Israel's cheer squad (Part 4): Whither Sydney University

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The culmination of the Richard Kemp brouhaha is that the Israel cheer squad remains firmly entrenched at Sydney University, with the "anti-Semitism" masquerade against critics always at the ready, writes Dr Evan Jones.

Wither Sydney University?

Israel's cheer squad (Part Four)

Read: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Sydney University caught in a funding – integrity impasse

Is there an ethics gene somewhere behind the sandstone walls of Sydney University?

A recent ABC Four Corners program (20 April) highlighted that admission of ill-prepared students from China into Australia’s tertiary sector is widespread. Unethical recruiting agents facilitate a corrupted process. Sydney University is amongst those institutions in the mix. Sydney University was also amongst those whose management declined to respond to the serious issues raised.

The problem has not arisen the day before yesterday. Over 15 years ago, lecturers in the large introductory classes in Sydney University’s commerce degree, confronted with growing classroom and assessment dysfunctionality, were raising concerns over this problem. The then dean of the Economics & Business Faculty declined to take note or to act. There is nothing more oxymoronic than "business ethics" courses in such faculties.

The University centre, whether it knew or not, was thankful for the significant revenue streaming into the coffers from that faculty. Business has thus continued as usual.

Then there was the issue of the proposed invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak at Sydney University in late 2012 – early 2013. The proposal came from the University’s then Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

As we know, the Dalai Lama is persona non grata with the Chinese establishment. Those involved in the invitation claim that the University first gave the go-ahead and then withdrew approval (Honi Soit, 21 April 2013). The University denies the claim (17 April) — which looks fishy. Then we discover that the 'University has a change of heart' (ABC, 23 April).

The stakes are high. Not merely sizeable sums emanating directly from Chinese sources, but also the huge ongoing revenues from Chinese student enrolments.

The more successive federal governments cut tertiary institution funding (directly and via research grant funding), the more universities are susceptible to compromising their integrity in the search for the Holy Dollar by facing tied requirements (explicit or implicit) from funding sources.

In late May, Sydney University accepted a $1.3 million donation from Blackmores, manufacturer of pills for make-believe dietary deficiencies, for naming rights for a "Chair of Integrated Medicine". 

The University as an institution is inevitably politicised.

In late 2014, Sydney University heralded that it was reviewing its investment portfolio, particularly with a view to disinvesting in coal production. In the new year, the University stepped back from targeting coal explicitly, replacing the prior strong stance with the woolly commitment to reducing the institution’s ‘overall carbon footprint’ (ABC News9 February 2015).

Some time ago, the University, after fierce internal debate, disinvested from tobacco. But the current language is ambiguous; a carbon footprint pervades the big players in the ASX All Ordinaries Index, and the University’s commitment may disappear into the hot air ether. Acquiring and adhering to principles is a costly business.

The Sydney University – Israel cheer squad embrace

With respect to the Israel cheer squad, the issue is probably unique.

The Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund (SZCUF) was established to fund exchanges between staff and students of Hebrew University and Sydney University, especially in the medical arena. Zelman Cowen was an Australian icon in his stellar career. But he was a committed Zionist, and it is his Zionism that lies behind the establishment and orientation of the Fund.

Hebrew University is embroiled in the ongoing Occupation. As noted, six of the signatories of the anti-Lancet petition – offering unstinting support to a state involved in racially-based mass murder and crippling debilitation of the survivors – are from Hebrew University. Four of the six are accredited to Hadassah University Hospital, integrally linked with Sydney University’s SZCUF. The signatories of this petition from Sydney University include eminent neuroscientist Professor Jonathan Stone, who also acts as managing trustee of the SZCUF.

For all the formally productive academic exchanges effected, the SZCUF is intrinsically dirty money.

Sydney University management also facilitated the ‘University of Sydney - Israel Research Partnership Forum: Shared Challenges, Future Solutions’ in October 2011. Partial funding was provided by the SZCUF. The Forum’s co-sponsors included medico Professor Rebecca Mason (also a signatory to the anti-Lancet petition) and Suzanne Rutland, professor of hebrew, biblical and Jewish studies.

Professor Rutland was also a co-sponsor of the appearance on campus of Richard Kemp. Why Professor Rutland would care to sponsor an ex-military man whose publically available utterances on Israel’s treatment of Gaza are those of a mountebank is not immediately obvious.

In the early 2000s, a proposal was brought to the graduate studies board (of which I was a member) of the Economics & Business Faculty by the Department of Government & International Relations. The proposal entailed a course on terrorism, to draw on the “expertise” of an Israeli specialist, the costs to be partially met (as I remember) by the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce. The proposal was discreetly sidelined by the Board. Previously, a lectureship in middle east politics had been established, courtesy of funding (as I remember) from businessman Rodney Adler.  

A middle east politics course is no longer taught. Rather, in conjunction with the cognate Centre for International Security Studies (formed in 2005), there exist a number of courses on terrorism and international security — all of which (by title and summary) appear to be in the perennial “good guys vs bad guys” genre. Kemp’s stance fits this bill — hence the invitation for him to talk on campus.

Reining in the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

By coincidence, the University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) has been up for review and the review committee reported in March 2015. A juxtaposition of the report’s recommendations and CPACS director Associate Professor Jake Lynch’s submission to the review is instructive.

CPACS was created in 1988 and it currently survives on two ongoing (“tenured”) positions and a fixed term lectureship. With miniscule resources and contract staff, CPACS has performed miracles in teaching, publications and advocacy. Lynch has been trying for some time to obtain from the Arts Faculty a continuing status for the lectureship, without success.

In his submission, Lynch noted that the administration had failed to provide accurate figures on CPACS’ income, which

'... led to figures being generated and circulated that significantly understate the Centre’s true performance and give a misleading picture as to its financial viability and sustainability.' 

CPACS offerings had also been omitted from a recent post-graduate coursework marketing campaign by the School of Social & Political Sciences in which CPACS is located.

Lynch noted that a 2012 review of the School recommended that CPACS be absorbed within a large Department — but none of the players wanted it. Lynch emphasises the necessity of autonomy, including the retention of its separate physical location just off campus as reflective of its significant extramural activities. It is a request neither atypical nor unreasonable (the University’s Office of General Counsel, Lynch’s inquisitor, is just across the street!).

It is noteworthy how little respect the review committee has shown to Lynch’s experience and views as CPACS’ director. The report claims that CPACS is running a financial deficit (no mention of whether the figures can now be trusted), which must be readily rectified. Under the 2010 University Economic Model (UEM), all units must be financially self-sustaining, or else (face closure or absorption and rationalisation).

Nobody has highlighted that University management, by construction, generates no revenue and is therefore in permanent deficit. The deficit is stretched by gargantuan senior management salaries. The buck literally stops here! Management is intrinsically parasitic — so one would have hoped for a modicum of circumspection on this dimension from its incumbents.

More, in the Vice-Chancellor’s Michael Spence's latest instalment of his evident commitment to permanent upheaval in search of chimeric reputational rankings, he notes that

'We are also thinking for the first time about making strategic investment in certain disciplines.'

Presumably the UEM doesn’t apply in these instances. Some animals are more equal than others.

The CPACS report again recommends that CPACS be absorbed within a larger department within the School, both for administrative economies but also because CPACS has supposedly ceased to be distinct. The report ignores Lynch’s note that this option has already been mooted and rejected.

Says the report:

'Other areas of the School obviously have [staff, students and courses] with much in common, and no one individual or unit having a stronger claim on ideals of academic freedom, community engagement and advocacy, and ethical and moral ideals. Indeed a hallmark of the Faculty across the board is its explicit embrace of equity and social justice.'

These claims are simply fanciful.

Another recommendation is

“... that CPACS develop strategies to consolidate and extend its research performance, especially lifting the quality of its publication outputs.'

Here is an implicit criticism of the quality of current 'outputs' and the necessary discretion of CPACS staff to publish where they think appropriate. But the recommendation is also code (now common to the academy in general) for an imperative to publish in formally prestigious academic journals (generally North Atlantic) — outlets that carry the potential for the work to disappear into ivory tower obscurity with no broader impact whatsoever.

Finally, regarding 'advocacy':

'The Review was impressed by CPACS’s passionate espousal of its core objective of peace with justice, with its strong focus on advocacy.'

Yet, in language diplomatically opaque but comprehensible, the report recommends that CPACS tones its down, be nice to everybody (foremost, the Lobby) — in essence, preferably, shut up.

In his submission, Lynch singles out the Israel issue as a significant example of CPACS’ advocacy, giving its context and timeline.

After the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in December 2008 – January 2009, prefaced by its navy ramming the vessel Dignity, which prevented the delivery of much-needed supplies to Gaza, CPACS convened a meeting, to consider an effective response, to 'further peace with justice'.

Lynch notes:

Despite the UN investigation then underway, and the already-clear evidence of war crimes (later endorsed by the mission …), the Australian and other governments were showing little appetite to impose any form of consequences on Israel. The meeting heard that this was part of a much wider pattern, in which impunity was extended in the form of preparedness to carry on normal relations, as though nothing were amiss, at multiple levels – including academic collaboration through institutional links with Israeli Higher Education.

These were the subject of the [Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel] Call of 2005 – an appeal, by 170 Palestinian civil society groups, for impunity to be ended by initiative at levels below states and governments, including through the imposition of an academic and cultural boycott.

Lynch, mandated by the meeting, requested to the vice-chancellor that the University:

... revoke the institutional links between the University and Israeli Higher Education …. What is crucial, and should not be missed in this account, is that CPACS’ response to the boycott call is a form of advocacy for peace with justice, in furtherance of our constitutional mandate.

We did not adopt this policy to ‘help the Palestinians to win’, or to favour any particular ‘outcome’ to the conflict; but to even up the balance between the (as now) apparently risky, uncertain course of peace, and what appears to be the relatively low-risk recourse to military force, on Israel’s part – and to provide the Palestinians with an effective nonviolent means to pursue their legitimate rights and freedoms, as an alternative to violence.

The boycott is not, as some have suggested, instead of dialogue and conflict resolution, but an essential pre-requisite for them: critical to engendering conditions for productive negotiations, after decades of failure have showed the need for change to bring those conditions about.

Michael Spence declined the proposal.

It is also in this context that CPACS requested the University to call off the 2011 Israel Research Partnership Forum, without success.

Nailing down the elusive ‘academic freedom’ and its responsibilities

Spence’s position is articulated in a speech on 'Academic Freedom and Public Comment' in Singapore (an ironic location for such a topic) in March 2014.

Spence claims, inter alia:

I will ensure that, absent concerns such as public safety, academics are free to invite to the campus whomever they think has something important to say. [And the Dalai Lama?] I will not censure academics for visiting unpopular figures or taking unpopular political positions. I will not listen to calls from a national newspaper to silence academics, but neither will I listen to the calls of those academics that we should ban links with universities in a country with which Australia is in diplomatic relations. …

[However, a secular liberal university should] have standards for the conduct of conversation. … It should have a code of conduct for staff aimed at ensuring that the discourse of the University is, on the whole, consistent with the mission of the unfettered pursuit of the true and the good.

Admittedly, “academic / intellectual freedom” is a quagmire of philosophical difficulties. But what one does with an academic or visiting speaker committed to the unfettered pursuit of neither the true not the good remains unclear. Moreover, if the ethical bottom line is determined by the criteria by which Australia (or any country) organises is diplomatic relations, one moves beyond the spheres of intellectual integrity and of ethics to that of realpolitik.

Which is where Sydney University currently resides.

Meanwhile, a 26 May statement from Spence announced that:

'A number of members of the University community and the public were found to have engaged in unsatisfactory conduct, as a result of which disciplinary action, including counselling, warning and suspension of access rights to the University grounds have been imposed. University disciplinary processes are still underway in relation to five students (both protestors and members of the audience).'

One is not to know the nature of the disciplinary actions, nor if they are warranted or just.

An accompanying internal email noted:

'We must be a place where debate on issues of public significance can take place, and where strongly held views can be freely expressed on all sides. To do this, we must be a place where disagreements are courteous and respectful, and where those who protest respect the freedom of others to their point of view.'

Spence’s propositions are of an inclusive open-ended nature, save for the ambiguous but powerful caveat 'absent concerns such as public safety'. But few academics, the university community in general, subscribe to this universalist rhetorical flourish in practice. Spence’s proposition regarding open-endedness is a deceptive misrepresentation.

It is unlikely that anybody is going to invite to Sydney University anytime soon a vocal member of the Jewish Holocaust denial department. The ersatz scientist Dr Bjørn Lomborg (even with $4 million in potential baggage) is probably off everybody’s wish list as well. 

Ignoramuses are not appointed or invited on campus; neither are wilful ignoramuses. Ditto proselytisers with inhumane agendas. In general, that is. And if the tacit code is not adhered to, those taking umbrage should have no compunction (indeed an obligation?) to fail to show courtesy to such an appointee or invitee.

Courtesy to all and sundry opinions is not a primary desiderata in the academy. It is subsidiary to the desiderata of the pursuit of the true and the good. Those who seek to suspend intellect and morality don’t deserve courtesy.

Hence the disruption to Kemp’s presentation. Those who have been subject to disciplinary actions are the scapegoats for University staff and University management failing to acknowledge that some standards override some freedoms. The liberalist defence of freedom has always had its caveats.

In general, the culmination of the Kemp brouhaha is that the Israel cheer squad remains firmly entrenched at Sydney University; the "anti-Semitism" masquerade against critics at the ready.

By contrast, the future of the Centre for Peace and Conflict, an outstanding conscience of and for the University, remains tenuous. The University doesn’t want CPACS in its current manifestation. Nor does it deserve it.

The Kemp affair is not a demonstration of morality at work, but rather the enactment of a morality play. The feel-good factor is absent in the latter. It is clear that the serious education of students lies not purely in the substantive content of classes but more fundamentally in the politics of the institutional structure which channels that content.

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