within the college is to maintain donor relationships to ensure it is available to future students”, an email from the university reportedly explained.
“The publication of this booklet is aimed at fostering those relationships.”
The university’s “poor call” and the vice-chancellor’s disappointment seem less to do with removing the bio and more to do with putting their motivations in such clear and honest language.
Think whatever you fancy – but please don’t rock the boat by actually saying it! The hypocrisy is reinforced by a quick look at some relationships the administration has recently fostered.
In December 2016, the university signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, promising “a collaborative working partnership on research, analysis, training, policy matters and other engagement activities”.
This year, the vice-chancellor is considering setting up a new undergraduate degree in Western Civilisation to access substantial funds from the estate of the late insurance mogul and Liberal Party donor Paul Ramsey.
When concern is raised around the lack of free speech on our campuses, it’s usually from a racist throwing a tantrum over the right of students to organise against his bigoted ideas or from a conservative conspiracy theorist railing against the imagined threat of politically correct thought police in academia.
Freedom of speech is being undermined and a censorious atmosphere is descending on our campuses, but what this looks like in the real world is a far cry from the right’s paranoid ravings.
The experience at ANU shows that the primary threat to free speech at university comes from the very people preaching the virtues of academic freedom – the university bosses and administrations.
When it comes down to it, those running the university care about revenue streams and respectable relationships and are happy to silence or sideline anything that might threaten these first principles.
Human Rights Watch, an international investigative and reporting organisation, says that it has “significant human rights concerns” about Australia’s treatment of refugees and Aboriginal people.
To drive a whole people out of their land—to turn it into something akin to the Zionist myth of Palestine, supposedly “a land without a people for a people without a land”—requires many things. Most obviously, it requires the killing and terrorising of Palestinian people on a colossal scale.
What would you do with $1.5 million? You could put down deposits on ten median-priced Sydney houses, or you could buy one outright and spare yourself the crushing mortgage repayments.
The level of suffering in Gaza is more than the human mind can comprehend. As the war enters its twentieth week, it feels increasingly obscene to be going about daily life while an entire people are being systematically destroyed, their lives, histories and culture blown to pieces or buried under rubble.
The Banyule Palestine Action Group has collected more than 600 signatures on a petition calling on Banyule City Council, in Melbourne’s north-east, to pass a motion supporting an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, in line with motions passed in other councils across Australia.
Asked how she stays hopeful as a 63-year-old socialist and Palestinian living in the diaspora, Reem Yunis replies: “I don’t have the luxury not to be inspired. My grandparents died without seeing a liberated Palestine, my parents died and were buried in the diaspora. Most of my people are living in the diaspora, and the ones in Palestine are being robbed of water, resources and every bit of land they have. We need to have hope and fight, because if we won’t fight for a free Palestine, who will?”