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Home  >  The social experiment  >  A brief summary...

A brief summary of the Griffith affair

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Haven't got the time to read through all that? Here is a brief summary of the main points, including the players and their role (see for any responses - they may be helpful to other students).

It may help other students realise what is possibly in store for them should things go wrong during the course.

Note that individuals and larger entities are mentioned by starting at the centre and more or less moving to the periphery of the entire affair; therefore the sequence is not necessarily chronological.

It all started at Griffith University, in particular at the School of Information and Communication Technology (IT School). My honours thesis received barely a Pass, making it impossible to pursue my academic career.

The main examiner was the late Dr Terry Dartnall. In his report he criticised statements I never made, alleged the absence of other sections which did in fact exist, and on occasions applied his own political ideology in order to devalue my work (can ideology be brought into the context of computing and artificial intelligence? Yes it can). The second examiner, Mr Don Abel, followed in Dr Dartnall's footsteps.

When I first read the reports I thought they had got my name mixed up.

If any of the staff had been so sure they were right and I was wrong, all they had to do was invite me in, go through my appeal point by point and demonstrate the error of my ways, possibly even record the conversation, have me sign some document for good measure and that would have been the end of the matter. For the appeal see the page "Response to an evaluation".

Instead Professor Rodney Topor sent me a letter assuring me that my appeal was reviewed by an "independent external expert" and the grade would stand.

This was followed by a similar letter from Deputy-Vice-Chancellor W J Lovegrove, confirming that my "Honours dissertation has been assessed by an independent reviewer external to the University".

Then for the next three years I had other things to do, such as writing down the results of my research into how the mind works (now done in private of course), resulting in the book "On the origin of Mind".

My first supervisor had been Professor Grigoris Antoniou, the second one had been Professor Marilyn Ford. At no time during the honours year did either of them indicate in any way or form that my thesis was going awry.

Professor Barry Harrison, as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology and Chair of the Assessment Board, relied on the feedback from the IT School staff when he wrote to me saying the issues I raised "do not justify a change in grade".

A request under the Freedom of Information Act was responded to by A C McAndrew, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Administration) and Freedom of Information Officer, stating that only Dr Dartnall's report could be found but that the other two had not been kept on file or had been destroyed in the meantime.

This was only partly true; Don Abel's report was later found by the police, showing date and signature.

As to that third "independent and external" examiner, when staff at the IT School tried to figure out who it could have been, Legal Officer Glen Miller and Administrative Officer Sasha Ovuka considered my two supervisors as possible candidates, and also thought it could have been a lecturer from another faculty (but still part of Griffith). The respondents all denied it of course but it is interesting that on one hand I am being officially assured my appeal had been handled correctly, while out of view the staff seriously considered someone even as close to the student as his supervisors.

More went on behind the scenes. Professor Peter Bernus, now Head of the IT School, belittled my work in an internal email to the rest of academic staff insinuating one needed to be under the influence of "recreational drugs" in order to appreciate it.

Dr Ovidiu Noran called me a "whacko" because I kept complaining.

Natalie Dunstan, Personal Assistance to the Director of the Institute for Integrated and Intelligent Systems at Nathan Campus, expressed her concern for my "mental health and staff members safety (sic)". She thought I was being defamatory, reducing the "high standard of Griffith".

"High standard"?? On every one of the four occasions I talked to a solicitor at the Caxton Legal Centre they told me about the complaints they had heard against the university and what kind of tactics it employed to ward off pesky students. The Centre was unable to offer any real help. Not because the facts were disputed, but because universities are largely autonomous and within the institution the law has not much to say. This has been confirmed over and over again.

The university's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian O'Connor, wanted to have my website taken down. Advice on that matter was sought from and offered by the law firm Minter Ellison Lawyers. Whatever the latter had come up with, no server-related attempt eventuated to take the site down. Still, the Vice-Chancellor was more interested in protecting himself and the staff than getting to the truth. Chancellor Leneen Forde, in all her sacrosanct officialdom, could never be bothered. I guess Ian O'Connor's salary of over $750,000 a year is something worth protecting (as of 2014, it is now $804,999), and with the kind of status it confers the poor student doesn't stand a chance. To become part of the fraud means nothing to these two.

And then there was the ghost-like appearance of someone calling himself Albert Petersen, supposedly a student of Journalism at Griffith who wanted a meeting so he could learn more. His email contacts were tenuous at best and in the end he never showed up anyway. His active Griffith email address proved he was registered there, but Professor Jock MacLeod, Head of the School of Humanities, told me in writing his School had no record of a student by that name.

The outlandish claims made in the examiners' reports together with the subsequent responses by Griffith's staff raised my suspicions from the very beginning that there was something which had to be hidden at all costs. What exactly the reasons were for the tone of the initial evaluation only Dr Dartnall would have been able to answer conclusively, but he is deceased; was it professional jealousy (he himself wanted to discover how the mind works and discussed the matter with his students on many occasions), was it political correctness, or something even more personal? (Griffith University has a history of favouritism towards the leftist-feminist element; if you are on their side you've got it made, if not - watch out! See the opposition, search for "In my first year of study") Perhaps the incident towards the end of the honours year (see Griffithgate, search for "About a month before") caused him to overreact to avoid any blame. Yet what happened afterwards emerged bit by bit as the documents became available. They all confirmed my suspicions about Griffith's fraudulent behaviour.

Despite the evidence there appears to be no legal framework through which those matters can be addressed. Evidence, it should be noted, which mostly came to light due to a police investigation. It is deeply lamentable that only a certain provocation (carrying risks by itself) will make it available, otherwise it would have remained hidden. And if the university does not come to the table, no court will force it to do so.

The series of these events show how difficult if not impossible it can be for a student to achieve a productive resolution should their course go off the rails, especially if the consequences mean their subsequent career options have been destroyed.

Over the years the following individuals and/or entities have been contacted but none offered any help. They either referred me to someone else (ie, another on the list), or they determined that their brief does not include dealing in such matters, or they kept the information on file for later. In alphabetical order they are -

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission;
Australian Universities Quality Agency (Universities Australia before, and before that the Vice Chancellors Committee, now subsumed under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency - see below);
Crime and Misconduct Commission;
Federal Department of Education;
Federal Ombudsman;
Queensland Department of Education;
Queensland Ombudsman;
Queensland Police Commissioner;
Queensland Premier's Department;
State and federal representatives (whoever they were at any time);
Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee;
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency;
The Carrick Institute.

Their responses have one thing in common: all referred to more general and/or their own particular statutes which allowed them to dismiss the matter and not get involved. At the same time, actions such as inventing statements, lying in official correspondence, or drawing one's university into the realm of bigotry and human rights abuses, ought to be actionable in the interests of wider society. Griffith University is also well known among Brisbane's legal circles for being obstructionist. As it is, the law has been carefully designed to protect the university, and the university with its considerable resources has the means to weave its way through the legal framework. Outside academia such actions, especially by none other than Vice-Chancellor O'Connor, would make that person a criminal and a traitor.

In other words, as a student you are on your own.

To some extent my experience would rest on the adversarial legal system in place here. Even if a police investigation should reveal damning evidence, someone with a good legal team (and they get very expensive) gets off the hook nevertheless. For example, a motor cycle gang employs a barrister to the tune of $12,000 a day to keep the law at bay; they seem to have been successful so far. Either they have done something illegal or they haven't, so it is difficult to see the logic where it not for the fact that a professional in law gets away with charging that kind of money because he is able to persuade the judge his client is a good citizen after all. So what matters here? It obviously isn't the law. Is it the status that comes with such payments, the connections, a $12,000/day guild which needs a good-looking score board?

Add to that the somewhat lax interpretation locals have about what is ethical and what is not (euphemistically called the "larrikin culture" here) and life can be perplexing. That such 'pranks' can have serious consequences for their targets is not really comprehended.

Particularly foreign students (and as far as this affair is concerned, I would be in a similar position given my different cultural background) could find it hard to understand that evidence hardly matters once the perpetrator has the financial clout to get away with it. In the case of Griffith University one could add political clout as well.

PS: There is another factor: if someone unjustly declares you a failure it is your duty to defend yourself. A duty before oneself, one's family and ancestors, one's culture. Australians do not understand that. Their young society, still searching for something they can call identity, is not yet mature enough to understand. To them it seems ridiculous.

PPS: Quite apart from the immediate issues raised here, the affair also demonstrates the gap between a steadily growing demographic which holds perception and make-believe above a rational assessment of reality and those having their feet on the ground. So far we still have activities where reality counts and where ideology, emotion, and convenient thoughts stand aside. Activities such as flying aircraft, the military, scuba diving, taking a vessel across the sea. Not only have I been involved in those, I grew up with them. There are others of course, such as police work, fighting fires, running an ambulance, emergency doctors, and such. Unfortunately, Western society has cultivated an atmosphere in which personal belief is celebrated and anyone able to supply the relevant theatrical emotions is given the advantage. The consequences reach far beyond the current scenario.

The latest (as of 21 July 2019):
To become a recipient of an Order of Australia award is no small matter. Even to be nominated for one puts the individual concerned in a special category. As the highest recognition for outstanding service it resonates with a sense of responsibility, of commitment, of a connection with the very core of the society one belongs to. The same goes for the persons who nominate - they too access such core aspects of their wider community. An honourable status is one thing, for that status to be fully enlivened it has to be appreciated by the rest. As such the honour is - indirectly but no less significantly - shared by all.

In 2017 Ian O'Connor, Griffith University's former vice-chancellor mentioned on these pages, was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. There may have been certain contributions to academia, but there also has been his involvement in fraud and subterfuge as outlined here. Then there was his secretive attempt to bring a member of the Saudi regime to his Nathan campus.

Awards should not be bestowed upon criminals and traitors. In 2017 a request was made to the Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat (part of the office of Australia's Governor-General) to have Mr O'Connor's award rescinded. I was advised the process of consideration would take a year or longer and when by 2019 (and at the time of writing) no such decision had been published in the Commonwealth Gazette I asked for more clarification.

However, according to the Secretariat's director her office does not comment "regarding the possible or actual termination or cancellation of an award in the Order of Australia". Therefore the Australian Information Commissioner was approached for information about the Secretariat's decision and/or its progress. On their advice a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI Act) was made to the Governor-General's office. This is where it gets really interesting.

As the Deputy Official Secretary to the Governor-General informs me, only documents of an administrative nature can be revealed to the public under the FoI Act. Since the decision and/or decision-making process regarding Ian O'Connor's award is not of an administrative nature, I was refused access.

So, according to their semantics whatever happens within the rooms of the Awards Secretariat is either not documented at all (hence no records), or those actions are not deemed to be of an administrative nature.

Without going into the finer aspects of governance vs administration, the process of government needs the administrative framework in order to function formally, transparently, and above all, traceably. Bureaucracy, that encompassing term for the wheels of government, can be tedious, can at times be obsessive, but is always fundamental to a lawful state.

On the other hand, certain rules inserted into the framework can serve its players as a form of protection against unwanted attention. 'The office followed the law' - a convenient retort should some process have been found ethically untenable. It has become a matter of people serving the law, rather than the law serving the people.

The arrangement is reminiscent of the times when an arrogant elite rode through peasants' fields and villages, trampling their produce at their whim, thus depriving the people of their livelihood. Yet should any of them raise their voice the whip cut across their face. The law was on the side of the elite; it was the angry peasants who were at fault.

When it comes to decisions regarding one of the highest elements of a society's culture, the details remain hidden. Nor is it found necessary to shed light on who the nominators are, the individuals whose perceptions are responsible for placing a certain person at the apex of a nation's values. In this particular case, who were they, what was their motivation, how do they themselves relate to society in general?

Could it also be that the functional space containing Britain's monarch as Australia's ultimate head of state is as shielded as ever from any questioning glance by the populace, a historical distinction between the aristocracy and the ruled going back centuries?

Then there is the recent rebuke by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan to universities over growing concerns about Chinese government influence in institutions (Matthew Killoran, "Uni alert on China Influence", Courier Mail, 26 July 2019). Griffith University is mentioned specifically, having entered into a contract with the Beijing-linked Confucius Institute whereby the university "must accept the assessment of the (Confucius Institute) Headquarters on the teaching quality". The non-chalant nature applied by Griffith to Chinese students hacking into its computers has already been mentioned here (see 1. Spies). It should be noted that the Higher Education Standards Framework requires universities to ensure that their information systems are maintained securely to prevent unauthorised or fraudulent access *).

Academic freedom has been at the centre of the universities' evolution. The challenges are ongoing. Dr Hannah Forsyth discusses those challenges Australian Universities face within the context of their autonomy and the public interest; after all, "University knowledge has been seen as a way to assure the health, safety and civility of the nation", she writes.

It is a tragic irony that this autonomy is being used to play host to the very enemy an academic freedom is meant to guard against.

*)  Stephen Erskine, Branch Manager, Governance, Quality and Access Branch, Department of Education, Australian Government, Canberra, 20 August 2019.

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