Murdoch University has dropped plans to sue a lecturer who spoke out about student exploitation, in news welcomed by the whistleblower, his lawyers and the tertiary education union.
Murdoch prompted outrage among academics, in Australia and globally, when it decided to sue the mathematics lecturer Gerd Schröder-Turk for speaking to the ABC’s Four Corners about the treatment of international students.
Schröder-Turk said the university was accepting students who were below its English standards, effectively exploiting them in pursuit of revenue and jeopardising academic integrity and student welfare.
He later said Murdoch University had taken reprisal action against him by seeking to remove him from the university’s senate. He challenged his treatment in the federal court and, in response, the university countersued him for damaging its reputation.
The Perth university’s actions prompted criticism in October from more than 50 of Australia’s most distinguished professors, who said it posed a grave risk to academic freedom and set a “dangerous precedent”. Their warning followed a previous open letter from 23 academics across the globe protesting against Schröder-Turk’s treatment, sent in May.
On Monday, Murdoch University said it was dropping the financial component of its counter-claim. Schröder-Turk welcomed the news in a statement issued by his lawyers.
“The counter-claim by the university has caused me and my young family a great deal of unnecessary stress,” he said. “I have always acted in the best interest of the university, its students and its staff, and have done so in very difficult circumstances.”
He said his concerns about student welfare remained.
The National Tertiary Education Union said the university must now also drop the remainder of its lawsuit against the whistleblower and stop attempts to remove him from the university senate. Its general secretary, Matthew McGowan, said the university’s tactics were designed to intimidate.
“It was patently absurd to think that a university would sue a staff member for millions of dollars in damages,” McGowan said. “Murdoch has rightly received international condemnation for its action, and it’s pleasing to see that the university is finally seeing some sense on this issue.
“But we still fundamentally disagree with Murdoch management about what is the real essence of this matter. This is about academic freedom – the right of a staff member to speak openly about issues and concerns about their institution without fear or favour – and if Murdoch management cannot understand this then they shouldn’t be running a university.”
Murdoch has denied suggestions the dispute was about academic freedom. In a statement to its staff, the university said it simply concerned “senate governance” and whether Schröder-Turk breached his responsibilities as a senate member.
“The university maintains that all members of senate must uphold their duties,” the statement said. “In doing so, there is a requirement as both a matter of law and a matter of principle that members of the senate must at all times act in the best interests of the university and not use their position to cause detriment to the university.
“This is important for Murdoch University, as every university relies on sound governance to operate effectively.”
Schröder-Turk is a member of the Australian Institute of Physics, which also spoke out about his treatment. “The AIP strongly defends the right of staff and students of academic institutions to respectfully question their organisations in order to pursue excellence and maintain high academic standards,” it said in a statement in October.
The university said it is eager to conclude the court case, and dropped plans to sue Schröder-Turk in that spirit. But it also told staff: “The university wishes to make clear that there are important principles at stake and will continue its defence of Associate Professor Schröder-Turk’s legal action against the university.”