Student Union Moves To Sack Whistleblower

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One of the country’s biggest student organisations will this week vote on whether to expel an elected student director from its board. The University of Sydney Union (USU) has announced that it will take action to remove its vice president, arts student Tom Raue, after he leaked parts of an internal document to student newspaper Honi Soit. The incident would perhaps pass as more unremarkable student politics, but the information leaked was not directly harmful to USU’s reputation or standing — it was harmful to the university’s. 

Throughout the year, staff and students at the university have been involved in various strike actions and protests, in an attempt to hasten negotiations on a new (and finalised) Enterprise Agreement. The police response was controversial. Students and staff reported serious injuries including a broken leg and a cracked rib.

Dale Mills, a former solicitor who now researches political protest, was present at the pickets and says the injuries inflicted by police were worse than those at the 2005 anti Iraq War protest, 2007 anti-APEC protests, and Occupy Sydney. The university responded with assurances that it exerted no influence over police actions.

According to the section of the USU report leaked by Raue, a USU staff member asked why police weren’t doing more to interrupt protesters at one particular strike. An officer replied that police were “not in a position to do anything but follow them [protestors], unless instructed otherwise by the university”. The information brought into doubt the university’s attempts to distance itself from police actions. Could the university have done something to prevent the violence that had occurred in other situations and did it bear some responsibility?

Instead of provoking a discussion over whether the university had successfully balanced its obligations to staff and students on both sides of the picket, Raue found himself on the verge of expulsion from his position on the USU Board.

The USU has accused Raue of breaching fiduciary duties and using information in an improper manner. Other directors declined to comment, but Raue proposed one explanation. “From the conversations I’ve had with members of the [USU] Executive, their main concern was preserving our relationship with the university,” he said.

The university has rejected this assertion and played down its interest in the fate of the USU’s vice president. “It is entirely a matter for the Union Board to determine how they deal with Mr Raue’s apparent breach of confidentiality but the university was not seriously alarmed by the story which appeared in Honi Soit,” Head of Media and PR Kirsten Andrews wrote in an email to New Matilda.

In spite of its assurances, it is difficult to believe that the university's consistent efforts to manage its image have not played at least some role in the USU’s decision. The organisation is forced to negotiate every year for a slice of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) and enabling criticism of the university could come back to haunt the board during those negotiations. One of the reasons the USU has thrived in recent years has been its success in this regard, securing a total of approximately $4 million from the 2013 SSAF pool.

Whether the USU was explicitly warned or not, its directors are aware that they operate within a university whose culture and practice often encourages the marginalising of dissent. This year, that culture has been on display.

When the new Enterprise Agreement was first presented to staff by the university’s management, a clause previously guaranteeing intellectual freedom was missing, only to be returned after widespread alarm. Months later, academics claimed heavy pressure was applied to prevent them from speaking out about the university’s decision to cancel a visit by the Dalai Lama, another decision reversed after public outcry. While some senior staff felt safe to voice public criticism, others who provided information to Honi Soit said they were in no doubt that their jobs would be on the line if they were identified by the university.

These fears are not imagined. The university’s code of conduct for staff includes a section on public comment. It mandates that “any public statement made by a member of staff should not bring the university into disrepute”.

According to Community and Public Sector Union branch president Grant Wheeler, “there’s a dangerous line there, because these things are always a matter of interpretation." The next clause in the code reminds staff such ambiguities can have serious consequences: “Staff should be aware that the university may take disciplinary action where this policy or the code of conduct have been breached.”

It’s not only those lower down the food chain who feel these pressures. Even once retired, members of the university senate refuse to speak in public about the institution, which is ultimately in charge of monitoring and authorising university policy. They say they are not adequately protected to do so.

This is the climate in which student organisations operate, and which forces them to think twice about public criticism. It’s the climate that led the USU to publicly congratulate the Vice Chancellor Michael Spence on his reappointment in 2012, in spite of the fact the he had spearheaded an effort to take over the Union’s outlets, a move that would have crippled the organisation.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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