The Right to Speak Out

Opinion – Mark Amsler

What do Labour MP Jacinda Ardern (Auckland City, Labour spokesperson for youth affairs), investigative journalist Nicky Hager, Green Party candidate Vernon Tava (Northcote), the Auckland University Student Union, the WeAreTheUniversity grassroots student …


The Right to Speak Out

Mark Amsler
27 September 2011

What do Labour MP Jacinda Ardern (Auckland City, Labour spokesperson for youth affairs), investigative journalist Nicky Hager, Green Party candidate Vernon Tava (Northcote), the Auckland University Student Union, the WeAreTheUniversity grassroots student activist organization, the Tertiary Education Union (TEU), and hundreds of students and staff of the University of Auckland know that Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon does not know?

Maybe the real story.

On Monday, 26 September, WeAreTheUniversity and other activist groups organized a rally and demonstration in the centre of the University of Auckland campus as part of a National Day of Action at universities across New Zealand. People gathered at the quad in the student commons to voice their dissent and to call for defeat of the Act-sponsored Voluntary Student Membership bill wending its way through Parliament this week. The VSM bill limits support for university student unions on a naïve user-pays model and effectively dries up funding for many important activities on campuses, such as student orientation, courses and careers day, political, social, and religious clubs of all sorts, student-sponsored activities such as guest speakers and political debates. The rally drew speakers from Labour and Green parties, the TEU, AUSU, University of Auckland students (not just WeAreTheUniversity folks), and people across New Zealand. All spoke against not only the VSM bill but the broader attacks on universities by neoliberal and centre-right political powers, starting with PM John Key, Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon, and Minister of Tertiary Education and National’s ‘Mr. Fix-it,’ Stephen Joyce.

However, come Monday evening, Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon again started spinning out his fictions and calling them the real thing. Can Professor McCutcheon recognize a different point of view or a reasoned alternative analysis if it stands on his doorstep and yodels?

The day after the rally (Tuesday), on National Radio and other media outlets, Professor McCutcheon’s tactic was to trivialize the event, calling the rally ‘misdirected.’ The demonstrators, which he incorrectly implied were only students, were confused, he said, ineffective, and threatening. Then, without missing a beat, Professor McCutcheon asserted that he is not ‘opposed’ to demonstrations on campus.

I don’t think Professor McCutcheon understands what the rally organized by the grassroots activist group WeAreTheUniversity and attended by a range of staff and students from across the University was all about. In fact, he said he didn’t understand what it was about. But those who were there certainly did. According to staff and students, the rally was carefully organized, the speakers well informed and on target, the key issues in the controversy openly stated. Rather than a random set of NOs, the WeAreTheUniversity rally connected the dots with information and critique, and with some harsh but creative political signs. Speakers made explicit how the VSM bill was just one wedge in a multi-front, broad attack on universities worldwide. Gutting student unions, forcing academic teachers and researchers into narrower boxes of what ‘counts’ in the neoliberal university with little or no chance to influence key policies governing teaching, research, discipline, and public service or non-academic work, shifting the bulk of students’ debt burden for a university or polytechnic education onto students themselves – all these are part of a wider attack on universities by governments and neoliberal administrators and their business allies who want to make sure academic staff and students are even more aligned with profit-making, knowledge transfer research, and higher tuition fees. In all this, of course, is a much deeper battle over which university programmes, majors, and graduate recruitment strategies serve the best ‘interests’ of the neoliberal University agenda.

But back to the rally. The response of the Senior Management at the University of Auckland to the WeAreTheUniversity rally and march on Nathan House conflict sharply with the Vice-Chancellor’s statement about freedom of speech and dissent on campus. In fact, the administration’s response was threatening and borderline hysterical.

If the University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor is not afraid of dissent on campus, why were University of Auckland security guards at three different locations observed on Monday morning ripping from building walls flyers and posters announcing the rally on that afternoon at 1 pm? Only the rally posters, not posters announcing other campus activities and events?

If the University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor is not afraid of dissent on campus, why were the main entrance doors of the University Library locked down AFTER the demonstrators had marched past the library, leaving students inside and outside the library stranded and confused? When confronted by one academic staff member as to what was going on, a security guard at the main library entrance said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ According to students stuck outside the library, when they tried to enter the building through a back door, the guard told them no one could enter the library because there was a ‘riot’ on campus. The administration’s appeals to ‘health and safety concerns’ are specious here. So it’s okay to protect students by allowing them to leave the library and be swept up in the so-called ‘riot’ going on outside? In fact, I was standing at the library main entrance all this time. There was no riot, and the sight of all students being prevented from entering the library was discouraging. The demonstration and protest had already moved past Nathan House, the Clock Tower, and the library, and was headed down the street to the new, flash Owen G Glenn Business building, heavily funded by a donation from the prominent New Zealand businessman and entrepreneur. Calling the marching protestors or the quiet plaza in front of the library at that point a ‘riot’ is laughable, or insidious.

If the University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor is not afraid of dissent on campus, why, apparently, were the main entrance and exit doors to the Kate Edger Commons at the plaza level also locked down at the same time, again presumably to control the alleged ‘riot’ going on on campus as a result of the WeAreTheUniversity rally?

When the marching protestors reached the Owen Glenn Business building and briefly occupied a portion of the building and then sat down in a public intersection, the administration’s hysteria was in full view. City police were called to the scene. Video replay (thanks to YouTube) and student and staff eyewitness reports indicate that the majority of the pushing, shoving and whupping going on at the scene occurred after, not before, the police arrested one of the demonstrators as they left the Owen Glenn building. The security people’s actions are in line with the administration’s earlier use at the rally of video surveillance as intimidation, not just policing as normal in 2011.

What is the Vice-Chancellor afraid of? Maybe he’s afraid that time is running out for his fictions. Maybe he’s afraid a different university of critical engagement, knowledge making, and social imagination is emerging. Maybe he’s afraid that what’s going on in the Quad and on the streets and in many classrooms will seep into the University’s Senate meeting room. Maybe not everyone agrees with the directions he’s been taking the University over the past five years.

Then came the coup de grace. That evening, the Minister of Education and Mr Fix-it, Stephen Joyce, told students, not just Monday’s demonstrators, but apparently all uppity students, to ‘keep their heads down’ and think twice before speaking out against the National government’s plans for the future of New Zealand students in tertiary institutions. He called the students ‘privileged’ and implied that other New Zealanders were jealous or critical of them for being, well, privileged. Mr. Joyce’s vague invocation of class warfare rings hollow. New Zealand’s tertiary tuition fees are seventh highest in the OECD. New Zealand universities today have more restricted entry not because they don’t want students but because education funding cuts have limited the number of properly supported places available to qualified applicants, applicants who have achieved University entrance. Education-seeking young people with knowledge and skills, not the consumers imagined by neoliberal university managers.

Mr. Joyce’s comment is even more ominous than the University of Auckland senior administration’s decision to lock down the library. Is ideological war getting real?

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Mark Amsler is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Auckland.

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