Australia: Australia's top academics call for Murdoch University to drop case against whistleblower - - PressFrom - Australia

Australia Australia's top academics call for Murdoch University to drop case against whistleblower

21:45  21 october  2019
21:45  21 october  2019 Source:

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a yellow school bus parked in front of a building: The academics believe Murdoch University's court action sets a © Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation The academics believe Murdoch University's court action sets a "dangerous precedent". (Supplied: Murdoch University)

More than 50 of Australia's most distinguished senior academics have signed an open letter calling for Murdoch University to drop its case against a whistleblower who raised concerns about international students.

Associate Professor Gerd Schroder-Turk is facing a cross-claim from the Western Australian University for costs and damages, which the university claims could run into the millions of dollars.

Dr Schroder-Turk, who also holds a position on the university senate, was one of three Murdoch academics who told a Four Corners investigation that they were concerned for the welfare of a group of Indian students who were failing courses in higher than normal numbers.

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The academic launched Federal Court action in May seeking an injunction to stop Murdoch University removing him from his senate position and reinforcing his right to academic freedom of expression.

Murdoch then counter-sued Dr Schroder-Turk for costs and damages last month, claiming international student numbers were down and the university's reputation had been damaged.

An open letter published today from 57 professors to Murdoch University vice-chancellor Professor Eeva Leinonen stated they believe the court action sets a "dangerous precedent for all Australian universities".

The signatories are all recipients of the prestigious Australian Research Council's Laureate Fellowship, and come from 15 universities across the sector in disciplines including arts, humanities, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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Quotes from the letter:

"It is a long-established principle of academic freedom that academics must be able to criticise university governance. This right is especially important where aspects of university governance might compromise the integrity of teaching and research."

"The claim for damages is highly intimidatory to all Australian academics and therefore risks the capacity of Murdoch University and all Australian universities to pursue excellence in research and teaching."

"We urge you to withdraw the claim, to settle any dispute without punitive measures, and to affirm the commitment of Murdoch University to academic freedom as an essential university value."

The letter comes after the Australian Institute of Physics and a coalition of 23 international academics issued public statements condemning the University's actions.

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One of the letter's signatories, distinguished Professor Michael Bird from James Cook University, told the ABC that academics have been disturbed by the case against Dr Schroder-Turk.

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"It appears to be more intimidatory than anything else. I'm a humble scientist. I don't ordinarily feel I should be doing this sort of thing, this was an exceptional case and and we felt that it required an exceptional response," he said.

Professor Bird said the group of academics don't know Dr Schroder-Turk personally but felt compelled to act after reading about the case.

"I do not understand how a university could think this was an appropriate action to take," he said

"Academic freedom gives people the right to query decisions that have been made and that's for the good of democracy in the same way that press freedom is there for the good of democracy ultimately.

"If that is eroded, that is not conducive to a healthy democracy and it really needs to be called out whenever it happens."

Dr Schroder-Turk's lawyer, Josh Bornstein from Maurice Blackburn, told the ABC his client remains undeterred despite the legal action.

"Look, he's very resolute and principled but at the same time … he's keen to let people know that this sort of behaviour by a university is out of bounds and is designed to intimidate and silence not only him but any other academics or staff members of universities," he said.

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"Obviously there is a David and Goliath dimension to this sort of case, where you've got such a big, well-funded institution which receives public funding and private sources of funds, attacking and seeking to intimidate one of its staff members."

Mr Bornstein said he's concerned about the implications of the case for employees considering speaking up about wrongdoing.

"It's unprecedented for an Australian university to do this, but it's a tactic that we have seen many times before where a corporate entity seeks to shut down criticism or exposure of wrongdoing," he said.

Paul Murphy from the journalist's union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), said public interest journalism relies heavily on whistleblowers and the case comes at a critical time for press freedom.

"We rely on the bravery of whistleblowers to come forward when they see issues of concern, when they see possible maladministration or corruption," he said.

"They're a vital source that feeds public interest journalism and the public's right to know.

"It's incredibly concerning because we've been talking about the culture of secrecy in government, it now seems that this is an indication that the culture of secrecy is seeping into other parts of our public life."

Students at Murdoch University are planning to hold a protest on campus this week.

Five thousand people have also signed an online petition calling on the university to drop the cross-claim action and conduct a transparent inquiry into the issues raised by Dr Schroder-Turk in the Four Corners program.

In the wake of the program, former Murdoch University Chancellor .

Murdoch University did not respond to a request for comment but has previously refused to comment on the case as the matter is before the courts.

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