QUT Acting Vice Chancellor defends actions in suspending academics

June 18, 2007

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)
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

Another QUT academic speaks out

June 18, 2007

This commentary was posted at ABC Online by Phil Castle, a colleague of Hookham and MacLennan. I’ve reposted it because several comments on my blog so far have criticised the stand I’ve taken in support of two people who I respect immensely. OK, so I’m in Auckland and not close to the action, but Phil Castle is right there. The comments on Phil’s original post are also worth checking out from the link above.

Fear at QUT
By Philip Castle
Recently, I asked a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Creative Industries colleague about the “Laughing at the Disabled …” debate. He said: “I can’t say anything.” I said: “Why?” “The MOPP doesn’t allow me,” he said. MOPP is the Manual for Policy and Procedures at QUT.
I said: “I don’t recall ever relinquishing my rights to free speech when I began working at QUT.” He said he couldn’t comment, but the facts hadn’t properly come out. I asked what facts? He was clearly reluctant to talk. The one he mentioned; he was wrong.
On June 8 two QUT senior TV and film academics Drs Gary Maclennan and John Hookham were found guilty of misconduct and given six months immediate suspension without pay.
Dr Maclennan has been at QUT (previously QIT) for 32 years. They criticised a PhD candidate’s footage about two disabled men at his confirmation in March and then wrote a joint article in The Australian on April 11.
They also criticised the supervising academics and the ethical clearance process for not engaging the disability community first. Dr Maclennan has since unreservedly apologised to the PhD candidate.
My colleague said QUT and the PhD student had not told their side of the story. I said the student has had many opportunities. I had even given his telephone number (from on-line) to journalists, with his knowledge and he still declined.
The PhD candidate won’t show his section of the film now either (I have asked) which he showed at his March confirmation and at two successive first year lectures to over 100 students in early May.
This was where the two men with mental impairment portrayed in the film were also present, unbeknown to the audience, until afterwards. He again showed the footage of an Aboriginal woman in an alleged amorous drunken state; three weeks after the critical article in The Australian.
International QUT Norwegian student Atle Nielsen was at the Foundations of Film and TV lecture in N Block on May 2. He said: “I didn’t and couldn’t laugh at the scenes and was very sorry for the two young men when they came down at the end. It wasn’t right. I work with handicapped persons in Norway and it’s wrong.”
QUT has unwittingly created a climate of fear where academics feel they either can’t or won’t be able to express a view. Obviously two who did, whether rightly or wrongly, have now paid a hefty price.
The punishment is not proportionate to the alleged offences and almost unprecedented in Australian universities. The penalty is about a $50,000 fine and an almost enforced resignation. It gave the story “legs'” as journalists say. An unpleasant legal stoush is almost guaranteed.
If as Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Coaldrake says, it is not about freedom of speech, but misconduct towards a student and colleagues, then certainly that message hasn’t reached my fearful colleague.
It is about free speech as The Australian’s article obviously upset QUT. A senior QUT academic said to me early in the debate, “…and they have done it twice” ie they have written twice to the newspaper and by implication now they have to pay.
QUT is a great university of which I’m generally proud. Its successful PR slogan is “QUT: The University for the real world.” I can’t judge if the “Laughing at the disabled …” clips are reasonable because I’m not privileged to view them.
The ethical processes used appear superficial. I know QUT could solve part of the damage if it engaged the disability community experts to assess the project.
If QUT doesn’t act soon, it will become internationally known as “QUT: the university which laughs at the disabled.” How very sad for such a fine university.
– Philip Castle is a journalism lecturer at QUT, former print journalist and former head of The Australian Federal Police PR