Paul Mees: Statement on controversy at University of Melbourne
Notes from NTEU Academic Freedom Forum, Aug 2008
I believe I am the second academic to have been officially punished by the University of Melbourne for making controversial public comments in that body’s 154-year history. In 1898, the University Council censured its first Professor of Music, George Marshall-Hall, and in 1900 effectively dismissed him by not renewing his contract when it expired. Hall was accused of advocating free love and ridiculing the Church of England. ‘A frightened university had silenced a challenging voice’, say MacIntyre and Sellick in their ‘Short History of the University’ (MUP, 2003). The University later recanted, and in 1914 asked Hall to accept re-appointment to the position. He accepted, but died the following year.
My saga began 99 years later. In August 2007, the Victorian government announced its intention to continue with the private provision of public transport in Melbourne. The government defended the decision, stating: “an investigation by the Department of Infrastructure, independently reviewed and verified by Deloitte, also confirms that the current franchising arrangements have offered value for money in service delivery of public transport.”
The following day, I obtained a copy of the Department’s assessment. It hadn’t been verified by Deloitte at all, and (writing with all the restraint I can muster) could best be described as a whitewash. I attempted unsuccessfully to interest journalists in the story. The next day was August 23rd, and I was due to speak at a seminar organised by the University’s Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport (GAMUT). I was a partner in the GAMUT centre, and had helped organise the conference. To avoid creating embarrassment for the centre, I ensured that it was made clear in the seminar program that I was not speaking on behalf of the centre, but in my regular capacity as an academic.
At the seminar, I strongly criticised the Department’s report, and its principal author Jim Betts, then the Director of Public Transport (but since promoted to departmental secretary). There was no response from Mr Betts (he did not attend the seminar, but three of his staff did), or from Professor Nick Low, who is the Director of GAMUT and was advertised as such on the program for the seminar program, which he chaired.
As for what happened next, I am reconstructing events that occurred without my knowledge, and that in some cases I only became aware of after I was “convicted” of misconduct.
Apparently, the seminar podcast was placed on the GAMUT centre’s website in early October. On 11th October, the Department wrote to Professor Low and the Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis, saying I had defamed Mr Betts and demanding that the podcast be removed from the website. I understand that this was all Mr Betts wanted, and that he was surprised to later discover that the University had launched proceedings against me.
Nobody discussed these letters with me. Instead, Professor Low told the Dean of Architecture, Prof. Tom Kvan, that I had breached the GAMUT Centre’s “policy on public engagement”. I hadn’t: the policy expressly states that it only applies when people speak in the name of GAMUT, but I had no chance to point this out because the allegation was never raised with me. The Dean, unaware of the background because he never discussed the matter with me, failed to ask Professor Low the obvious question: if Mees’s talk was so evil, why didn’t you or Betts say anything at the time, and why did you podcast it on the website?
A couple of days later, the Dean referred me to the University’s personnel branch for investigation for misconduct. Since the story became public, the University has attempted to muddy the waters by suggesting that the real reason for prosecuting me was some terrible things I had done in the past – such as using the word ‘bullshit’ once during a staff meeting back in 2006. The fact that the matter was initiated immediately following the letter from the Department puts the lie to these claims.
On 19th November, Glyn Davis was the keynote speaker at the NTEU’s Melbourne forum on academic freedom. On 26th November, he published his address in Uni Voice. I read it, blissfully unaware of the moves being made against me behind the scenes, and thought how lucky I was to be at Melbourne University. On 29th November, the University sent me a memo advising that I had been charged with misconduct: I received it on 3rd December.
At the monthly meeting on 7th December, Professor Low announced that Jim Betts had agreed to be a partner with GAMUT in an Australian Research Council Linkage grant application.
On 20th December, I was given the chance to speak with the University’s appointed investigator. He sat quietly and asked very few questions. He left me ignorant of most of the allegations and “evidence” against me. My defence was that I had not defamed anyone, because what I said was true. Truth is a complete defence to defamation everywhere in Australia, thanks to national law reforms in 2005.
In February this year, I returned from holidays to be informed that I had been found guilty on all charges: the investigator said he “dismissed” my defence of truth. “Academics are entitled to be forthright in their views. But it is not their role to make allegations of personal misconduct or criminal conduct in a public forum.” Interestingly, these words correspond almost verbatim to the definition of “whistleblower” found in the Oxford and Macquarie Dictionaries. So it’s official: to be a whistleblower is misconduct at Melbourne University.
My penalty was to be demoted. I appealed, so the decision was not put into effect, but around the same time was offered a job at RMIT. I decided that regardless of the outcome of the appeal, I did not want to work for an organization that treated its staff so badly, and accepted the RMIT position. I gave Melbourne University four months’ notice of my resignation.
Four days before I finished work at the end of May, I was notified that the University appeals committee had upheld my appeal on procedural grounds. I was promised a copy of the committee’s report but have never received one, so I can’t be sure what the basis of the decision was. However, I understand it was based on my not having received sufficient notice of the charges and “evidence” against me. The Vice Chancellor told me that the ordinary course would have been to “re-try” me, but that since I was leaving the matter would be dropped. However, there has been no apology from the University: indeed, the contrary has occurred with repeated attempts to blacken my name by pretending the case was really about matters like my using the “b-word” once in 2006.
In an attempt to clarify matters, I have applied to the University for a copy of my file, under the Freedom of Information Act. The University has refused, claiming it would not be in the public interest for me to see my own file! This matter is currently before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
The main case is still being pursued through legal channels, because I don’t think action like this should be allowed to stand. The whole experience has been very stressful for me, but I have been buoyed by the tremendous support I have received from the NTEU, Melbourne University staff and students, and members of the public.
– Paul Mees, August 2008.
Paul Mees teaches and researches in the areas of transport planning and statutory planning at RMIT University, Melbourne. Before starting at RMIT in 2008, he taught urban planning at the University of Melbourne for 10 years, and before that was a Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Urban Research Program.