The management of the University of Queensland, and in particular Peter Hoj and Peter Varghese, stand condemned today by the international media, by both Labor and Liberal politicians, by both left-wing and right-wing Australians, by its own students, and by the powerful pro-American lobby. They unleashed a shit-storm on themselves today by their decision to suspend Drew Pavlou for 2 years and thus oust him as student representative on the UQ Senate, as well as make it impossible for him to finish his studies.
I have talked about the intricacies and wider politics of this cases before, and in a recent comment I analysed the particulars of the shit-storm and how UQ management has effectively already admitted defeat today.
Here I want to talk about how the University of Queensland, where I worked for more than 6 years and where I still have friends and colleagues, can truly recover. Let’s first scope the full extent of the scandal and the two paths the university can now take: a cosmetic make-over that will leave the corrupted structures in place and will hence just mean another scandal in 5 to 10 years time, or a real radical clean-up that would restore UQ as a place of real learning and debate. Obviously the cosmetic make-over is the far more likely course of action, but the radical clean-up is the better course of action in the longer run, even for the interests that currently control the university, so I want to sketch that one too.
Let’s first think about the scope of the scandal. Being condemned by the whole of the Western world, exposed as a place that has totally lost its values and its way, is no small matter.
The current condemnation is much bigger than the one around the corruption scandal with the previous vice-chancellor, Greenfield, who secured his daughter an undeserved place in the medical school. That scandal opened the way for Peter Hoj who promised to clean the place up and instead joined in with all the shenanigans. He set up an internal police to subdue any dissident academic and student voices, a police force that wrote the 186 pages on Drew. He looked after Greenfield in retirement via helping with lucrative commissions and places on the various companies and organisations controlled by UQ. He set up even more management layers than UQ already had, and, as many now realise, sold out completely to the Chinese Consulate.
Within a few weeks or so, I think the following is what the picture of UQ management will look like to Australians in general, including in Brisbane itself:
- The management of Queensland’s premier university sold out to a foreign power for money, a foreign power that has just enacted a controversial new law regarding Hong Kong.
- UQ management allowed that foreign power to violently suppress peaceful pro-human rights rallies and pro-democracy in Hong Kong demonstrations on campus.
- It allowed that foreign power to dictate the content of courses related to China, to vet the academics teaching it, and to control Chinese students on campus.
- UQ management hence abandoned Chinese students critical of the Party, Australian students, any human rights principles, any usual academic standards, any notion of free speech, and any form of independence.
- In order to be able to make such a Faustian bargain, UQ management needed absolute control. It had achieved this by systematically suppressing academic independence and student free speech for many years, such that the academics and students felt intimidated enough to just go along with anything management wanted. If you need proof of this, just ask yourself the question where you can read the voices of UQ academics critical of Hoj’s handling of the case. Till very recently, there were almost none because they are far too afraid, having seen what happens to dissenters many times in the last 10 years. Also, there is no more obvious token of the conversion of a once-proud university into a subdued unethical fiefdom than the fact that though Peter Hoj arrived as merely a vice-chancellor, he has now given himself the title of President of UQ.
I think all this will be publicly known soon and accepted as the lay of the land, seen widely as a problem that should be fixed. There are much deeper problems though, extending far beyond the current management group, which will not be so visible and hence will not be part of the thing that is asked to be fixed. Those much worse and deeper problems are listed later on.
Now, the cosmetic solution to these five visible problems is to scape-goat Peter Hoj, get rid of any overly visible Chinese Communist Party influence on the UQ campus, and otherwise continue to pretend UQ management is not bullying its academics and students into continued submission.
That cosmetic makeover would minimally mean taking away the honorary academic title given to the Chinese Conculate General, a man with a background as a police officer, not an academic. It would mean promising to get rid of the Confucius Institute on campus as soon as is legally possible, but reducing its power over UQ academics and students immediately. This would entail not letting that Institute decide on the content of course material, getting some outside academic group to judge the content of China-related courses, and actively outlawing violent pro-Party activities on campus.
Otherwise, not much would change except for small changes in personnel and rhetoric. Hoj out, probably Varghese out, followed by a “fresh team” in of people who can be trusted to keep happy all the current interest groups who have their claws in the place. The new team would come in with lots of promises and noise, announcing to do lots more “human rights initiatives” (like those “Paris principles” UQ just signed up to), meanwhile doing the exact opposite, just like Peter Hoj himself did when he arrived there about 8 years ago.
Behind the scenes in this scenario, UQ management, and particularly its next vice-chancellor would try and patch up relations with the Chinese consulate as much as possible to still attract new Chinese students, though of course also trying to diversify the foreign student portfolio. So they wouldn’t say anything negative about the Consulate but simply talk of “taking away any possible impression that…”, “representing various views on campus….”, “fully respecting free speech of course…” and all the other blabla that comes with saving face.
An on-campus police would continue to exist to terrify the UQ academics, who have been understandably silent during the whole Drew Pavlou affair, totally cowed and intimidated as they have been for years. There would certainly be no return of free speech for academics, though students would be allowed a bit more leeway.
This has got to be the front-runner in terms of what happens next at UQ: an embarrassed Brisbane elite organising a cosmetic make-over for UQ, meanwhile ensuring little really changes. It is politically the route of least resistance.
What would a complete overhaul mean? To see what it would take, one needs to realise some of the deeper problems that now exist at UQ:
- UQ owns a lot of property throughout Queensland and has set up side-firms and organisations to manage that property, which means it has become entangled in the property mafia that is very connected and powerful in Queensland, something I wrote about with Cameron Murray in “Game of Mates”. This property has spawned a group of ex-UQ administrators who administrate and get rents out of all that property and who are invested in the question of who will run UQ next.
- The UQ campus has made property deals with developers and business people who run the student dormitories on that campus. This is big business worth hundreds of millions, of which the university gets a slice. It means there is a whole set of legal obligations and business networks around UQ management that would drag many a well-meaning administration into the mud, let alone a management that is more than happy to start in the mud from the get-go.
- UQ has made deals with foreign universities (like in China) to send it students on which a lot of money is made. Similarly, it has made deal with language-provision companies, insurance companies, legal firms, and lots of other commercial entities in Brisbane who make money from servicing foreign students and doing other business with the university. This too provides a very corrupting force on any UQ administration because it gives so many opportunities for getting bribes, lucrative positions, cosy commissions, board jobs for retired UQ administrators, etc. It also means those outside companies, including many of the top legal firms in Brisbane, have an interested in continued business with the university, which gives them an interest in resisting any true attempt at a clean-up.
- UQ has made implicit deals with Brisbane politicians not to rock the boat on whatever those politicians do. That is what my own case of 5 years ago so clearly revealed, when the University did the bidding of the council in suppressing research into racism on council busses, but by now its a worked-out system. So UQ academics are prevented via all these bogus “ethics committees” from looking at serious corruption of Queensland politicians and civil servants: essentially the “ethics rule” that is now enforced is that the corrupt have to agree to be researched. Some ethics! This system gives Brisbane politicians a strong incentive to want another corrupt management team to take over from any previous set at UQ: the Brisbane politicians strongly fear a truly independent academia in the middle of the city. They might just do what a crime-and-corruption commission should do in Queensland but has been prevented from doing for over a decade. Corrupt local politicians need a corrupt and docile local university.
- There are many skeletons in the cupboard, including lots of UQ academics who took UQ to court for bullying. One cannot run a local dictatorship without forcibly shutting up the mavericks and the brave. UQ management has a whole list of people it has bullied over the years, and then had to fend off in the courts or compensate them to keep quiet. This is now oddly enough a protective layer for UQ management as well: if UQ truly cleans up, those skeletons will come back to haunt them. Openly acknowledging the bullying of the past would be a costly legal liability for any new management and would suck up a lot of time and effort, easily portrayed in the media as the failure of a new management. Not openly acknowledging correctly means perpetuating the system of the past, particularly since it is ultimately the Queensland government that would have to pick up the tab of any UQ bankruptcy (UQ exists by an act of parliament).
In short, UQ management is but the tip of the ice-berg of a totally corrupted system that encircles and constricts the University of Queensland. The corrupt network encircling it includes a whole network of interested top-politicians, property developers, former UQ-managers, interested professional bodies (lawyers and medics in particular), and others. Exactly the group that would decide how to actually “clean up” the University of Queensland in the Drew Pavlou affair.
I hope you can thus see why it is so unlikely that the present scandal will lead to a true clean up of the problems with the university and why hence a cosmetic make-over is so much more likely: most of the big movers and shakers in Brisbane have a lot to lose from a real clean-up. They might make room for the pro-American anti-CCP lobby that wants Party influences gone from the UQ campus, but that’s not the same as letting go of their investments entirely.
Let’s dream a little though and think of some of the moves needed to truly clean up UQ.
Obviously, it would need a whole team to come in, breaking down a lot of the previous control apparatus and working its way through new institutions and habits on campus. It would need unprecedented powers to sever previous contracts, including labour contracts, and to re-arrange the campus physically (those dorms!) and intellectually (those ethics rules!).
Frankly, such a thing could not be contemplated without real backing from the very top of Queensland and Brisbane politics. They would have to enact laws specifically designed to make the clean-up possible, such as breaking up many of the property deals and other legal obligations that would keep UQ in the mud. These politicians would have to own the new narratives and being ok with the new scrutiny that they themselves would fall under if a real university would once more arise in Brisbane.
This is basically unimaginable at present. Though I desperately want it, even I can’t see it as a remotely realistic option. There is no appetite for it that I can see in the Brisbane elites, as one can gather from the quickest of glances at how the Brisbane Times is reporting the Drew Pavlou case.
The underlying problem, which is that of a totally corrupted layer running UQ and having many unseemly relations with big interest groups in Queensland, would persist and would thus ensure new scandals in the future as the next group of leaders becomes just as arrogant and dictatorial as the current mob. That machismo will inevitably over-reach itself, as it has done the last two administrations, leading to the next scandal. It is in the nature of local dictators to push the boundaries of their fiefdom, convinced of their own greatness and invincibility, till they run out of luck.
The previous vice-Chancellor Greenfield came up against the medical profession that resented the dilution of their educational reputation by having entry into the medical courses corrupted. Peter Hoj came up against an energetic innovative campaigner serious about human rights, who to his own surprise was backed up by powerful interests. So in both cases, an insular UQ management mob came up against the reality of outside forces they underestimated because they had gotten away with so much previously.
The next mob will surely be just the same, so it will be a cosmetic makeover followed by repression and corruption as usual for the next few years. It will remain painful for any real academic to be at UQ. But at least I now do think they will get the pleasure of more robust student protests on campus. Maybe those students will start to do the research and investigating that the academics are prevented from doing? Now, there’s a thought….
And what will happen to Drew Pavlou? They’ll reinstate him, hope he finishes his studies soon, suffer his antics whilst grinding their teeth, count the days till he leaves UQ, and then build him a statue once he is gone and can no longer actually bother them.