Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Graham Adams: Fear stalks Auckland University campus!

‘Progressive’ academics all aquiver before Siouxsie Wiles decision.

Last week, the NZ Herald published a very curious article about an “unsafe workplace”. You might have expected it to be about volunteer firefighters, or police dog handlers, or perhaps even nurses at the frontline of hospital emergency departments, where unruly patients regularly unleash violence on them.

In fact, it was Auckland University academics who, according to the newspaper report, “no longer felt comfortable speaking publicly or to media for fear of threats and harassment”.

More than 100 had signed an “open letter” to the chancellor and university council urging it “to provide immediate assurances regarding the safety of ourselves and our colleagues”.

The accompanying photo was of Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, who, the Herald journalist pointed out, had recently been involved in an Employment Court hearing, in which she had argued the university had failed to protect her from a “tsunami of threats” which had followed her public commentary on the Covid-19 pandemic.

One hundred and nineteen of her academic colleagues (including many who preferred to remain anonymous) said that, until the judge made a ruling, “We believe that there remains significant risk of physical, psychological and emotional harm to our colleagues who work in fields of research politicised in the current environment, and that this risk of harm in the course of doing their work remains to be properly addressed by our employer.”

The purpose of the letter being released while the judge is still formulating a decision in the Wiles case — and at a time when university staff will soon be heading off for holidays — has puzzled observers.

Was it an attempt to encourage the judge to shorten her own summer break so that a quick decision might ease the anxiety that is apparently afflicting so many academics?

Or was it designed to influence public opinion on the merits of the arguments made on behalf of Siouxsie Wiles in court?

Or perhaps, some have wondered, was it intended to bait the university into responding in a way which might harm its own legal case?

Highly experienced textual analysts have seized on key words in the letter — including the phrase “fields of research politicised in the current environment” to decipher what the academics actually meant. The “current environment”, they surmised, may be code for a new government taking office.

“Fields of research” that have been “politicised” might be an oblique reference to the “indigenisation” of universities and the push to make them “Te Tiriti-centric”, which proceeded apace under the Ardern-Hipkins government. Part of that concern will no doubt be that the election of the Luxon-led administration may ultimately mean university management will not be quite so indulgent of “fields of research” that result from mātauranga Māori being inserted everywhere, including in science courses, and the preference in funding given to applications involving Te Ao Māori.

Other paragraphs in the letter make this analysis seem highly plausible:

“As racist, transphobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic hate has been rising globally, we are particularly concerned for marginalised groups including Māori, Pacific, transgender and non-binary colleagues.

“We are also concerned that recent politicised conversation around gun control, free speech, and hate-speech legislation, as well as public questioning of equity-oriented initiatives in University education (such as MAPAS), is likely to embolden fringe elements.”

The references to free speech and hate speech perhaps get to the nub of the academics’ concerns. As part of its coalition agreement with the Act Party, the National-led government will amend the Education and Training Act 2020 to oblige “tertiary education providers receiving taxpayer funding [to] commit to a free-speech policy”.

For those without PhDs, this cri de coeur by progressive academic staff perhaps can be summed up as: “We are successfully dominating university policy right now, but god knows what will happen if the government gives carte blanche to deplorables by amending the Education and Training Act to insist on free speech!”

This narrative is designed to promote the idea that free speech and academic freedom will lead to minority groups within the university being “harmed”. Of course, racial vilification and harassment — along with other forms of “unacceptable discrimination” such as sexism and ageism — are already prohibited in Auckland University’s official policy. And to imply that the extremely generous entry scheme for those with Maori and Pasifika ancestry (MAPAS) should be beyond criticism is astonishing.

The assertion that “recent politicised conversation… is likely to embolden fringe elements” seems to be a euphemism for “a change in government policy will bring all the nutters out of the woodwork”. Exactly why being able to discuss the laws around gun control, free speech, and hate-speech legislation would have that effect is not made clear. In fact, advocates of free speech will argue that being allowed to speak openly about such matters acts as a pressure-release valve for pent-up tension.

Overall, the letter appears to be a request for the university to actively shield from criticism those who advocate for “progressive” programmes that put equity considerations above equal opportunity and promote advancement via identity rather than merit. In short, it appears to be a barely veiled plea for the university to curtail free speech and maintain the status quo.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 21st century university if influential staff members weren’t hostile to free speech and true diversity of thought. It’s not as if the debate is peculiar to New Zealand. Arguments about equity and equality are raging in the US after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action programmes in June on the basis of a constitutional amendment that prohibits discrimination based on race.

Unfortunately for the open letter signatories, their public plea for protected speech on pet topics comes at a very bad time given prestigious US universities such as Penn State, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are embroiled in Congressional criticism for their evasive responses over Hamas’s attacks on Israel and its retaliation.

The Wall Street Journal described the problem as the “extremely asymmetric application of free-speech principles. For years these schools… have actively suppressed ideas disagreeable to the progressive worldview of their administrations, faculties and hard-core student activists.”

It’s certainly easy to see how a formal commitment to freedom of expression at New Zealand universities will make it difficult for their resident social activists to continue to use online bullying and the thug’s veto, which has seen feminist campaigners such as Speak Up for Women refused the right to speak at Massey University — not to mention former Reserve Bank governor and National Party leader Don Brash also being de-platformed there.

Reading last week’s open letter it is impossible, of course, not to recall another letter signed by more than 2000 academics in 2021.

That letter — whose first signatories were Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles and Professor Shaun Hendy — was a legitimate, albeit poorly argued, response to a polite letter published in the Listener in July that year. Titled “In Defence of Science”, it was signed by seven eminent University of Auckland professors.

They argued, respectfully, that Māori knowledge did not deserve to be given equal status alongside science in the school NCEA syllabus, as a government working party had proposed.

They acknowledged that mātauranga Māori was “critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy” but asserted that “in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself”.

However, Dr Wiles also sent an inflammatory tweet: “Calling all academics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Add your name to the open letter if you are also appalled by that letter claiming to defend science published last week in the NZ Listener. It’s caused untold harm and hurt & points to major problems with some of our colleagues.”

At that point, in many people’s minds Dr Wiles had crossed a line into encouraging what looked suspiciously like a pile-on against fellow academics with a view to silencing them.

The letter signed by the 2000 academics was only part of the tsunami of criticism the professors faced. They were also roasted relentlessly in legacy and social media for speaking out against apparently sacred beliefs about the value of traditional knowledge.

Their own Vice-Chancellor was described by eminent evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne as “demonising them” and a professor at Victoria University described them on Twitter as “shuffling zombies”. Some of the professors appear to have suffered professionally from the extensive backlash.

It has not gone unnoticed that a significant number of the 119 academics who were moved last week to tell the public just how very unsafe they feel also signed what has become known as the “Wiles-Hendy letter”. Oddly, they didn’t seem to be so concerned in 2021 about their seven professorial colleagues feeling “unsafe”.

One of those who signed both the Wiles-Hendy letter and last week’s effort had also tweeted in 2020: “When the [university staffing] cuts come, can we please not hang onto the white male boomer profs ‘because they bring in the $$$’? That would further entrench the biased system…

“White men are over-represented in the system. They also gets lots of $$ because funding is distributed in a biased way. It would be racist to retain white men at or beyond retirement age because it would reinforce the racist system.”

Some might think it takes an awful lot of chutzpah — or cognitive dissonance — for the author of such a tweet to publicly claim they are fearful of criticism when they have been so willing to call for colleagues to lose their livelihood on account of their age, race and sex.

Still, when people panic at no longer being able to call the shots, they do strange things.

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Anna Mouse said...

Harvard is now haven central for all things anti-free speech. The recieved a 0% rating in a poll on free speech in USA universities this year. Ardern fits perfectly with here recent speech about free speech....

They have a President who openly comes across as anti-semetic in a congressional hearing (along with the Presidents of MIT and Penn) and appears to have plagerised her work on her PhD. Even as of today Harvard refuse to condemn her as she is a 'high pedegree' minority...what ever that may be.

These people of course are hypocrites and they tend to hide within their sanctimony of righteousness never realising that the socialist utopia they so desire would see them being the first being lined up against the wall....

Some would do well to review the recent history of how Phol Pot operated his utopian hell.

Dr Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

It's a matter of largely incompetent political appointees clamping down on competent people who have risen to their positions under meritocratic rules.
It would be interesting to compare the IQ ranges of the two groups.

DeeM said...

You've got to feel sorry for Souxzeeeeee.
Not because people abused her for her hypocrisy over the whole Covid nightmare....and not because she literally tripped over herself to appear on national TV every chance she got to lecture us all.

But that her colour-blindness causes her to dye her hair shocking pink. Which for the rest of us causes some distress, discomfort, and often nausea. And that's before she opens her mouth.

Academics like Soooz want all the attention and the accolades but none of the criticism and accountability. Even when she spouts crap.

Sorry Soooz, it's time for you and yours to piss off into the educational wilderness. On the plus side, nobody will criticise you anymore because you'll be a non-entity.

Robert Arthur said...

From my conversation with sebnior university staff most are terrified of internal cancellation should they question current trajectories; external criticism alone a relatively insignificant consideration.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you ain't no Pink Floyd Wiles, but you do belong on the dark side of the moon!!

Peter said...

A very appropriate commentary Graham, thank you. And for something which is sub judice, it's not hard to see an underlying intent to influence the outcome by getting it out there and hopefully garnering some indirect support and showing that there's more than one who feels 'unsafe.' threatened

I expect I'm like many, in finding it hard to have any sympathy for the likes of Wiles, for there's that old saying about staying out of the kitchen. Anyone who makes statements about anything and therefore raises their public profile, needs to be prepared for the backlash, for there will always be those that take exception to anything.

One does have to wonder though, how the likes of Wiles would cope in the real world with a real job that has a public interface where those that you have to deal with can't be quite so 'controlled' as those in a lecture hall or a laboratory?

Graham Adams said...

Robert Arthur — Gee, that's a really interesting point. I should have put that in the column. Best, Graham

Erica said...

Covid isn't the only topic she chooses to prattle on about very publicly .
On RNZ , last year at midday she elaborated on the importance of women discussing climaxes more openly and gave very explicit descriptions.

I'm not a prude but Suze seems to be too happy about breaking social norms and conventions many people feel are very private and even sacred. There is a time and place for such discussion and public radio by pink wigged iconoclasts is not one of them in my opinion. I find this woman very very distasteful.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid it's a bit late to keep Siouxie Wiles "safe" as she appears to have lost her marbles some time ago, without, as far as one can tell, any outside assistance. I am embarrassed for her.

Kay O'Lacey said...

These pseudo intellectuals (thousands of them no less!) whose work has been dedicated to the foment of ignorance and discord have rotted from within the reputations of their universities. Too late they have awoken to the contradictions of their cause. Sooner rather than later, they will indeed be 'mugged by reality'.