This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
A powerful bureaucracy bullies, berates, isolates, and intimidates a lone critic.
The Peter Ridd court ruling, released last week, is a re-telling of David and Goliath. This is a story about a bureaucratic in-group persecuting a dissenting voice. It’s also a story about widespread dishonourable conduct.
Ridd formerly ran the physics department, and managed James Cook University’s marine geophysical laboratory for 15 years. He was fired in May 2018, after alleging that Great Barrier Reef research affiliated with his university was misleading politicians and the public.
When Ridd first reached out to journalist Peter Michael at the Courier-Mail about his concerns, Michael didn’t protect his source by shielding Ridd’s identity. Instead, he betrayed Ridd by forwarding the full e-mail, accompanied by a few questions of his own, to one of the organizations being criticized – the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Biologist Terry Hughes was at that time, and continues to be, the person in charge at the ARC Centre. That entity’s website tells us “He has published so far 20 papers in Science and Nature.“ In scientific circles, therefore, he’s a golden boy. Getting published once in these prominent venues is an academic career boost.
This same biographical sketch begins by telling us:
In December 2016, Professor Terry Hughes was recognized by Nature as one of the “10 people who mattered this year” for his leadership in responding to the global coral bleaching event caused by climate change…Nature’s 10 dubbed him “Reef Sentinel”, for the global role he plays in applying multi-disciplinary science to securing reef sustainability.
Apparently reveling in the role of a brave sentinel sounding the alarm over climate change, Hughes presents this characterization of himself up front, at the top of the page.
Elsewhere, we learn that his current and recent research funding amounts to a staggering $31 million, with the vast bulk provided by Australian taxpayers. At many universities, professors share their research grants 50/50 with the administration. Hughes, therefore, is a source not only of international prestige for James Cook, but of significant funding.
According to the written judgment of Judge Salvatore Vasta, after receiving a forwarded copy of the detailed e-mail Ridd had sent to the journalist, Hughes declined to respond to the journalist’s questions. He made no attempt to address Ridd’s concerns, to explain why they were unfounded.
Like a child in a sandbox, he instead went running to the teacher. Before two hours had expired, he’d sent an e-mail to Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor Chris Cocklin (to whom both he and Ridd ultimately reported), saying he wished to file a complaint against Ridd.
From that point forward, it was unlikely Ridd would receive a fair hearing, despite the lofty language about impartiality and natural justice in that institution’s Code of Conduct.
University officials were in a clear conflict-of-interest. Their own fortunes were aligned with one side.
They didn’t dare investigate whether their star professor was misusing photographs or exaggerating his scientific conclusions. Such a finding could be humiliating for the university, whose reputation they themselves were supposed to be safeguarding.
Then there was the money angle. Anything that reflected negatively on Hughes could call into question his research grants past, present, and future. When a professor is bringing tens of millions of dollars onto campus, no administrator in their right mind wants to capsize that boat.
Last but not least, the powers-that-be at James Cook needed to worry about offending Hughes. The well-connected biologist might take his toys and go elsewhere.
Judge Vasta twice points to a double standard on the part of the administration. When Ridd did something, it was wrong. When others behaved similarly, it wasn’t even noticed. (See paragraphs 68-70 and 220-222 of the court judgment). In the judge’s words, the “hypocrisy is breathtaking,” and the “irony is even more spectacular.”
As a result of Hughes’ complaint, the university formally censured Ridd. He was found guilty of misconduct, including a failure to “uphold the integrity and good reputation of the University.”
The final sentence in his formal letter of censure urges him, in so many words, to get counseling – providing the telephone number of the university’s “free and confidential” service. The message couldn’t have been plainer. Ridd was the problem.
Three months later, Ridd made a guest appearance on Australian television. A book had just been published to which he’d contributed a chapter about the “extraordinary resilience of Great Barrier Reef corals.” In his view, corals are highly adaptable. They do well in water of various temperatures, and are therefore unlikely to be seriously harmed by climate change.
Ridd talked about the fact that most scientific research isn’t
properly checked, tested or replicated and this is a great shame because we really need to be able to trust our scientific institutions. And the fact is, I do not think we can anymore.
When an interviewer suggested some coral reef scientists were shamelessly “telling the government what they want to hear,” Ridd protested:
that’s possibly a bit harsh. I think that most of the scientists who are pushing out this stuff, they genuinely believe that there are problems with the reef. I just don’t think that they are very objective about the science they do. I think they’re emotionally attached to their subject, and you know you can’t blame them, the reef is a beautiful thing.
He did, however, point out that scientists with whom he differs
will never debate. I’ve often tried, you know. Let’s have a debate of a couple of hours and thrash this out. But they never will.
Once again, Terry ‘crybaby’ Hughes complained to James Cook administrators, and once again the university declared that Ridd had violated the Code of Conduct. Its longstanding position that how Ridd was saying things was the problem would seem to be contradicted by many of its statements, including this one:
The University does not accept that academic freedom justifies your criticism of key stakeholders of the University…
Hughes had specifically complained that Ridd was threatening the institution’s relationships with other entities. Ergo, Ridd needed to be crushed.
Following that television appearance, James Cook initiated a relentless campaign of enforced secrecy. Ridd was repeatedly told he had “confidentiality obligations to the University,” that he was expected “to maintain the confidentiality of this matter,” and that certain actions of his were considered “a direct breach of confidentiality.”
“It is very important,” he was told, “that you comply.” Ridd was forbidden from discussing “these matters with the media or in any other public forum, including social media.” Moreover, during a three-week period in September 2017, the university insisted he wasn’t allowed to tell even his wife what was going on.
Administrators kept pointing to a clause in the employment contract to justify this secrecy. But Judge Vasta says that clause “is written for the benefit and protection of the employee.” It imposes an obligation on the university to keep personal information private. Employees, on the other hand, are at perfect liberty to discuss their own situation with whomever they choose.
In the judge’s words, the confidentiality obligations Ridd was repeatedly told to respect “do not exist.”
The overall picture, therefore, is of widespread dishonourable conduct. A powerful bureaucracy bullies and berates. It isolates and intimidates a lone critic who, in another universe, would have been receiving whistleblower protections.
The pettiness here is shocking. Ridd was forbidden from saying anything that “directly or indirectly trivializes…or parodies the University taking disciplinary action against you.” Administrators claim he disobeyed that order when he sent an email to a student with the subject line: “for your amusement.”
Worried that Ridd’s troubles might adversely affect a joint project, Fernando Pinheiro Andutta, an academic colleague who worked elsewhere, sent Ridd an e-mail wondering “if maybe you could avoid stirring the pot for a little bit.”
Ridd’s response included this sentence: “In any case I am not sure I have any influence on the outcome.” According to James Cook administrators, those words were proof he’d denigrated the university to a third party.
The judge characterizes further administrative allegations against Ridd as “totally bereft of logic,” “extremely peculiar,” having “no substance whatsoever,” and lacking “the slightest scintilla of evidence.”
While officials at James Cook University excelled at making Ridd’s life miserable, they collectively appear to have lost sight of the reason society spends enormous amounts of money on higher education.
A university is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas. It’s supposed to be an arena where conflicting perspectives are examined and challenged. That process won’t always be pleasant for those involved, but the last thing administrators are supposed to do is prevent this from taking place. In the words of Judge Vasta:
Incredibly, the University has not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom. In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset.
|Climate Change: The Facts 2017||Anthony Watts, Matt Ridley, et al|