University staff must find their voice, says Murdoch whistleblower

Reflecting on his legal ordeal, Australian academic hopes his experience will help cultivate a culture of speaking out

July 1, 2020
Murdoch Gerd Schröder-Turk
Source: Duncan Farrow
Vindicated: Gerd Schröder-Turk was penalised for criticising his employer on TV

A “whole spectrum” of options confronts university staff concerned about their institutions’ activities, according to Murdoch University mathematician Gerd Schröder-Turk.

“The first level might be finding the guts to say something in a meeting,” he said. “The next is to assert your opinion when others are trying to downplay it. The next is to put something in writing.”

Dr Schröder-Turk and colleagues Duncan Farrow and Graeme Hocking moved a step beyond that when they criticised Murdoch’s treatment of international students in a May 2019 broadcast of ABC TV’s investigative programme Four Corners.

They alleged that Murdoch was addressing its budgetary problems by accepting Indian students with inadequate English language capabilities, triggering a wave of cheating by ill-prepared and desperate students and putting their welfare in jeopardy.

While the three acknowledged that their intervention could jeopardise their careers, it was Dr Schröder-Turk – as the staff-elected member of Murdoch’s senate, the university’s overarching governing body – who paid a particularly heavy price.

The senate immediately moved to expel him, claiming that he had breached his duties as a member. After Dr Schröder-Turk took court action to prevent this, Murdoch retaliated with a cross-claim alleging that it had suffered “loss and damage” because of his commentary and seeking millions of dollars in compensation.

This triggered protests that Murdoch was using legal processes to stifle legitimate criticism. An open letter signed by more than 50 laureate professors urged Murdoch to drop the action, as did a public petition that attracted almost 40,000 signatures.

But Dr Schröder-Turk suffered largely alone because Western Australia’s whistleblower legislation severely constrains people’s ability to make public comment.

Australian National University chemist Vincent Craig, a former colleague of Dr Schröder-Turk, said that his friend endured an “enormous” potential personal toll. “Faced with an uncertain future, worried you might get sacked, the possible multimillion-dollar bill if you lose the case – a lot of people would have folded,” he said.

The worst of the ordeal passed in January, when the university said it would no longer seek damages. But Dr Schröder-Turk remained gagged until June, when all legal action was dropped.

In a statement, Murdoch said that it had “permanently withdrawn” the motion to remove him from the senate and he would remain a “valued member” of both the university and the governing body.

The university has also agreed to contribute to his legal and medical fees. “I’ve been getting some counselling,” Dr Schröder-Turk said. “I’m aware that I’ve been through a big thing.”

The episode has led Murdoch to revise its recruitment practices and promise a “comprehensive and independent review” of its governance. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency launched a compliance assessment of the university and has warned that it will closely scrutinise universities’ application of their English language requirements.

Dr Schröder-Turk hoped that his example would embolden others to “assert their voice” because staff in Australian universities, including staff representatives on governing boards, find it very hard to be heard.

“As people who work in academia, we don’t necessarily speak the language of governance,” he said. “We don’t naturally have the training to defend our core values. We are pretty good at living our core values, I think, but to defend them on principled grounds – academics often don’t have great experience or the time to engage.”

Dr Schröder-Turk was a relative latecomer to governance, drawn by his discomfort with Murdoch’s 2017 move to replace its enterprise agreement. He was concerned not so much about its implications for staff’s employment conditions as for academic processes.

He wrote a paper detailing his concerns and presented it to academic council, Murdoch’s principal academic committee. Later, when the staff elected representative’s position on the senate fell vacant, he put up his hand and was elected – an evolution he describes as “personal development”.

“I’ve always had my opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong, but most of the time I was just happy with my academic role – doing research and teaching, which I believe in. While I felt that my universities were largely facilitating that, I didn’t care too much,” he said.

“Over the past four years I have felt a need to take a more principled stance, and I see this stance as having the support of my peers.”

Dr Schröder-Turk, Dr Farrow and Professor Hocking told Four Corners that they had spoken out in the media after exhaustive attempts to raise their concerns internally fell on deaf ears. Earlier leaks to newspapers, blamed on Professor Schröder-Turk, came from elsewhere. “I have never criticised my university to harm it – only to make it better,” he said.

“Those who are strong enough to assert their rights have a responsibility to protect others, especially those who are dependent on them,” Dr Schröder-Turk added, quoting from Murdoch’s Code of Ethics.

A Murdoch spokesman said that universities required “careful and professional management and governance”. “We continue to support all staff to express their views, respectfully and freely, on important matters that help us advance our strategic goals,” the spokesman said.


Print headline: Murdoch whistleblower urges staff to speak out

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Reader's comments (2)

It’s the other members of Senate who should now be sacked. From what I can understand Dr S-T was just doing his job as staff representative and was outmanoeuvred by the dodgebags who tried to ruin his career. It’s the system that is rotten at the core.
Observing the machinations involving one well known art schools recruitment of Chinese students with little or no spoken, let alone written, English (they had to provide interpreters, several of whom reportedly thought it funny to make jokes about basic H&S training on the courses) as a good high value income stream. I don't doubt there are some, possibly many, Universities where the pre-Covid-19 business model led to such issues, especially where pre-sessionals earnt said Universities many thousands more per student. Post-Covid many more Universities may be desperate for the money and willing to take the risks involved, that's without even addressing the issue of falsified certificates or 'professional' test takers.