Thursday, August 16, 2007

Liberal guilt

This blog has been rather quiet of late, for which I apologise. I have been caught up with the Paul Buchanan affair, in my other role as Craccum's News Editor. The piece below is from this week's Craccum.

Let's talk about sex. On the other hand, let's not; let's talk about Paul Buchanan instead.

We had thought that if anything were to be controversial about last week's Craccum, it would be the sex theme. After all, we had published illustrations of very unpleasant Japanese sex games and a photograph of a man playing with his inflatable animal toy. Instead, the media went wild about a news item concerning a sacked lecturer.

Admittedly, the lecturer was Paul Buchanan, who is well-known to the media as a commentator on international affairs. And Craccum did have something of a scoop: we published the email he wrote to a student which, as it turned out, was the cause of his sacking. But we were unprepared for the storm of media attention that this item created.

Since the original news story was published, we have spoken to Paul Buchanan about the email and about his dismissal. His response to being sacked was: "the punishment is grossly exaggerated, given the nature of the crime and given the fact that I’ve had no prior warnings of any sort and I’ve never had a student complain against me before, ever. So it was a one-off that seemed a bit excessive; but then again I was on the receiving end, so I would say that. "

About the email, Dr Buchanan said: "I realise that the original email was too harsh, it was angry and that was a mistake and I wrote her the next day, I apologised and I told her I was having a real bad day and I shouldn’t have lost my temper. She accepted the apology and we agreed that she would give in this late work at some time in the near future. After that acceptance of the apology, she went silent and then things got really, really strange. So from then on obviously there were other actors at play. I had no idea what happened, but I do think the fact that I expressed to her and to the university my very deep remorse and sorrow at doing such a thing would’ve been a mitigating circumstance, and there were plenty of others as well, and for the life of me I can’t explain why those mitigating circumstances weren’t taken into account. 

Dr Buchanan does not believe his email is an example of discrimination and racism: “No, on the contrary, the Western liberal guilt stuff, I was talking about myself, my own culture, I don’t have any Western liberal guilt, I’m sort of a hard person. As far as the culturally driven stuff, I thought at the time that she was preying on the fact that she was alleging that her father had died abroad, and I hear that all the time at the end of semester from international students. I hear it all the time every semester – relative dying in far-off places with no evidence of the death provided, and so I was in a particularly bad-tempered mood and so I wasn’t believing it, so that’s why I wrote what I wrote.

He added "My preference would be to settle it internally and be reinstated. Anything above and beyond that is up to the union. " Dr Buchanan suggested we speak to his representative at the Association of University Staff; we tried to do so, but our calls were not returned.

We also tried to get the other side of the story, that of the student to whom the email had been sent. She had forwarded Buchanan's email to us on 18th July, saying she found it offensive and hurtful. She asked us to print it so that students would be aware of the "institutional racism" at the University. After the story had broken in the mainstream media, we arranged a time with her for an interview. However, when that time came she did not answer our calls, although she did speak to the New Zealand Herald on the same day. The Herald story said she had complained to the university's mediation service and the Human Rights Commission because she felt Dr Buchanan's comment about her "culturally driven" reason for seeking an extension was racist.

The Herald also reports that Dr Buchanan had a broader concern with the quality of overseas students being accepted for his post-graduate courses. He says he had argued with Associate Professor Stephen Hoadley about this issue on the same day that he sent the email.

One of Dr Buchanan's former students, Darryl Godfrey MA(Hons) supports his concerns: "Paul is absolutely correct to speak out about the quality of international students coming here to do post-graduate study in an academic discipline that they have no previous training in. The mighty dollar side of the argument will win yet again because, it seems, money talks, not academic principles. It's deja vu for me from my days on the University Senate hearing the same arguments then. I had some good chats with Paul about the antics of the various University bodies over these matters. I can honestly say that he has very strong convictions on these issues and has a spine unlike many other people around the McIvory Towers. For that he loses. Where's the fairness?"

We have also heard from current and former members of the academic staff who have complaints about the University's methods of dealing with employment issues. One asked rhetorically: "guess which university has accounted for the bulk of Personal Grievance claims in the past few years? And pays out huge sums to settle out of court. A number of us have observed that the University does not make real attempts to redeploy staff in redundancy cases, but simply seeks to make a paper trail in case things come to court, and seems prepared to pay out large sums to avoid things getting into court.

Our source also observed that "the apogee came last year when some of my colleagues were declared redundant by the University, which then proceeded to advertise for people to teach in their areas while they were serving out their notice. The University said that they have to advertise 'vacancies' under the State Sector Act, but you may well ask how an employer can have a vacancy if it has employed someone to do the work that it is seeking someone to do!"

You can expect to hear more from revolting staff. According to our source, a group has been formed among academic staff to publicise the University's behaviour: "there is much more below the surface than I am letting on, and I suspect that it will come to the light of day in the near future"


Anonymous said...

In re Buchanan's claims of no prior warnings; I would suggest you try to get yourself a mole in HR. Rumour has it there is a substantial file of similar complaints about him and that this was simply the straw that broke said camel's back. The real story might well be why they hadn't sacked him prior.

Stephen said...

anon: two things come to mind. First, it really depends just what HR (or whoever) did with those complaints. The law is really clear on what you have to do to fire someone, and if they didn't follow that process, well tough, no matter how thick the complaints file. A thick complaints file and a claim of no prior warnings are not necessarily contradictory.

Second, I'm not sure that merely having a lot of complaints justifies firing an academic. It could be that a person IS a rude and abrasive arsehole, and yet also a good scholar and teacher. The standards of the service sector don't apply.

But we'll see. I'm sure there is a lot more to come out in this case.

George said...

Like Stephen above, I don't know the facts and am not prepared to make any judgement. And to reiterate Stephen's comments; this doesn't, and shouldn't revolve around someone's personality.

I would suggest though, that international relations, as it's practiced (rather than taught) is littered with rude and abrasive (and take your pick from other adjectives) bastards, and learning how to deal with them seems like a necessity if you're ever going to work in the field.

Neil M said...

Buchanan's dismissal is quite shocking. One gets the feeling that there just has to be more to this story. Trouble is the Uni's case is just this one email. If they have had other issues with Buchanan then they needed to have presented those, which they haven't. Suggesting they don't really have anything else.

The student sounds a bit flakey and Buchanan's frustration was probably well justified. "institutional racism", haven't heard that one for a while, she must have picked that up from one of the more fringe left groups.

My partner is an academic at Auckland and is VERY careful about how she responds to students who really should not be at university. These days students get rights and no responsibility.

Brett D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rhinocrates said...

Let's consider the story of someone known to me, who wishes to remain anonymous for the sake of a confidentiality agreement signed with their former employer:

"Re Auckland Uni's HR practices, I must say that it's hardly unique - McMassey has gained quite a reputation amongst employment lawyers as well.

"I and several other people I know are the financial beneficiaries of their determination to keep some truly abhorent behaviour out of court - and the press. Bullying and abuse of junior staff by management is rife, as are rorts and cronyism. As a former employee of that... er... "institution", I saw plenty of unqualified managers dumping excessive workloads on underlings, slidelining of OSH investigations that revealed safety violations, taking grants for conference trips so that they could just have holidays, systematically running down and sabotaging the courses, research projects, performance evaluations and personnel files of underlings who dared to be better than them and so on and so on - and from what I gather, a couple of years after having left, it's no better.

"I've had HR lackeys say straight to my face that they were there to serve the management only, even though they knew that these people were legal and financial liabilities.

"Dilbert is funny to read, but not to live - and my health has still not recovered. Yes, I got money from them, but it was because I was smart and kept files on their behaviour so that the risk of a court appearance scared the shit out of them. However, they tried their best to intimidate me and with many others who don't have a good union and who don't keep records, it works - so they keep doing it as a matter of routine.

"I hear similar stories from students too - incompetence, personal attacks, attempts at intimidation and finally, for the sake of self-defence, lawyers brought in... by those students who can afford to. As for those who can't, well...

"The fact is, cynical, incompetent university management have put money and petty personal power games ahead of scholarship and faculty and students are both suffering.

"Certainly there'll be a lot more behind Buchanan's sacking that we aren't hearing about."