“You are never going to win against either The Australian or Marginson who are far too powerful, whatever the merits in this matter.”

This candid dose of Realpolitik had landed a week after my Dantean detour in the Mad Max car park (Chapter 16). It made sense. Not least in that it matched what others, closer to the action, seemed to have assumed from the start. I sighed. It implied I was (in a nutshell) up shit creek. (As my inner farmboy might have said, before that Arts degree refined his vocabulary.) As had the Australian’s reply to my first letter. And last week’s advice that with those bastards, resistance was futile – perhaps to the point of insanity.

Here at the Centre, no-one in the loop had shown any support for my misreporting case. Nor for any form of public rejoinder. As for the Journal complaint, none had ventured to declare that my paper had merit, or that its case might be valid. In sum, the resident heretic was being quietly hung out to dry (as one sympathetic Fellow would put it). By the long arm of the folklore. In a process as inscrutable as a court case in a Kafka story.

And with each passing month the stress and lack of sleep had gotten worse. In April, my doctor found my blood pressure a bit high after I relayed what was happening at work. The telltale signs of hypertension showed with further visits. A BP of 130/90 – at the high end for someone already taking blood pressure medication – then months later, 140/90. In June I began reporting chest pains. And taking medication for sleep as well as blood pressure.

Only my BS threshold would stay low that year. The irony was, this made matters worse. The sense of being put through an ordeal-by-bullshit kept me constantly on edge.

In the evenings at home, my chief distraction was to watch an episode or two of Inferno. That is, Season 6 of Mad Men. I never tired of the opening sequence. Its long fall from a high building, signifying doom and delusion, spoke to the weird state of limbo into which my work-life had fallen.

Image: https://www.artofthetitle.com/title/mad-men/

My learning curve that year would be a steep, lonely path through a dark wood of vague accusations, unreliable advice and widening cones of silence.

By May the Journal group had all it needed to make a decision. The delay and the dithering were hard to fathom. Ditto the dearth of discussion. As the anxious defendant, it offended my sense of due process. And as a scholar who studied the rules and norms of academic work, my sense of professionalism. I knew Leo was due to discuss the Journal impasse with the publisher – again. Apart from his concern about the editor’s role as a matter of governance, it was unclear what they were doing with the case at hand. I had asked to be part of that discussion, but no-one took this up.

Meanwhile, those who knew nothing of the Centre struggled to see what my thought-crime actually was. My wife’s lawyer friends – all Melbourne graduates – simply stared and said: But – isn’t that what universities are for? To which I’d say: Sure – at least in theory…

Such real-world reactions served to highlight what had gone unremarked at the Centre: that to veto a peer-reviewed publication without a bloody good reason was to toss academic freedom overboard. In this case, after an informal complaint, made indirectly, details unclear. From a colleague at our Centre, steeped in the history of higher learning. To a Journal co-owned by our Institute, with our own professors on its editorial board.

All while other Centre professors stood on the sidelines, as studiously neutral as a group of Swiss alps. The unspoken expectation that power would prevail over reason offended my idea of the university. By that year’s end, after so many lessons in Realpolitik, my Platonic idea of the place was badly battered (Chapter 1). I was ready to rebrand us the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Re-Education.

University of Melbourne Old Arts building

At this point, however, I hadn’t abandoned hope. My second letter to The Australian had upped the ante, with a pedantic deconstruction of their reply (Chapter 9). (Maybe that would teach them to mess with Arts grads! If you can decode Much Ado About Nothing you can decode anything!)

I hadn’t heard anything back. And didn’t expect to so soon. Part of my case was that Hare had consulted one expert only (Chapter 14) and was happy to share his view. The report didn’t quote him directly. But it did set the scene for a stinging rebuttal from London (Chapter 4) – which never appeared. Nor was the London reaction to my 5am message (Chapter 5) ever reported. As a follow-up to the headline: Geoff Sharrock says OECD data misused to back funding claims, it wasn’t hard to imagine: Sharrock ‘misuse’ claim based on ‘bile and bias’, says professor.

Yet in fairness, she might have consulted others to confirm her view. The Australian often published another well-known expert on higher education. Checking online, I saw that back in 2014 Hare had quoted his view of OECD data. Before his move to Toronto, Gavin Moodie was an analyst at RMIT University, here in Melbourne. He was impeccably independent. He knew the main players at the Centre. And was on the Journal‘s editorial board as well. In all, a good source of impartial advice. So while waiting for The Australian to reply, I’d sent him a note.

From: Geoff Sharrock 
Date: Sun, 29 May 2016 at 17:31
To: Gavin Moodie

Dear Gavin, I have an unusual favour to ask of you. Would you mind reading the documents attached, and advising me of your response to my simple query below? The background is this: in March I published a journal article online and sent it to The Australian. It was then misread, misquoted and misreported. I sought a right of reply later in March, which was refused. Now I have lodged a complaint with the paper and sought an apology and right of reply … The matter is complicated because on the morning the report appeared, I had an angry email about it from Simon Marginson (whose commentary my paper criticises) which he cc’d to Julie Hare, among others. His view appears to confirm the main aspects of her view (which I see as biased and wrong) In my complaint to The Australian I said that it appears to me that the reporter only consulted one expert before reporting … I have suggested that had she consulted with you as a disinterested expert not named in the paper, or indeed Andrew Norton, she might have got a different view before going to print. I’m not sure if you saw the reporting back then, or have read the paper itself. I have attached copies of these and also my complaint to The Australian … I am not asking you to take sides in this matter with Marginson, or indeed in my dispute with the newspaper. But I would like you to confirm my belief that Julie did not seek any comment from you … Any comments you may have about the paper itself would also be welcome; or indeed about the wider dispute, which is proving difficult to resolve satisfactorily … Regards, Geoff Sharrock

When the reply landed I was standing on a train, swaying from a ceiling strap as the suburbs slid past the carriage window. And listening to an old Crowded House song, Four Seasons in One Day. My phone had pinged as the train drew clear of Richmond station. I slipped it out of my pocket. Behind my wavering reflection, the grey Melbourne sky was mirroring my Monday morning mood. In the background Neil Finn kept crooning in my ear.

Worlds above and worlds below
The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain…

From: Gavin Moodie
Date: Mon, 30 May 2016 at 08:12
To: Geoff Sharrock

Hi Geoff I read the Australian’s report and your article soon after their publication. For what it’s worth, at the time I thought your article was correct but was expressed so frankly that it risked fracturing close relations with the authors of the works you consider. I also thought the Australian’s account sensationalist, but I expect or fear that from the Australian. No one from the Australian consulted me on the issue …

Even when you’re feeling warm
The temperature could drop away
Like four seasons in one day…

Had I got a complaining email from Marginson and had I wanted to have close relations with him I would have immediately responded with a grovelling apology and offers to repair the perceived problem by issuing a correction, writing a letter to the editor and anything else I could think of. I am not anxious to have close relations with Marginson nor anyone else so I wouldn’t have done any of that. But from my knowledge of Marginson I think that would have been necessary to maintain a relationship with him.

…Smiling as the shit comes down…

In my judgement you are never going to win against either the Australian or Marginson who are far too powerful, whatever the merits in this matter.

You can tell a man from what he has to say
Everything gets turned around…

Neither do I think that the events in themselves warrant much more time, energy or angst. I would craft a statement of your position and publish it. I would also write to Marginson, Hare, and Bexley if needed, stating that you are sorry that the position has deteriorated, recognise that each genuinely holds different views and that you hope that in time relations may be restored. I would then move on to something else … I wish you well in settling this matter. Regards Gavin

By then the train had stopped at Flinders Street. I grabbed my bag, stepped through the sliding doors and headed up the crowded escalator.

...Up the creek and through the mill
Like all the things you can’t explain
Four seasons in one day…

Once past the turnstile I sped up, to scoot across the street before the lights changed. Just in time to miss my tram. I looked up at the sky. Behind the cloud-capped spires of St Paul’s Cathedral, it looked like rain.

It doesn’t pay to make predictions
Sleeping on an unmade bed

Already the next jam-packed tram was crossing Princes Bridge. Trundling smoothly to a halt, it opened its doors with a synchronous sigh. A handful of mortals shuffled off.

Finding out wherever there is comfort there is pain
Only one step away…

Nudging my way aboard to join the crush, I simulated private space by avoiding eye contact, narrowing my focus to my phone. As the tram gathered pace along Swanston Street, I sifted through a few more messages.

Like rain, like rain…

Then put the phone away and simply waited, as impassive as my fellow passengers. We all seemed subdued that morning, as if resigned to whatever lay ahead. Like lemmings filled with doubt on a streetcar named despair.

….Like four seasons in one day.

On campus I got to our office to find my colleague Asa Olsson busy at her desk already, headphones on. (Our work barely overlapped; though sometimes I’d help edit her Research Development material.) We exchanged our usual greetings and turned to our screens.

After an hour or so, I went and got a coffee. Back at my desk, I re-read Gavin’s message, and tapped out a quick note in reply. I didn’t want to go over my dealings with The Australian. But it made sense to outline the state of play with the Journal.

From: Geoff Sharrock 
Date: Mon, 30 May 2016 at 10:14
To: Gavin Moodie

Hi Gavin, Much thanks for this prompt, clear and sane advice. As it happens I emailed both Simon and Emmaline on the morning of the report, to clarify what my paper did and did not claim (and to spare them any undue distress). Each had slightly different concerns, and in response I did say sorry they were upset about it, and gave more explanation of the argument. Emmaline has accepted my apology and moved on. Simon has not. And yes, in response to both I also offered to correct the online paper with some minor rephrasing, though without altering the substantive critique, but the journal has not been prepared to do this simply. Part of the problem is that Simon followed up his complaint to me with a complaint to the journal itself in mid-March, demanding a retraction. In turn, their legal group said that a corrigendum for the minor edits sought was not sufficient to eliminate all risk of legal action, particularly in view of the adverse media attention, so a full retraction ‘at the author’s request’ was recommended. I did not agree, but the publisher withdrew (suspended?) the online paper anyway; and at one point asked the author to secure Simon’s consent as a precondition for republishing. I don’t see this as a reasonable process at all for a peer-reviewed publication; so at present the paper remains in limbo. Thanks again for the advice. Regards, Geoff

The reply to this was short and sharp: Thanx Geoff I didn’t realise that Marginson had grown such a thin skin and into such a bully. I’m glad I downloaded a copy of your paper when I did. I now plan to find an opportunity to cite it. At some point the paper should be put online on another site if Taylor & Francis continues to be so gutless. Regards Gavin

I looked up at my stack of Journals, lying horizontal on the bookshelf. And thought: Yes, gutlessness does seem to be part of the problem here…

I didn’t reply, but got on with other work. This would typify the double life I led that year: teaching higher education policy and management, while taking a crash course in defence against the dark arts of academic politics.

Quite a bit of the Centre’s normal work was emergent, not planned. While most of us were busy, there was also space to share items of interest, and arrange discussion forums. This time, at the weekend, Richard had circulated a link to a New Yorker article on student activism at US campuses. It was concerned about ideology outstripping rigor (with hints of what is now called cancel culture). Just that morning I’d read a related piece from the New York Times, republished in the Australian Financial Review.

In reply to Richard’s note I circulated the link. The two articles drew further thoughts from some of the Centre’s Fellows and PhD scholars. In the afternoon I circulated a longish comment on these, in reply to one of the Fellows.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, May 30, 2016 2:28:06 PM
To: Gabriele Lakomski
Cc: Richard James; MCSHE internal list
Subject: RE: MCSHE occasional readings 

Thanks Gabi … so much student energy in these accounts appears to focus on adjusting the social order to accommodate the needs of one minority group or another … Perhaps the impulse to highlight every slight form of quotidian oppression in their encounter with the institution comes in part (in large part?) from a growing sense among students that in some larger, longer-term but non-specific way, the implicit deal that has worked out so well for earlier generations – a good degree leading to a good job/career and a secure future while living a life framed by some higher purpose beyond economic survival– won’t work out for them in a post-global-financial-crisis, pervasive under-employment, gig-economy world. Will it happen here? I see Jennifer Rayner’s recent book Generation Less – a sharp critique of the economic status and prospects of her own generation of university graduates in Australia – as a similar picture of the material conditions that are likely to contribute to those kinds of tensions and anxieties (link). On this view, what may look like an extreme new variant on a culture of complaint may not be primarily about self-indulgent identity politics, so much as about good old-fashioned lack of economic agency among the current generation of graduates. That’s my quick take; I’d be interested to know what others think. Regards, Geoff

In reply, Gabi suggested a seminar. By that evening I’d also heard back from Matt Brett (who worked at La Trobe University, and was doing his PhD at the Centre) as well as another of our PhD’s, Mollie Dollinger. They’d been examining the implications of the student experience, and debates about it, from other perspectives. Many exchanges later, the upshot that week would be to work on a side-project with Mollie and Matt on university-student relations and expectations.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 30 May 2016 7:33 PM
To: Gabriele Lakomski; Peter Mcphee
Cc: Mollie Dollinger; Richard James; Emmaline Bexley; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: Re: today’s readings and student/graduate expectations 

Thanks all, I’m knee deep in the kids at home, partner out, dinner, homework, evening entertainment zone just now, so can’t reply in any detail. But it sounds like we have plenty to go forward with on ‘The Promise’ to take up Gabi’s title. I’ve also had a really interesting response from Matt Brett, with another take, so will add him into this strand. All the signs are that it will be hard to set boundaries on the topic (but we must…?) and that the ‘panel’ could easily be as large as the ‘audience’ (but must not be…?). Either way once the discussions start it will be on for young and old (one would hope…?). Let me come back to interested parties in the morning, to take this a bit further. Thanks again, Geoff

Over the course of that week and the next, I worked with Mollie and Matt on our August seminar plan, as we each juggled other commitments. In the meantime I’d hear from another higher education expert. Tim Pitman was at Curtin University, in Western Australia. As with Bexley and others, I’d referred to his work in the paper.

From: Tim Pitman
Sent: Tuesday, 7 June 2016 12:44 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Beautiful lies, damned statistics: reframing Australian university funding

Dear Geoff I recently read your article and plead guilty as charged to being someone who has in the past over-simplified the higher education public-private investment dichotomy … as researchers we must remember to simplify, not over-simplify. It’s something I am more conscious of when writing for an academic publication … The public-private investment issue is becoming critical as our higher education system has now matured and we need a pragmatic solution, not one based on ideology. I look forward to continuing reading your observations on the matter. Kind regards Tim Pitman

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 7 June 2016 11:26 AM
To: Tim Pitman
Subject: RE: Beautiful lies, damned statistics: reframing Australian university funding

Dear Tim, Much thanks for your message, and its honesty; and let me say that I hope my article did not cause you any undue distress. In retrospect, I could have written parts of it more gently, and it did upset one or two of the people I’ve heard from. I too struggle with the dilemma you name about having to simplify … One thing I could have made clearer in the journal article is that most of the commentary I refer to has to be ‘selective’ in the data it cites, due to the ‘shorthand’ nature of media commentary … One cause for distress on my own part was the way my paper was reported in The Australian … That morning I had to write to quite a few people named in the reporting to clarify the fact that my paper did not argue that they wilfully or ‘knowingly’ misinterpreted data … Rather, I see a complicated set of factors that combine to amplify apparent funding disparities, and a blind spot generally among commentators in relation to the GDP growth disparities … Thanks again for the message … Best, Geoff

Tim had included one of his own recent papers on the ambiguities of terms such as customer and market in the case of students and higher education. We discussed these in further exchanges the next day, and he gave me his take on my Journal trials: I’m sorry to hear about the reaction to your paper from Simon … commentary around a piece should not be conflated with the piece itself, especially in this age of clickbait journalism. Simon certainly has the right of reply but so do you and I hope the final decision made by the journal is made with your input … even if there does end up being a retraction it’s not going to be a matter of factual error, more of (it appears to me) diplomacy…

These messages of moral support from those working in the field helped. And their matter-of-factness made a refreshing change from the cloud of reticence in Melbourne. Between them, Tim and Gavin had reaffirmed that my Beautiful Lies critique was correct; that the media report was a beat-up; and that blocking publication was more about politics than substance.

Apart from Leo’s note to the Journal group on that last point in April (Chapter 12), I didn’t recall anyone at the Centre declaring their hand on these basic questions. And by now it had been a month since I’d answered the substantive points Marginson had raised (Chapter 14).

So much for my desire to stir debate, I thought. These peer reviews from Moodie and Pitman helped confirm why Hare’s report hadn’t led to any public rejoinder. The refusals to print my reply, or tolerate my own publication, now looked like simple acts of bullying. As the months went by that year, other observers from within and beyond the Centre would also suggest that this was what it was.

Yet from the outset, the Centre’s senior leaders seemed ready to overlook this. As far as I could tell, the main concern at management level seemed to be placating the professor, not offending any media friends, and avoiding any hint of public support for a scholar out of step on how low our sector’s funding looked in OECD reports. Perhaps they too found my lack of faith disturbing.

So, I didn’t expect my next Conversation piece to be popular (Chapter 17). By now I’d cut the Game of Thrones line on dark nights full of errors. My plan was to show again that the Journal paper was sound, deal with any online critics in the comment stream – and while I was at it, expose the Australian misreporting.

Perhaps on both fronts, the Realpolitik was just as Gavin had said: You are never going to win against either the Australian or Marginson who are far too powerful, whatever the merits in this matter. On that view, the Journal‘s dilemma was how to appease a professor intent on retraction, and also justify this publicly. No wonder Josh had wanted it withdrawn at the author’s request (Chapter 7).

On the other hand, taking the complaint as an act of bullying freed me to tell the professor I’d formally complained to The Australian. And after so much explanation, perhaps to call on him to finally take his bloody foot off my bloody work and stop suppressing another scholar’s view – or else.

(That Saturday I read in The Australian that a “whistleblower” professor at James Cook University had been “hung out to dry” in a misconduct case for failing to act in a collegial way. I wondered what that was all about.)

If I gave an ultimatum on Sunday, when The Conversation published on Tuesday, he’d have had two days to consider it. And I’d know how to proceed with online comments in the TC forum.

(In a slightly Machiavellian, magic bullet kind of way, my hope was that Marginson would tell Hare that I had both of them in my sights. The Australian might then take my complaint more seriously. They’d see how my view was faring in The Conversation. And notice that none of the sector’s experts was there, openly disputing its point on GDP growth. And realise that, if the matter went to court, the professor was unlikely to support Hare’s reporting in any formal way. So the newspaper would concede its misreporting, and publish my reply. This, along with the Conversation piece, would help the Journal see that Marginson and Hare had been too quick to dismiss my paper. And that it would be best to republish, after all.)

It was a long note to send on a long weekend. It recalled our exchanges about OECD data in 2012 (Chapter 12). Then my responses to his March concerns, and the trouble his complaint was causing. It then informed him that I was ready to sue The Australian. And that, having backed Hare’s view, he too could be at risk in that scenario.

(Gentle reader, consider: what could possibly go wrong with this cunning plan?)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Sunday, 12 June 2016 1:02 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Simon, As I said back in March, I am sorry that you were so upset by my paper; but still surprised that you took such offence, at its title in particular. As you might recall, I have used the ‘lies damned lies’ line before about OECD comparisons (link to Australian article) Most readers of the paper get the Disraeli reference immediately, even if some need a footnote for the Twain reference. Others may recall last year’s ABC series The Beautiful Lie which is not a story about fraud, but about delusion and folly. Either way, the title doesn’t lead them to read the paper the way you and Julie Hare appear to have read it. At the time of writing I simply assumed that all the figures quoted from your commentary would be correct. Then, when you protested so much, I checked them. You know the results; but the paper was never concerned with simple errors, just the complicated ones that everyone seems to have overlooked. While I took the concerns you raised about my paper seriously, you must know that your over-reaction has had unfortunate consequences, and that I take these very seriously. I was shocked at Julie Hare’s claim that my paper accused you of data ‘misuse’ and that it cited ’11 instances’ of this in your work. The predictable effects of Hare’s report were to cause a stir at the UA conference; cast the author as some kind of heretic; and set the stage for experts such as yourself to publish dismissive critiques of my paper in The Australian in the weeks to follow. That none of the so-called ‘accused’ did so indicates to me that the paper’s conclusions are hard to avoid, however unwelcome they may be. When I sought a right of reply, I explained that most of the quotes from your commentary were in the paper as background, to show how the narrative developed. In reply Julie Hare simply insisted that her interpretation was right; and of course she already had your own ‘expert’ response to support that view. So I was given no right of reply in The Australian to clarify what my paper actually said.

Along with the Australian misreporting, your own actions have caused no end of headache; in particular your demand that the journal enforce a retraction of the paper. As you know, I was prepared to make minor edits to the paper, and expected the journal to offer you the usual right of reply. But, in their alarm at the media reporting along with your own threats and allegations, the publisher rejected the usual corrigendum approach, and withdrew the paper from its website without the author’s consent. It has been in limbo ever since. Most of the people with whom I’ve consulted find this a bizarre situation: a sensationalist media report on what most would see as a storm in a teacup, followed by over-reactions all round, with all the makings of an academic publishing scandal. Any Media Watch report would be critical of the media handling of my work. And any journalist investigating this would  be bemused at the events surrounding it: ‘Peer reviewed publication vetoed by angry professor’.

Apart from that, I have taken legal advice on how to seek redress, amicably or otherwise, over the past two months. Some weeks ago the Editor-in-Chief at The Australian received my letter of concern about this. Their internal investigation could not identify any direct quote in my paper that proves their report’s main claim, that it accuses people such as yourself of ‘misusing’ OECD data and ‘knowingly’ misrepresenting these in funding debates … So I am now preparing to pursue this further through other channels. It appears that the best way to proceed with litigation against the newspaper would be to sue you for defamation first, since their treatment was reinforced by your own ‘expert’ response to the paper. Your accusations of ‘bile and bias’ etc., cc’d to Julie Hare among others, are as good a place as any to start with a notice of concerns. In sum, I have put a lot of work into resolving the situation amicably. And you have simply picked the wrong person to bully. I see no good reason to accept your back channel efforts to quash my paper and disparage its author. In fact, I have been surprised that others who know you better appear to find such tactics acceptable. It is as if in this case the author of the paper had no reason to become offended, and no basis on which to seek redress. For lawyers at least, the evidence is clear and the next step is obvious. I now expect you to withdraw the threats and allegations that you have made, to me and to others. That way, at the very least, the publisher can take steps to republish my paper; and you can reply in the usual way if you wish. If I don’t hear back from you within 48 hours of this email, I will have no option but to pursue this matter further, through other channels. Geoff

PS You might also consider writing a scholarly critique of my paper for The Australian. I imagine that Julie Hare will be more than willing to publish your views on this, even if she won’t publish those of the author. Whatever your final assessment, you could at least acknowledge that its analysis does contribute to our understanding of how OECD statistics both inform and misinform international spending comparisons in Australia. 

There was no response from Marginson, that day or the next.

Meanwhile at the Centre, management was a little concerned.

From: Leo Goedegebuure
Date: Monday, 13 June 2016 7:40 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Richard James
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Geoff, This is a particularly unhelpful email and course of action. As I informed you on Friday I am in discussion with Taylor & Francis together with ATEM to get this discussion away from the legal to the academic domain where it should be. This relates to the concept of editorial independence which is crucial for both ATEM and LHMI in its relation with Taylor & Francis as the publisher of the Journal. You have now moved this back in the legal domain with your threat of legal action against Simon. Whilst you may argue that this has nothing to do with my discussion with Taylor & Francis, this would be simplistic as I earlier in the process explained their concern with the opposite happening. Which has been the basis for their argument thus far, including pulling the article. So far, my course of action has been to ensure the academic integrity of the process, without taking a position on the content of the article in question. You know what I think of it personally, but I will not enter into the content side as that is not my responsibility. However, your proposed course of action negatively impacts on the academic integrity process side, as it becomes harder to argue that this is not a personal vendetta. As an aside, your timing could have been better. This is a short holiday where at least I try to get some downtime with family and friends … I’m sure that is the same for all the others cc-ed into your email. If you feel an email as the below needs to be send, nothing would have been lost sending it on Tuesday morning or evening. Leo

This was the first I’d heard of any personal vendetta. To me it didn’t sound like a Leo turn of phrase. Later I’d wonder if this was an allegation in some Centre exchange, that those at the Journal had seen, but that I hadn’t. Otherwise it was hard to imagine what was left to concern those T&F lawyers.

Before I could respond to Leo, Richard followed up with another note.

From: Richard James
Sent: Monday, 13 June 2016 8:11 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Geoff, I agree with Leo on this.  As largely an observer thus far, I must say your latest email makes this look like a very personal campaign on your part.  This effectively undermines your argument that your paper was not so – most unhelpful for you.  I urge you not to consider legal action and to withdraw your threat of such. Richard 

And that, gentle reader, is how (old-school) cancel culture works in a university. Someone takes offence at your lack of respect for their status or viewpoint. Your unacceptable view is loudly denounced, publicly or privately. You are permitted no proportional or public right of reply. If you admit to having caused offence and offer to make amends, this proves your guilt. If you take offence at your accuser’s tactics, and respond in kind, this too proves your guilt. Because now your accuser can point to a pattern of offending. If your first offence was an act of prejudice, your second shows it’s personal as well. You must have a private agenda or conflict of interest. How else to explain your evident bias?

(No-one considers that your view may be due simply to a low BS threshold.)

Image source: Southern Lawn Car Park (University of Melbourne)

Somehow a shadowy kangaroo court has been conjured, ready to leap to its own erratic conclusions. And nothing you can say could ever prove your innocence. Unless your first response is to retract, confess, and offer a grovelling apology, the unchecked outrage will soon make you an outcast. Meanwhile, even sympathetic onlookers close to the matter will sit on their hands, rather than risk being cast on the wrong side of it. In this process, the Enlightenment norms of tolerance, presumption of innocence and due process are casually set aside. The privilege your accusers assume is to believe every narrative they author. The privilege onlookers confer is to pretend that no harm is done if the injustice thus inflicted remains uncontested.

For the accused, this is how cancel culture out-kafka’s Kafka.

Later that evening I replied to the two Directors. I didn’t mention the Conversation piece due out the next morning. (When it appeared, they’d see that those other channels didn’t need to be legal channels.)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 13 June 2016 9:31 PM
To: Leo Goedegebuure
Cc: Richard James
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Leo and Richard, I have not been a party to all of your exchanges on this. And you have not been a party to all of mine. Tell me, have either of you ever advised Marginson to withdraw his complaint to the journal? I don’t know all the details of what Marginson has been saying, or threatening to do, ever since mid-March. But none of the signs has been good. Who in my position would not have taken legal advice by now, if only to protect themselves? From the outset this matter has been placed in the legal domain. I contacted Marginson and yourselves to reassure him that my paper didn’t claim what Julie Hare reported it to claim – to spare him distress. In reply the first concern Marginson raised was that my paper contained allegations or inferences of academic fraud – clearly a basis for any claim of defamation. Apparently it’s all right there in the title. And that concern was writ large in the way the Australian reported it. And that view of the paper was then firmly reinforced, by Marginson himself. Then following on from that, the problem he raised with the editor about the journal’s decision to publish was framed as a matter of academic misconduct: ‘Sharrock’s breach of ethics’. Tell me, has Marginson also complained to others at this university along these lines?

From Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925)
Image source: https://www.wort-ensemble.com/zeigt/franz-kafka-der-proces/

Then we have the main basis for the publisher’s decision to withdraw the paper back on 24 March without the author’s consent, as follows: the planned corrigendum won’t do any more, we must now withdraw the paper to avoid the risk of a claim of defamation (by Marginson). Since the second week of March, Marginson has not responded to any of my efforts to address his concerns, at all. As you know, these have been considerable, from the outset. Long explanations of what the paper claims and does not claim; disclosure of draft responses to The Australian; invitations to point out any quote that misrepresents his commentary. So why don’t you two just advise Marginson that he could have withdrawn his objections quite some time ago, and would be well advised to do so now? Then the publisher would not be so constrained by their legal advice; and the editor would not be so conflicted about the matter that he can’t make a decision. Then the paper can be republished, with a few minor amendments as proposed when this came up, and Marginson can exercise his right of reply in the journal; as I suggested three very long months ago. In other words, pretty much exactly what should have happened in the first place. Geoff

Unsurprisingly, neither had any response to this. Later that evening I sent another note to Toronto, with an update on the state of play.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Mon, 13 Jun 2016 at 23:01
To: Gavin Moodie

Thanks Gavin, I’ve called on Marginson to withdraw his complaint to the journal, which implied academic misconduct ‘breach of ethics’ on my part, and which carried an implicit threat of defamation proceedings if the paper was not withdrawn. What began as a storm in a teacup has all the makings of a minor academic publishing scandal. It’s a complicated situation, which could have been resolved three months ago. If he does withdraw then the publisher and editor should feel less constrained. I have a Conversation piece appearing tomorrow, on the general points made in the paper. I hope it won’t be misread the way the article was. Regards, Geoff

The next morning my Conversation piece drew comments from Gavin and Tim and Matt. And from Andrew Norton at the Grattan Institute. And one of my Institute colleagues, Peter Bentley. And quite a few other readers. But no-one else at the Centre offered comment in the online forum.

I didn’t make it in to the office that day. I sent a note to Asa to let her know that we had a sick 9-year-old home from school, and one of us had to stay home.

Later that morning I sent a note to the Journal group to ask to be consulted before they reached a decision. And to alert them to the new Conversation piece.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 14 June 2016 10:30 AM
To: Leo Goedegebuure; Lazzari, Alexandra; Pitt, Josh
Cc: Ian Dobson
Subject: Re: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM

Dear all, Leo has kept me up to date on the discussions underway to resolve the situation. It has been three months since the problem arose and the paper has been in limbo for much of that time. I would like to be consulted about the final proposed resolution. While others may differ, my view remains that Ian’s initial call back in March was the best option: minor amendments to address specific concerns raised, with a corrigendum, should suffice. I believe I have explained well enough to Marginson what my paper claims and does not claim in response to his concerns; I have had no further response to specify where he believes his work has been misrepresented; and I hope he will now be prepared to withdraw his complaint to the journal and take the usual right of reply path, if approached by someone other than myself. If anyone has continuing doubts about the paper’s analysis and argument, two short Conversation articles give the gist of it, one from last October and one from this week (links). Regards, Geoff

That week I’d spend time responding to various reader comments in The Conversation. I referred to both the paper and the media misreporting. But not to the complaint or the Journal problem, at that point.

By Thursday I hadn’t heard back from the Journal, or from Leo about that week’s discussions. But as I sat on the train home that evening, leaning my head against a darkening window as the rain drizzled down outside, an email popped up on my phone.

Geoff, I am sorry I have not been in touch earlier. Are you around for a telephone call…? 

I sighed, sat back and closed my eyes for a moment. Listening once more to that Crowded House song:

Everything gets turned around
And I will risk my neck again…

On Friday morning I was back in the Old Pathology building, chatting with Asa in the office. The phone on my desk buzzed. I looked across at the screen to see who was calling. And left it to ring out. Then got on with my other work.

That evening I was back on the train again, heading for home. I badly needed some family time, and perhaps another episode of Mad Men. I had replied to acknowledge the email but wasn’t ready to talk by phone. I wanted to talk to The Lawyer again, and to think about what to do next week. In the meantime, I thought, let them wait.

My memo from Machiavelli was a long shot. Would it be a magic bullet? Or was I still up shit creek? Gentle reader, it was still too soon to say…

…Up the creek and through the mill
Like all the things you can’t explain
Four seasons in one day…

Further reading in The Conversation

October 2015, OECD comparisons don’t prove our unis are underfunded

June 2016, OECD figures are not what they seem in higher education

September 2018, Australian tertiary education funding is not as low as its seems in OECD metrics

November 2019, Australia’s tertiary education spending grew while commentators cried otherwise

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