Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Paul Mees exits the University of Melbourne

The decision of the University of Melbourne to demote Dr. Paul Mees after he publicly criticised a State Government Department report concerning the privatisation of transport in Victoria needs careful community scrutiny. The comments that Paul Mees made seem to be intemperate but perhaps should have been criticised on these grounds. There is no indication that his teaching and research were sub-standard. Instead the basis for the attempted demotion (he has subsequently resigned and gone to RMIT) seem to be that he offended a state government department and endangered university funding from this department.

I don't agree with many of Paul Mees' views on transport - I clashed with him once on the issue of congestion pricing - but he is a valuable member of the academic community who does maintain an academic focus on contemporary issues of transport policy.

University administrations are becoming increasing centralised and authoritarian at a time when private firms are becoming more decentralised and liberal. As every academic in Australia knows this is true everywhere - collegiality is dead. Maybe the University of Melbourne had good grounds for disciplining Dr Mees - I do not know all the background - but I have not heard these reasons. The notion that criticism of a state government department can lead to demotion within a university is deeply troubling.

It calls into question the whole critical function of a university and brings into focus the pressures that competing for research funds places on academic pursuits.

Update: This letter from one of Mees' colleagues shows there is concern that the action was political.

14 comments:

Spiros said...

"The notion that criticism of a state government department can lead to demotion within a university is deeply troubling. "

Harry, it's a morality play, and the moral is:

"Don't bite the hand that feeds you".

"It calls into question the whole critical function of a university and brings into focus the pressures that competing for research funds places on academic pursuits."

Indeed it does.

conrad said...

It's Stalin-land almost everywhere now, with all the consequences that come with it. This example shows just how far it stretches -- now you can't just not say anything contentious about your own university, but government organizations as well evidentally. It'll be interesting to see how far this goes, and whether people stop criticizing many of the contentious government things like public-private partnerships, big projects like the desalination plant etc.

Will said...

Does anyone actually know what was said about the report, to give this some kind of meaningful context. That Age article was useless.

rabee said...

I read both versions of the article in The Age and if there is any truth in the matter, then I think that the University of Melbourne has damaged itself.

One of the reason's that academic freedom is taken seriously in great universities is that serious scholars are engaged in university governance and university attitudes reflect this. Indeed, the burden of governance in great universities is shared among its scholars.

Australian university governance is almost entirely detached from the great wealth of serious scholarship being undertaken in universities.

Australia does not have a single great university because universities are administered in a way that is not in line with international good practice.

As an example, had a tenured teacher in a good North American university been demoted in this way, a number of the professorial committees that run the university would have launched inquiries and I suspect that the administrator who made the decision to demote the academic would have been disciplined.

There is an urgent need to have an independent inquiry into the demotion of Paul Mees. The issue is within the scope of the ARC because it simply cannot be funding institutions who's commitment to academic freedom has been questioned in such a public manner.

Spiros said...

"There is an urgent need to have an independent inquiry into the demotion of Paul Mees."

He's threatening to sue the university. If it gets the court, the case will be an independent inquiry, of sorts.

SInclair Davidson said...

"There is an urgent need to have an independent inquiry into the demotion of Paul Mees."

Yes, that is exactly right.

Anonymous said...

IF Paul Mees comments were defamatory of the Department of Transport public servant, then the matter should have been dealt with by the courts, not through a demotion by the university.

This is just another piece of evidence that University administrations in Australia are out of control. Deans intimidate staff for purely political reasons e.g. by threatening to cut loadings. Heads of school threaten to increase teaching loads for the same reasons.

Australian university administrators are not held in check in the way their American counterparts are. Top academics have not recourse or right to sanction.

Witness the crazy failed ventures e.g. UNSW's foray into Singapore, UNE's into Turkey. The list goes on. Money spent on buildings as monuments to administrators, and neglect in hiring quality staff.

It is time for a Royal Commission into the waste, corruption and intimidation perpetrated by the lesser minds at the top of our universities.

Sinclair Davidson said...

"It is time for a Royal Commission into the waste, corruption and intimidation perpetrated by the lesser minds at the top of our universities."

Agreed. Unfortunately neither the current nor the previous government have/had the political will to take on the Universities.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

Is there an alternative scenario?

Lets say Mees is a bit of an intemperate arrogant bugger lacking any social skills to students, staff and government. (just another aca really)

Theres a number of complaints about him from students staff and government.

He's already left UniMelb to go to RMIT

He claims he should be paid at Senior Lecturer class 5 subsection 6 for higher duties for his last six months. UniMelb says no you will be paid at Senior Lecturer class 5 subsections 4 for the last 6 months.

He goes to the Age - the Age as usual never lets the facts or any investigative journalism get in the way of a beat up.

So here we are.

Possible?

conrad said...

"Is there an alternative scenario?"

Yes, if all of those things were true (harassing students other staff etc. -- simply being anti-social is not exactly the least common thing on Earth in academia) Melbourne collects a file on him for all of these things, disciplines him, and takes appropriate measures if he does nothing. SHooting your mouth of on something you know about is one thing, harassement is clearly another. That he complains about government organizations should not come into it. The alternative is that lots of people with specialist knowledge say nothing when stupid things get done, and problems go forever.

At least area, the second of these is exactly what happened -- some of the best people in the world used to work in Australia, but no-one bothered to say anything about problems that the government was causing for about two decades (why cause yourself grief ?) -- and now you can see the long term consequences if you want.

conrad said...

Sorry,

that should say "my area".

Francis Xavier Holden said...

as in "does my area look big in these jeans"?

Study in Australia said...

Nice read. Very interesting. Is there any updates?

Anonymous said...

The case is interesting, but not surprising, given the arrogance of the affected party. Although he is often right, try telling Mees he's wrong and see if you get a civil debate. Members of the Planning Dept at UniMelb did not talk to each other for several years, and this attitude played a part.

That's really what upsets the academic system; arrogance and intolerance. That attitude will never convince transport planners to change anything.

Most interesting are the remarks of Nick Low, Paul's friend (former friend?) at UniMelb, who's letter damning him to the government for going too far were leaked to the Age. It's not just the central admin trying to protect its funding sources, methinks. Hypocritical.

Update: Mees is installed at RMIT and has released another unrefereed publication.