By the end of my own long March at the University that year, one thing was clear. Hare didn’t share my concern with her “misuse” headline. And didn’t care what I said my paper actually said.

Re-reading her report (Chapter 4), I saw that it misquoted from the text of my paper as well: Geoff Sharrock…claims in an article in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management that “commentators pluck simple metrics from the statistical tables in Education at a Glance” to “present flawed and misleading interpretations of OECD statistics”…

At a glance, I had to admit: a pretty snug fit for a “J’Accuse!” story. No wonder it had stirred the jacuzzi in Canberra. And no wonder I’d been in hot water ever since. But this too was a fake quote. It spliced two parts of my paper’s text, starting with a sentence fragment from Page 5, then adding another from Page 1. Each was now stripped of context, where the paper referred to things that commentators assumed or overlooked.

Image: David Cicirelli at https://workingnotworking.com/projects/156505-all-minus-one
From Reeves, Haidt and Cicirelli’s All Minus One – John Stuart Mill’s Ideas on Free Speech Illustrated. Heterodox Academy, 2018

What a bloody stitch-up, my inner farmboy mused. Somehow, Hare had managed to ignore the paper’s signals about errors, assumptions, pitfalls and over-simplifications. I re-read the Australian report: In an extraordinary attack, a University of Melbourne academic has accused current and former colleagues, including one of the most celebrated professors of higher education in the world, and the peak body Universities Australia of misusing OECD data to promote a false understanding of government funding of the higher education sector...

For clickbait purposes, I could see why it opened with my “attack” on Universities Australia on Day 1 of the peak body’s annual conference. Lots of sector leaders would be there in Canberra. And it made sense to highlight a few of the professors I’d quoted, such as Marginson (“singled out” and repeatedly quoted), Raewyn Connell and Rodney Tiffen.

But I’d also quoted the Australian Business Deans Council. Like UA, the ABDC cited these OECD metrics in formal submissions to government, my paper noted. Hare didn’t mention the ABDC at all. Why list my colleague Dr Bexley among the accused, but not the Deans Council? In fact, why open with current and former colleagues? The vice-chancellors I’d quoted (such as the University of Canberra’s Stephen Parker) were more newsworthy targets, surely. Along with UA and the ABDC, Hare could have sought comment from Professor Parker, or the University of Western Sydney’s Barney Glover, for any follow-up to her story that day.

From The Australian, 9 March 2016

Like me, Bexley was a lecturer. She’d been running the Centre’s Grad Cert program in university management for staff at the University. For the past few years I’d been teaching one of her GCUM subjects, Leading and Managing in a University. But she was not a prominent professor, or a sector leader. Here it looked like she’d been named to help frame my thoughtcrime as an uncollegial “attack”. Even though the London-based professor was no longer at the Centre, he was a “former colleague”, now “singled out”. I re-read his reply to my first note. I had included a copy of my paper for Bexley and Marginson to read, assuming that neither had seen it (Chapter 5). And had been surprised by the rapid reply, with Hare copied in, to concur that he’d been “singled out” in a paper with too much bile and bias in it for me to enter into a reasoned argument.

It made sense for Hare to consult the professor, I reflected. Weeks before, her Australian column, “Show me the evidence“, had lamented the lack of local expert commentary lately: … objective analysis and reporting of the sector has all but disappeared, save for the Grattan Institute. It’s not that long ago when various bodies, including the Go8 and UA, used to publish reports of importance … There were individual academics who published and talked widely who have no longer around (Simon Marginson how we miss you) … And what happened to the remarkably influential works from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education? Sure the CSHE and LH Martin run seminars for those lucky enough to live in Melbourne and publish the occasional paper, but occasional is the operative word …

Even so, I was surprised at the confidence with which she had declined to print my reply to explain my work and redress the way her report had framed it.

From: Hare, Julie
Sent: Thursday, 24 March 2016 2:02 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Geoff  If I publish your article, it implies my interpretation of your article was wrong. I don’t believe it was wrong. You might not like that interpretation but it’s valid. In your original email me you had this to say: “In the last few years, commentators don’t seem to have done much hard analysis of OECD data to inform funding debates in Australia. Instead, it’s been like watching a group of like-minded French impressionists taking turns to hit governments on the head with a Parisian phone book, to argue for better funding.” Seems like your own analysis pretty much lines up with what I wrote in the article. Julie

Actually, my paper had concluded that “cosmopolitan impressionism” was part of the problem with our “second-lowest in the OECD” narrative. Two weeks earlier, the response from one vice-chancellor named in Hare’s report to my 5am note was this: Geoff, Thanks for the clarification. Your conclusion does not surprise me. Making comparisons of this type across very different education and political systems is extremely difficult … I have often wondered about the validity of the numbers which indicate collaboration between Australian universities and industry is last (or second last) in the OECD...

Later that afternoon I gave Hare more background, and asked her to reconsider:

…I have had feedback from senior people who have read my paper, who accept its general conclusions, and who were dismayed at your report because they think my analysis is an important contribution to the substantive debate, which highlights real limitations in using OECD data to argue domestic funding policy …The paper went through blind peer review with four reviewers, none of whom saw it as an attack on commentators, or an accusation of academic fraud. One of these reviewers, it turns out, was one of the commentators I’d used as an example of the OECD narrative the paper criticises … I know Marginson is also a colleague of yours … But with his commentaries, the 11 instances you mention in your report are not given in my paper as examples of ‘misuse’. They just map how the under-funding narrative has developed over time, most visibly in his commentary but also that of others; and how the % of GDP gap has grown in the OECD tables … even when our domestic spending rises, it still look like it’s falling through an outdated OECD lens, as our GDP grows and as our unrepaid HELP debts grow. Increasingly, since the global financial crisis, the 3 year old figures people have learned to cite each year from Education at a Glance conceal at least as much of the financial reality of our sector as they reveal…

There was no reply. Half an hour later I got the news from Josh about the T&F legal advice. The publisher wanted me to retract the paper and not republish without getting Marginson’s permission, to avoid any continuing threat of legal action (Chapter 7).

A week later I followed up with Hare, but her answer was still No.

From: Hare, Julie
Sent: Friday, 1 April 2016 10:17 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Geoff  As discussed, I don’t intend to publish it.  Regards Julie

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Friday, 1 April 2016 4:03 PM
To: Hare, Julie
Subject: RE: OECD paper

Julie, OK, that’s your call. As you’ll appreciate, I’m still concerned that your report misrepresents my paper … Before publishing, did you get any response at all on the paper from Simon Marginson, or anyone else quoted in it, as to whether they took it as a clear accusation of academic fraud, rather than an analysis of fallacies? Regards, Geoff

No reply. The following week, I tried again.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 6 April 2016 4:03 PM
To: Hare, Julie
Subject: RE: OECD paper

Julie, From some of the exchanges I’ve had since your report, it appears that your reading of the paper is informed in part by Simon’s initial reading of it. So just to be clear, did you get a response from him about it before publishing, or not? … Regards, Geoff

From: Hare, Julie [harej@theaustralian.com.au]
Sent: Wednesday, 6 April 2016 4:21 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Geoff  I read the report with my own two eyes and came to my own conclusions  Julie

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 6 April 2016 4:32 PM
To: Hare, Julie
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Julie  I accept that you did this, but you have not answered the question. Did you get a response from Simon before publishing or not?  Geoff 

There was no reply.

So the Australian wouldn’t print my reply. And the Journal was about to retract my paper, in the wake of the ensuing backlash. It was as if, on both fronts, the author’s own reading of his own work didn’t matter much at all, if those with louder voices said otherwise.

From “The Freedom of the Press” – unused preface to Animal Farm, 1945

By this point, gentle reader, it was clear that I needed some legal advice. Weeks earlier, the publisher had flagged that the Journal (in effect, the author) might be sued for defamation. What no-one seemed to be considering was this: what if the only one being slandered here was the author?

2 thoughts on “Diary of an academic infidel – Chapter 9

  1. I think it better to call yourself a heretic than an infidel as their behaviour is akin to the Inquisition. What people think you said seems to outweigh what you actually said, there shall be no veering from the selected Orthodoxy……..

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