In the wake of the recent academic-freedom cases involving Safe Schools co-founder and academic Roz Ward (here, here, and here) and the journalism academic Martin Hirst, comes the decision that the Fair Work Commission (FWC) posted yesterday in the case of Frijters v University of Queensland.
As you may recall I wrote about this deplorable situation more than a year ago here on CET (for a refined version, see here) and suggested that UQ’s attempt to charge Professor Frijters — the 2009 winner of the bi-annual Young Economist Award of the Economic Society of Australia — with (serious) research misconduct and to suppress his, and his former student’s, research on racial discrimination on Brisbane public transportation, was ill-considered and that at that point already the University’s ongoing and drawn-out attempts to hang on Frijters those charges were at the minimum disproportionate to the facts then known and also apparently unduly influenced by Brisbane bus company Translink.
The University administration under VC Peter Hoj decided — for what now looks like poorly veiled punitive reasons –- to push on, finding in a March 25 2015 report by one Professor Wright that Frijters was guilty of misconduct and that disciplinary actions were warranted. This led Frijters on 13 April 2015 to make his application for the Fair Work Commission to deal with the dispute.
The DECISION that commissioner Bissett posted yesterday is a pointed slapdown for UQ and some of its top administrators. While couched in typical legalese, the commissioner does not mince many words given the restraint that her office and position require. On more than 50 dense pages, and no less than 379 detailled statements of fact, assessments, and decisions, she makes it very clear that the University systematically, and through-out the three-year saga, violated its own Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, and that these violations were substantial and in several cases prejudiced.
“ For the University to suggest that these are not fatal errors is to not give proper weight to the words of the agreement it has entered into with staff or a set of procedures it developed.”
Says the Commissioner, concluding:
“ I am satisfied that there were substantial flaws and a lack of procedural fairness in the process applied to Professor Frijters with respect to dealing with a complaint about the research.
 I am satisfied that the failures in the process, and hence the failure to apply the provisions of the 2010 Agreement properly are such and extend so far back that the entire process, including outcomes, is not reliable. There is no point in the process where it is possible to say that everything before that point in time was reasonable. The process was infected by error from so early on that the fairest thing would be to commence the process from the beginning again.”
The whole document makes for depressing reading and shows key admin players at the University have lost whatever compass, moral or of proportionality, one could and should reasonably expect. The document presents administrative arrogance of the kind that many academics here in Australia unfortunately have come to expect too often.
Again Commissioner Bissett does not beat around the bush (here and in many other places):
“ The 2010 Agreement and the research misconduct procedures have set out clearly how an investigation is to come about and how it is to be conducted. That the process and requirement may appear inconvenient or even if they are not fully fit for purpose in the particular circumstances does not give the University the right to alter those procedures. The procedures provide staff members with understanding and confidence in what is to take place. To vary from them so markedly is to undermine the importance of the 2010 Agreement entered into by the University freely with its employees. This is not something to be lightly put aside.”
I urge my fellow academics to read this document; who-dunnits and morality plays do not get much better.
What can we learn from the Frijters v University of Queensland saga?
First, discovery procedures such as FWC hearings are a beautiful thing.
Second, universities – even in the G8 – have more than their fair share of unscrupulous people who believe that under the cover of hierarchy and bureaucratic procedures they can act out any way they see fit. (I know, for many a reader here that is hardly a surprise.)
Third, for a leadership team that has been so clearly unmasked as being in contempt of its own agreements, it seems impossible to regain rapport with its staff members under the best of circumstances (such as an honest apology). The honourable thing to do seems to accept the finding (and for key players to take their hat).
Fourth, in  Commissioner Bissett notes that “It is not for the Commission to indicate the fairness or otherwise of Professor Frijters being put through the process again. That was always a likely outcome of the instigation of these proceedings.” It is to be hoped that the Commissioner is incorrect in that assessment and that those responsible for the ordeal they inflicted on Professor Frijters are not allowed give it another shot.
Fifth, Professor Frijters – at considerable costs to his health and also straight out-of-pocket and opportunity costs to himself – has provided us with a public good of considerable value. We should appreciate it. And learn from it. It seems about time to start a FIRE in Australia.
Sixth, every academic should be glad, and grateful, that an entity such as the FWC exists.