Needed: a circuit-breaker at Uni Queensland

Last night’s 60 Minutes report on Uni Queensland’s treatment of Drew Pavlou, could have been worse for the university, but it’s hard to see how 

Where this came from: Mr Pavlou is a Uni Queensland undergraduate who is a passionate advocate of human rights in China and a fierce critic of the university’s links with the PRC state.

A university committee found he had committed acts of serious misconduct, which he denies, claiming the allegations are related to his advocacy, although the university rejects this. However, a committee of the university senate over-ruled almost all of the misconduct findings  dropping all but two of the nine original charges and reducing the length of the penalty suspension from his course.

Mr Pavlou is now asking the Supreme Court to overturn the university’s decision.

Uni Queensland’s perception problem:  Whatever the court decides, the university is now being tried in the court of public opinion over issues which are now inextricably linked to Mr Pavlou’s case – it’s record on protecting free speech, its relations with the government of the People’s Republic of China and its dependence on the fees Chinese students pay.

The university’s response: Vice Chancellor Peter Høj addressed these, among other, issues in a Friday statement.

On free speech at the university: “we all have an obligation to actively defend respectful and lawful freedom of speech, even on matters that we may not agree on.   Bullying and intimidating behaviour, including hate speech, will not be tolerated at UQ”

On Uni Queensland and China: Professor Høj said the university has “long-standing and productive relations with China” but this does not mean, “we are influenced in our decisions or what we teach.”  He offered examples of the university’s independence including, the campus Confucius Institute agreement which “now provides that the CI has no involvement in credit-bearing courses” and UQ’s Confucius Institute staff “are subject to Australian laws and UQ policies.” And he said the university has a strategy to “diversify our international income to ensure a sustainable financial position.”

Enough said?: Perhaps these assurances will calm community concerns that Uni Queensland, with other universities, is too dependent on China.

Or perhaps not. As Professor Høj acknowledged, “our engagements with China, which were once encouraged by government, are now seen by a growing number of people through a different lens.”  And that will include many, many, people who saw 60 Minutes last night.

Needed, a fresh start: This is a problem the VCs statement alone will not solve – it will take time and a great deal of effort. In the first instance perhaps Professor Høj’s departure at the end of the month will be a circuit-breaker.

His resignation has nothing to do with this matter – in May 2019 he announced his decision to leave in a year. And Chancellor Peter Varghese says Professor Høj had no role in the misconduct process against Mr Pavlou. But the VC is now associated with everything related to the university’s connections with China.

Right person for the job: In-coming VC, Deborah Terry is arriving from Curtin U and has no skin in the game. But she has helped Uni Queensland out of a reputational hole before.

Professor Terry was at Uni Queensland  when Vice Chancellor Paul Greenfield left in 2011. The university had enrolled a member of Mr Greenfield’s family in medicine, who the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission concluded, “did not satisfy the entrance requirements for the course.”

Professor Terry had nothing to do with the scandal  and became acting VC after Professor Greenfield’s departure, calming campus disquiet, working to focus attention on the university’s research and education achievements.

Now she gets to do it again.