Now, where were we? Oh yes – winter was coming. The climate on campus was chilly. By early May, as foreshadowed back in Chapter 3, the face in my morning mirror had faded, from sheer weariness, into a kind of Dumbledorian grey. Some at the Centre, aware of the outline of what had happened, would ask how I was faring. Or say something like I hope the hate mail is diminishing. Mostly I’d just shrug and say: Yes, I’ve been losing sleep – on the upside, I’m also losing weight!

But behind my calm facade as we all went about our work in the Old Pathology Building, the wait and the worry took their toll. Beneath my middle-aged suit I could have worn a Harry Potter “Undesirable No. 1” T-shirt. As each week passed, I became just a bit more stressed. And more indignant too, at the way mere umbrage could rewrite the rules and norms of scholarly publishing.

Gentle reader, had you asked at the start of 2016 if our Centre saw academic freedom as a defining value, my answer would have been: well of course. Pretty much as Newman’s Idea put it back in 1852: by way of the “collision of mind with mind” et cetera. In fact, the University of Melbourne’s new brand campaign was called “When great minds collide“. And here at the Centre, we taught university leadership and management in line with that Enlightenment tradition: a “safe space” for free-range inquiry. Here “speaking truth to power” was permissible; and even, at times, called for (Chapter 2).

But, you may then ask, what if some scholar’s version of the truth is denounced and suppressed as blasphemy? That old Voltaire-inspired line: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” sounds fine in principle. But in practice, very few professors may be willing to speak up for a colleague visibly out of step with the “vibe” of local doctrine.

And so it was at the Centre. As the months went by my impression grew, that the further you were from the Centre – say at Griffith University, or Curtin University, or La Trobe University, or Victoria University or the University of Toronto – the more readily you would recognise that my paper had merit. As a well-known professor at Victoria University would put it: “a first-rate piece of analysis, even if an inconvenient truth!”

From passing exchanges at the Centre, there were exceptions to this general impression. One early response had been: “Great analysis, which will have long-term benefits”. But none was in the loop as my case unfolded. Those who were seemed at least as concerned with social distancing from the politics of the case as with seeing it swiftly and fairly resolved. In a Centre such as ours, then, herd immunity to reason may apparently prevail by default, as a substantive debate is derailed by other factors. Senior colleagues may not defend your right to publish from an attempt to censor your view – even in largely private exchanges. And if your scholarly work is pilloried in the media, institutional leaders may not let you defend it publicly, on a workplace website.

So there may be very few outlets in which to set out your side of such a story (unless you have a blog – and I didn’t).

Photo Erich Lessing. Source:  D’après Nicolas de Largillière, portrait de Voltaire (Institut et Musée Voltaire) Wikimedia Commons

And here in Old Pathology, everyone was already busy. We had programs to run, projects to deliver, classes to teach, seminars to attend and PhD students to supervise. In May I was preparing for my next set of webinars. This time our students would look into organising, leading and managing in universities, and some of the literature on managing change or innovation. We’d be canvassing the usual suspects here: Goleman on leadership, Kotter on change, Quinn on competing values. As well as some recent studies of system change and productivity in US universities. And some new work from McKinsey on organisational agility.

In the background, meanwhile, the Journal’s never-ending inner referendum had left the complaint still hanging in the air, like Damocles’ sword. Despite his view on its lack of substance and procedural abnormality (Chapter 12), Leo now seemed to have washed his hands and left the Journal matter with the Editor. But the Editor said his hands were tied: it was all “in the hands of the Publisher”. Yet the Publisher wanted to wash its hands of legal risk – by having the Author gain prior consent from the Complainant. And as the Complainant refused to speak to the Author at all, that seemed highly unlikely. For their part, those in the loop with the Complainant at the Centre had little to say. Other than to hint that it was unhelpful for the Author to defend the paper’s case in the media, or on the website, or by internal email.

All along my inner farmboy kept thinking: herd immunity to reason on the argument – and as a matter of process, talk about a bloody Voltaire drought!

On the 11th of May I forwarded to Leo a further response to Marginson, that I’d flagged the previous Sunday. And also a timeline of the Journal‘s process for handing the complaint. I said I planned to send the first to Marginson soon; and then both to the Journal group. Leo replied the next morning.

From: Leo Goedegebuure
Sent: Thursday, 12 May 2016 8:25 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: the paper

Thanks Geoff – will follow through with T&F. Leo

So perhaps it wouldn’t be left to the Editor, after all. Later that morning I followed up.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 12 May 2016 11:33 AM
To: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: the paper 

Thanks Leo – From the journal/publisher point of view I appreciate that their legal advisors are concerned to ‘eliminate risk’. But of course there is no such thing as a risk-free position. One risk – not my preference – is that the author starts taking legal action in response to derogatory treatment. Another risk not raised so far is that a Fairfax journalist follows me up on Hare’s reporting, to see what the fallout was. Their headline would probably be something along the lines of PEER REVIEWED PAPER PUBLISHED, THEN CENSORED BY ANGRY PROFESSOR. Geoff

Meanwhile, perhaps if I could get The Australian to correct its misreporting (Chapter 9), the Journal might reconsider how valid the complaint was in the first place. To do that, I’d need to lodge a strong complaint of my own. Back in March I’d told Leo that I wanted to get some advice on this. Then in April the University’s legal group director had suggested that I could engage a law firm to look at two issues – defamation for refusing to correct its media report, and damage to my moral rights as an author (Chapter 10).

I’d been simply too busy to look into this. But I did find time to Google Australian defamation law:

At its simplest, defamation is to spread bad reports about someone which could do them harm … You can defame someone if you say something false about them which spoils their good reputation, which makes people want to avoid them or which hurts them in their work or their profession…

My wife knew one of the lawyers Kylie Gould had recommended. She called them to make contact, outline my case, and say that I’d forward a briefing. We weren’t sure what legal advice might cost, or what approach to take. But now I was ready to take The Australian to task – whatever the Centre’s media strategy said about how important it was to maintain good relations with a small group of influential higher education reporters and media… (Chapter 8).

With the publisher still treating the Journal complaint as a legal threat, it now made sense to get advice on this as well. After a few evenings at my desk, I was ready to seek professional help.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday 28 April 2016 08:31 pm
To: (The Lawyer)
Subject: conversation with Fiona about media report on academic journal article

Dear … Kylie Gould at the University of Melbourne (where I work) suggested I seek advice from you about this. Fiona has told you about it: a media report in The Australian, which has misrepresented my scholarly work in a damaging way. I understand it’s not clear … how far you could take the matter, beyond sending a letter to The Australian, and perhaps another to an upset professor. Fiona has suggested I give you all the documents so you can assess whether you are able to act. I expect you can form an initial view just by reading the 4 page brief, the media report and some of the email exchanges. The 4 page brief tells the story with events, quotes and dates, and gives a timeline of events. Appendices 1-7 then provide details, with key sections highlighted. These provide the media report (Appendix 2); my email exchanges with the journalist before and after; my response to the media report which The Australian refused to publish; and email exchanges with other parties such as the journal publisher and the upset professor; and other background material. Appendix 8 is a copy of the journal article itself … I do not expect you to read all this material prior to any engagement. Ideally, once you have looked over enough of it to form a view, we would have a phone conversation next week when you have time, about terms of engagement and possible action. Alternatively, you may be able to suggest another firm able to act for me in this matter. Regards Geoff Sharrock 

The Lawyer was very responsive, very astute, and refreshingly clear and practical. After reading my brief, they sent me some notes and links to background reading, such as an author’s moral rights under copyright law. One was a link to the Australian Press Council principles. Under the headings of Accuracy and clarity and Fairness and balance, I took particular note of items 2 and 4.

1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion. 2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading. 3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts. 4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3...

Apart from advice on legal points and what kinds of results I could expect, The Lawyer’s key advice was this: We think the letter would benefit from being short and sharp … We need to grab a busy editor’s attention and make it clear this wasn’t acceptable and how it can be fixed without making him think it’s too complicated and simply flicking it to Legal...

By the end of that second week of May I’d drafted my letter of complaint. The Lawyer had helped me refine it, and thought it would give me a reasonable shot with the Editor-In-Chief at The Australian.

Before sending it I paused. Would this be one of those Sliding Doors moments? It seemed likely that, as soon as I complained to The Australian, Hare might turn to Marginson, who would inform the Centre. Or to Richard and Leo, whose commentary Hare had published. Then they would likely come back to me about how unhelpful this course of action was to the Centre’s media relations strategy.

And what if the complaint was about to be withdrawn anyway? In that event, I could just publish my paper as planned, let the media report fade into history, and move on with other work.

After putting Leo in the loop on my latest draft response, I followed Ian up again, to see if there was any progress at the Journal. Or (still assuming he’d had a phone call from Marginson when this all started) whether he’d heard anything further from the complainant. There wasn’t and he hadn’t.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 12 May 2016 10:58 AM
To: Ian Dobson
Subject: the paper 

Hi Ian, I expect to send my further response to Marginson soon. Can you just confirm there is no news from him? That is, no further complaint, and also no further contact to withdraw his initial complaint? Thanks, Geoff

From: Ian Dobson
Sent: Thursday, 12 May 2016 1:05 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: the paper

Dear Geoff, There has been no further correspondence. Ian

My impression remained, that Ian was not in touch with Marginson at all. As promised to the Journal group in my Sunday message (Chapter 12), by then I’d finalised my response for the Centre group, on the points Marginson had raised about the substance of the paper (Chapter 5). By that stage I was ready to replace my imaginary Harry Potter T-shirt with an imaginary Ricky Gervais T-Shirt.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 12 May 2016 3:58 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Simon, I believe any fair-minded third party would accept that I have taken your concerns seriously, and taken steps to address them. I am advised that you have not withdrawn your complaint to the journal; but I have not agreed to retract the paper. I will now address the substantive criticisms you made in response to my email about Julie Hare’s report (9 March). The points you made were endorsed by Emmaline at the time; and you both suggested there is nothing new to see here. But from both sets of responses, I don’t think either of you read the paper closely enough before deciding to respond. You made five general points.

1. If GDP goes up, why can’t spending? First, public spending on our universities has been rising; quite a lot in recent years. As the chart on page 14 of my paper shows, our ‘demand driven’ system has, in effect, given the university sector a licence to print teaching grants and HELP debts. This has led to rapid, publicly financed expansion over 2012-2014 in particular. Second, even as it excludes HELP revenue from public spending on tertiary institutions, the latest OECD table puts this at 0.9% of GDP in 2012 … And third, that 0.9% rate is based on Australian GDP, not OECD GDP. Since 2000 our GDP has grown, on average, around twice as fast as OECD GDP. As the paper points out, this means that the headline rates with which Australian commentators ‘rank’ spending levels are not based on a neutral common denominator.

2. But private funding incurs higher costs. My paper already notes that relying on international enrolments adds to costs. But it also notes that the revenue from this amounted to over a third of all university tuition income in 2013. I do not believe you can assume that most of this revenue goes just into meeting those extra costs. Further, the HELP loan revenue that you and others class as ‘private funding’, for domestic students, exceeds international revenue. HELP revenue does not incur international recruitment costs; it just flows in like teaching grants. And once received, whether it is ever repaid to the government or not has no further effect on university budgets.

3. But no-one denies that our total spending is at or above the OECD average. My paper does not argue that people deny this. But … the minority who mention total spending still do not account for big disparities in GDP growth. As Tables 4 and 5 in the paper show, once these are factored in, our actual total spending is substantially higher than it looks, while in many countries it is lower than it looks. As the paper points out, in many cases this is consistent with the OECD’s own comparative estimates in PPPs. With these, the latest OECD report puts our total spending per university student 25% higher than the OECD average in 2012. As my paper notes, the OECD estimated this at US$18,800 against an average of US$15,100. In recent years I have not seen anyone from the sector highlighting this kind of OECD comparison in media commentary on university funding. Nor can I recall university sector experts, from CSHE or anywhere else, offering ‘factcheck’ analysis of inflated claims of university funding shortfalls, based on OECD data. In the 2013 election, for example, Christine Milne released a Greens policy claiming that Australia would have to increase public spending on universities by $10.3 billion a year to reach the OECD average of 1.1% of GDP … this follows the logic of the $6 billion a year estimated shortfall that you cite for 2010, in your commentary on Labor’s 2013 budget…

4. High staff-student ratios, under-resourced research, ‘something has to give’. First, not long ago the University of Melbourne redesigned its structures and processes to capture $70 million a year in savings in the administrative domain alone. For many universities, under-resourcing in the academic domain arises in part from an inability to adopt basic business disciplines. Second, some universities have reduced their professional to academic staff ratios substantially, while scaling up with enrolment growth. But others have not. In organisational terms, efficiency levels vary widely.

5. Geoff’s ‘parochialism’ in a globalised world. My paper does not dismiss OECD data as irrelevant. It dismisses specious ‘rankings’ such as ‘second last in the OECD’, and simplistic calculations of under-funding based on statistical factoids. As the paper shows, these ‘rankings’ of public spending conceal as much as they reveal about actual university sector resourcing in Australia … in a post-GFC world it is not ‘parochial’ to take into account GDP growth rates when interpreting metrics where GDP is the common denominator; au contraire, most would say. This has been a blind spot in your own commentary … It does not surprise me to read the Group of Eight’s latest line on underinvestment, that the OECD says we ‘trail Spain’ in public spending on our universities. But I can’t see any Australian government equipped with 2015 domestic data taking this kind of ‘peer comparison’ seriously … As the paper points out, once you take GDP growth into account, even in simple terms we didn’t ‘trail Spain’ … In PPPs, the OECD estimates Spain’s total spending per university student at US$13,000 that year. This is 14% lower than the OECD average, and lower by far than Australia’s.

In sum, I do not believe that you read my paper carefully at all. The points you raise do not actually engage with the evidence it presents. Nor do they address the logical implications of its detailed analysis of OECD data. Nor do they counter its conclusions about the extent to which simple metrics such as these can offer a meaningful picture of Australian university financing, in comparative terms … This time, I would appreciate a more considered response than those I have seen. Regards, Geoff

The next morning I informed the Journal group of my latest piece of mansplaining. I urged them again to resolve the matter. This time I included an overview of their process to date for handling the complaint (which did not seem internally consistent). Perhaps, I reflected, this particular Friday would be my lucky day…

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Friday, 13 May 2016 6:56 AM
To: Leo Goedegebuure; Lazzari, Alexandra; Pitt, Josh
Cc: Ian Dobson
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM

Dear all, For your information I have now responded further to Marginson on substantive points raised about the paper’s analysis, following Ian’s confirmation that there has been nothing further from him. See below. I’ve also tracked back to see how the process of publishing the paper came about, and some of the ambiguities about timing of publication, online versus print publication, and procedures for amending the online publication. I hope the attached timeline will help when discussing the next steps to resolve the situation. It is possible that Marginson may consider withdrawing his objection to publication, following this latest response. Regards, Geoff

As expected, there was no response from anyone that day. In the afternoon I lodged my complaint with the Editor-In-Chief at The Australian. By then it had been two months since the media report and the Journal complaint.

Dear Mr Whittaker

Misreporting of academic work by Julie Hare, Higher Education Editor on 9 March 2016

I teach higher education policy and management at the University of Melbourne. As a Program Director at the L H Martin Institute, my scholarly work is published regularly in peer reviewed journals and in the media. On 2 March 2016 I published a research article online with the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management (the paper). I emailed Julie Hare to see if she was interested in writing about this (as I have done with earlier work) and provided her with access to it. After 5pm on 8 March Julie emailed me to say she would not cover it until the following week; but then emailed me again after 6pm to say it would appear the next morning, on 9 March. She did not indicate that she would report adversely on the paper. Nor did she seek any comment from me on her representation of its analysis. I was very shocked, therefore, when The Australian reporting (the report) presented my paper as an ‘extraordinary attack’ on scholars, university vice-chancellors and others, and as a series of accusations of their ‘misuse’ (as the headline put it) of data in university funding debates. The potential damage of such a misrepresentation is significant, since the university sector constitutes the primary client of the L H Martin Institute.

I do not believe that the report was accurate, fair or balanced, as prescribed by the Australian Press Council’s general principles and News Ltd’s own Editorial Code of Conduct. The report misrepresents my paper’s arguments in a manner that disparages its scholarly integrity and in turn, the reputation of its author. The word ‘misuse’ in the report’s headline appears to quote my paper directly, but this term never appears in the paper. Phrases from the paper which, in their proper context, refer to errors of interpretation or fallacious claims on the part of commentators, have been rearranged to suggest that the paper accuses these people of what some would see as academic fraud. I asked Julie for the right to reply to her report, and provided a draft response for this purpose. But she bluntly refused to publish it and said that to do so would imply that her initial interpretation was not valid. Apart from the injustice of this as an editorial decision, it appears to blur any distinction between journalistic reporting of fact and personal opinion. As I explained to Julie when seeking a right of reply, the paper had been blind peer reviewed by four experts before it was accepted for publication. No reviewer interpreted the article as a series of accusations of academic fraud; if they had, the Journal would not have published it.

Since publication, other experts concur that the paper examines examples of error, not fraud. One possible exception to this view is a scholar well known to Julie, whose work the paper criticises for such errors. From his emails to me on the day her report appeared, he has misread some aspects of the paper, and is aggrieved about some of its criticisms. Though not quoted directly in her report, he appears to have been the only expert Julie consulted about my paper before publishing her report. In response to his concerns I have provided him with a detailed explanation of what my paper claims and does not claim. I have suggested that he write a reply in the Journal itself, which is the usual procedure in such cases. I have rechecked quotes from his work and advised him of the results. And I have invited him to specify any misrepresentation or misreading of his work in my paper, without receiving any further response from him as of 13 May. In sum, the report is plainly defamatory. I also believe that it infringes my moral rights as an author under copyright law. For these reasons the report has caused me personal distress in my work. It is likely that some people who have not read the paper, whether named in Julie’s report or not, will assume that it makes such accusations. It is also possible that those who read the paper through the lens of Julie’s report may misread the paper, which is highly technical in parts. I have been unable to resolve the matter directly with Julie. I prefer not to pursue litigation if my concerns can be addressed more simply and more quickly.

To resolve the matter I seek: 1. a retraction and a public apology in a form of words to be agreed and published in The Australian … which acknowledges that my paper was misquoted , and that its analysis was misrepresented; and 2. a full right of reply in your newspaper’s higher education section, to appear within one week after the public apology appears. I take this matter very seriously. It has a direct impact on my work. If it cannot be resolved I will have to consider my options including legal action and making a complaint to the Australian Press Council. I do hope this will not be necessary. I look forward to hearing from you. Yours sincerely, Dr Geoff Sharrock

Gentle reader, I am no longer in a position to tell you exactly what followed in my dealings with The Australian, which must remain confidential. But with the Journal, there was still a long way to go…

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