QUT Acting Vice Chancellor defends actions in suspending academics

This is a response from Professor David Gardiner, acting V-C at QUT, posted at ABC Online. I’ve reposted it here in an effort to be “fair and balanced” about this debate.

First Posted: Saturday, June 16, 2007 . 2:38pm –>Last Update: Saturday, June 16, 2007. 2:38pm (AEST)
OPINION
Facts missing
By Professor David Gardiner

There are some important facts missing from the current debate about a research project being undertaken by a PhD student in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
The research project is in its early stages. A further two years of work will be undertaken on this project before it is completed.
As is usual practice in doctoral research, the student made an initial presentation to his confirmation panel about his project.
The seminar was presented under the working title, “Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains”, which was subsequently formalised as “Laughing with the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains”. This latter title was the title of the project approved by the QUT Ethics Committee in October/November 2006.
Either title can be construed as provocative. Unfortunately, current concerns have focused on an interpretation of this title and not on the content or aim of the project.
Below is an extract of the student’s summary of the research work:
“Increasingly comedy writers and program makers are drawing on strategies which confront and shock an audience so that the humour arises from a mixture of audacious surprise, embarrassment and even outrage. Such humour drives the films such as Borat and TV series like The Chasers War on Everything, The Office and Extras.
“In our laughter we often laugh with those affected but at times a line is crossed and we can find ourselves laughing at the characters, their predicaments and the crass impacts they are having on others.
“This study is about that line, how it shifts and the difficulties that program makers have in negotiating it. It is an investigation of the principles of contemporary comedy on film and the way program makers balance confrontation with empathy, giving offence with the warm laughter of recognition, and entertainment with irony which exposes human complexity.
“My study does this by employing two remarkable men with disabilities and aims to create, through laughter, insight into their unique contribution to Australian society and the values we hold.
“The project was developed in consultation with the disability group, the Spectrum organisation, the parents and advocates of the two men, and the men themselves. It has also been overseen by an external disability consultant.”
Disciplinary action
Following the presentation and subsequent actions, a student and staff made formal allegations that two QUT academics had breached the university’s code of conduct.
The university convened a three-person committee comprising an external party and two senior academics to investigate the misconduct allegations.
The committee found that a breach of the code of conduct was proven in relation to each of the allegations made. The disciplinary action taken by the vice-chancellor is within the range of disciplinary measures available under the code for such breaches.
Research project ethics
Projects that involve humans require ethical clearance in accordance with the guidelines published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
In response to complaints about the project, QUT instigated a review of the ethics approval process by the University’s Human Research Ethics Committee, which applied the NHMRC guidelines.
QUT convened an audit committee to determine if, in the initiation, structure or conduct of the research to date, any breaches of the ethics code have occurred.
The five-person committee included an independent member who was part of the Commission of Inquiry into the actions of Dr Jayant Patel.
The committee also comprised three senior QUT academics who were in no way connected with the student or the research, including two members with expertise in psychology and in human services.
The panel found “no evidence of harm, discomfort, ridicule or exploitation to the participants, (names withheld), as indicated by the letter of complaint”.
The panel noted “the positive enthusiasm of the participants involved, their treatment with dignity and sensitivity, and the warm way in which they were welcomed into the particular community where filming had occurred”.
The panel found “no major grounds for objection in either the manner of application, review and approval; or in the conduct of the project to date”.
Further, as part of this investigation, QUT asked an independent psychologist specialising in the disability field to comment on the cognitive abilities of the two disabled men.
On the basis of her opinion (derived from interactions with the two men), and the range of other evidence available, QUT is of the view that the men understand the project, are willing participants and are deriving benefit from their involvement.
It is also important to note that the individuals who are the key participants in the PhD study provided written consent to be involved in the project and had previously both appeared in a four-part documentary series called Unlikely Travellers which the PhD student directed and produced in 2005/2006.
The fact that the two individuals have wished to participate in the study and that informed consent has been obtained from them and their parents/guardians does not appear to have been widely publicised in any of the discussions regarding this issue.
QUT’s role
In its approach to the research and the subsequent allegations made by a number of parties, QUT has conducted itself in accordance with the rules and regulations that govern such matters.
It has done so in an impartial way and using appropriately qualified and unbiased people. Where allegations have been proven action has been taken in accordance with documented measures.
QUT is at pains to ensure that the rights of all students, staff and other people involved, are protected. QUT does not support the exploitation of any person or party. This is evidenced by the way in which the university has gone about its investigations and hearings.
Universities are places where research can be conducted that may be sensitive or controversial. Any such research needs to be balanced with legal obligations and ethical considerations, while providing scope for academic freedom and the democratic principles of freedom of speech.
Achieving this balance requires all parties to conduct themselves in a responsible, respectful and scholarly manner.
Based on the ethics committee findings, QUT believes the research project has been publicly misrepresented, to the detriment of the university.
QUT takes its role seriously and remains firmly committed to the principles of ethical research and freedom of speech.
– Professor David Gardiner, acting Vice-Chancellor, Queensland University of Technology

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