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Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under

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Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under

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Submitted by Dr. Binoy Kampmark

A sorry state of affairs has descended upon Australian academic institutions like a suffocating cloak.  Vice-Chancellors and their overly remunerated toadies are getting human relations departments to scribble their apologias for sins against thought.  Overt political opinions, notably when expressed in a manner that might threaten brands and compromised lines of funding, are being hunted down by cadres of paranoid officials.  This process is being undertaken against both staff and students.  Terrible that it should happen to the staff, but when university officialdom turns against the students, it is perhaps time to go into ignominious retirement or advertising.

The move of suspending fourth-year humanities student Drew Pavlou from the University of Queensland had more than a rippling effect.  The May decision made a splash in the New York Times, which started with the sort of description no university would surely wish to be associated with.  “A student activist has been suspended from one of Australia’s leading universities after calling for democracy in Hong Kong and repeatedly criticizing Chinese influence on campus.”

Pavlou was in little doubt why he had received the two year suspension.  “It’s a calculated move to silence me.  It’s because the University of Queensland wants to do everything possible to avoid offending its Chinese allies.”  In Foreign Policy, he explained that he was facing suspension “on the grounds that I ‘prejudiced’ the university’s reputation by using my position as an elected student representative to express support for Hong Kong’s democratic protesters.”

Pavlou was duly served with a dossier of 11 allegations stretching 186 pages.  It would have been interesting, particularly for students, to see what bill was drawn up for that effort, especially given the tight budgets institutions face with diminishing student numbers and the losses caused by the coronavirus.  Typical of the law and order approach that captivates university pen pushers, Pavlou was supposedly not targeted for reasons of free speech but those of safety and reputation.  It was alleged, for instance, that Pavlou had harassed, bullied and threatened a student in a Facebook exchange.

As it transpired, the student in question poured cold water on the whole thing.  Pavlou’s lawyer, Tony Morris QC, received a tart email to the effect that “two of the people involved in the exchange did not make formal complaints to UQ – and I certainly have not.”  Pavlou might well have been “characteristically crass”, but the complaint seemed “largely manufactured.”  This led Morris to the obvious suspicion: what else had been confected in this whole charade of accusations?

Among the hollow allegations was the apparent prejudice caused to the reputation of UQ from a February 14 posting on Facebook advertising a “fictional UQ event” on campus: “US Confucius Institute Panel – Why Uyghur’s [sic] Must be Exterminated”.  The measure of such a university’s vengefulness in terms of guarding its corporate brand knows few bounds.

Pavlou’s suspension at the time was flimsy, poorly executed, a mockery of natural justice.  The disciplinary panel, constituting two academic staff and a student, was always questionable.  Staff members tend to be tenaciously compliant to the sirens of orthodoxy, unless they are not seeking promotion.  And anyone willing to be associated with such show trial efforts is bound to have a “sold” sign on their easily purchased conscience.

On appeal, the sentence was not quashed but merely reduced.  Pavlou was notified in July by the university’s Senate Discipline Appeals Committee that he would be suspended for the rest of the year and required to complete 25 hours of “campus service”, which had the stench of Iron Curtain re-education about it.  Of the 11 charges, only two “serious misconduct” allegations were said to hold water, one involving the fatuous ground of online abuse towards a fellow student, the other involving Pavlou sporting a Hazmat suit outside the office of the UQ vice-chancellor. The skin of authoritarianism is truly thin.

The Appeals Committee was “of the view that the University’s reputation should not be regarded as a fragile or easily bruised thing” but nonetheless took a dim view of Pavlou’s behaviour which showed no signs of “remorse or insight’.

With jaw dropping disingenuousness, UQ chancellor Peter Varghese thought the episode closed.  A reduced sentence, modifying the initial finding he himself had considered stiff, “should finally put to rest the false allegations that this process has been an attack on freedom of expression.” In another statement explaining Pavlou’s automatic disqualification as a member of the UQ Senate, the chancellor reiterated that the relevant findings of serious misconduct had nothing to do with Pavlou’s “personal or political views about China or Hong Kong.”  Lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

In a July 17, 2020 email to UQ alumni, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj showed a mealy-mouthed disposition to be jeered as any politburo missive.  There was no mention of Pavlou; no mention of critics; no mention of a crisis in how universities deal with criticism from the student body.  But the reader was left in no doubt.  “At UQ, we live and breathe an ongoing commitment to the protection and promotion of free speech every day.”  Such freedom had “been fiercely protected by staff and students for decades – exemplified by demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the 1971 anti-apartheid protests.”

Høj, in an effort to court some understanding, recalled his time as a student when he was “actively involved in demonstrations on and off the campus including arguing for a switch to renewable energy solutions following the 1973 oil crisis.”  Having to constantly remind people about a legacy worn and decidedly irrelevant in a corporatized university is a sure sign that a disease has taken hold and is killing the patient.

Significant in the note is how far Pavlou’s activism, the roaring elephant in the room, rattled the functionaries, much of it to do with the China connection.  Høj promised that the university had changed its approach to the Confucius Institute, making sure its staff were “subject to Australian laws and UQ policies.”  Serving foreign government officials would “no longer be offered honorary or adjunct positions”. Sources of international income would also be diversified “to ensure a sustainable financial position.”

Pavlou was crestfallen but keen to take the matter to the Queensland Human Rights Commission.  “UQ still achieves its main goal of removing me as an elected student representative, their supposed lenience is just a face-saving PR move.”  As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch wondered, “Free speech?  Academic freedom?  What’s that?”  What, indeed.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Do those dissidents and their supporters know that throughout the British rule in Hong Kong the Chinese citizens were denied the right to vote or to hold senior executive positions? If they are aware of it then it is treason for the Chinese and if not then them and the supporters are just a bunch of illiterate and gullible morons.

Tommy Jensen


Godfree Roberts

Is an immature student permitted to endanger the stability of the university he attends by making irresponsible, ignorant, public statements about the university’s critical funding source?

In our Roman political tradition, the answer is a resounding ‘maybe’. In China’s Confucian tradition, the answer is ‘no’. Over there, you must be able to take responsibility for the consequences of your words, and Drew Pavlou cannot.

James Adams

Your an idiot mate. Freedom of speech is a god given right. Universities don’t have the right to silence people they don’t like. Go back to China were you belong !!!

Godfree Roberts

I’m an Australian and a graduate of UofQ.

God didn’t give anyone freedom of speech and every government on earth places limitations on it. Sometimes very drastic ones.

In 2011 President Obama ordered the execution of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen, for preaching Wahabbi doctrine and separately executed his sixteen-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter separately, all without trial.

Nobody complained.


Obama is hardly someone to hold up as any kind of standard. Obama killed a fellow citizen without due process, and he was sworn to up hold the Constitution. He is considered a traitor by many. Australians may not have complained, but Americans did. Freedom of speech dates back to the Athenians in 500 BC and was recognized along with freedom of religion by the Romans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech Your argument only makes sense if it was a senior member of the faculty.

Godfree Roberts

Freedom of impotent speech is a Roman tradition.

The US propagandizes it because it changes nothing but makes immature people that they’ve really ‘done something’. It’s a con. If your speech threatens the power elite they kill or imprison you, pronto.

Governments that consistently produce outcomes their citizens desire are democratic while governments that fail to produce desirable outcomes are not–even if they praise democracy and hold elections[1]. China’s does and America’s doesn’t. Plain old.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Democracy in America? U.Chicago Press. 2018

(Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy, Talking Points memo, 4.18.2014)

‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. https://doi.org/10.1017/S153759271400159


Elites and interest groups control both America and China, there is little difference. Senators in America’s Congress and members of the Chinese Congress are all billionaires. So we agree on that at least.

Freedom of speech predates Athenian democracy. It is a fundamental of the human condition. Some may be impotent. Some is potent.

We are talking about some university student blathering on about Hong Kong, which anyone with any education knows is a part of China and subject to her law. His speech threatens no one, truly impotent, hardly not a valid reason for suspension.

Godfree Roberts

China has a Confucian elite, or what Daniel Bell calls a ‘just elite: the most moral, compassionate, serving people in the country, the 93,000,000 members of the Communist Party. They guide the country’s general direction by sampling opinions almost daily.

Less than 2% of the combined congresspeople are rich, while 10% are ethnic minorities. Unlike in our rich people, China’s rich congresspeople have no power beyond their vote because chinese officials are appointed to keep rich people in line. That’s why America has more poor, hungry, homeless and imprisoned people than China even though America is a much richer country.

Godfree Roberts

Trump just did the same by assassinating General Soleimeini. President Wilson imprisoned hundreds of people to ten years for criticizing American involvement in WWI.

The whole ‘free speech’ is a fantasy. A con.


Soleimani was not assassinated to curb his free speech, but because he was a master military strategist, ranking with Rommel of Germany and Giap of Vietnam. Wilson, wouldn’t be surprised if that is true, but you provide no link.

China does have a rich Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist cultural history, and naturally their elite is effected by it, but it is a ‘leap of faith’ to presume they may be more compassionate than America’s.

You are ill informed if you think members of China’s Congress are not billionaires or at least multi millionaires. China has more millionaires and billionaires than America and Europe combined.

Love Taoism, Buddhism and China, but I know the world, money talks, BS walks.

Freedom of speech is the fundamental right of any human, and you may pay for exercising it, but you dishonor yourself if you don’t.


Soleimani was not assassinated because of freedom of speech principles. Different issue. Freedom of speech is a domestic policy issue primarily. (As a moral issue it is universal in scope of course.)


Not sure why you bring communist Obama created kill-list policy to this, but if God did not give you your freedom of speech, who did? And please don’t say the government, try to put some quality in.

Godfree Roberts

I brought President Obama into this because he punished free speech by killing the speaker.

God did’t give anyone anything. The separate god that does things is a childish fantasy. The Divine is our prior Condition and we are not separate from That.


There is no doubt that Obama and other human leaders have many times tried to take away (or punish) the freedom of speech. So we do have it, otherwise it cannot be taken away (or punished). Divine as our prior Condition is an interesting way of looking at it. I have no quibble with that – so it would be interesting to hear what school of philosophy is that? (I might make a guess but prefer to hear it from you.) However I’d say that in the context of a politically oriented discussion such as this, it appears somewhat churlish to point out semantic inaccuracies when people are just trying to keep things simple. For practical purposes “God-given” or “inherently Divine” are the same thing to me. Semantics are important but not in every discussion.

Godfree Roberts

We can find statements like, ‘The Divine is our prior Condition and we are not separate from That’ from Mahayana Buddhists, radical Taoists, and the great Vedantans (among others), but they are not philosophical statements, they are confessions of realization, usually made after decades of practice at the feet of realized Spiritual Masters.

I suggest you reexamine your statement that “God-given” or “inherently Divine” are the same thing. The former implies a separate, giving god and the latter implies non-separation.

James Adams

Communist Chinese students need to be banned from Western universities !!!


Agree, Chinese Communism is now so ramshackle that they even tolerate an untold number of millionaires. Those Chinese students may be re-educated by our far-left western universities and return to China totally reinvigorated as fully-fledged communists. This must be prevented.


Australia has more pressing problems. Despite having only 255 deaths out of a population of 25.5 million, the government has mandated a renewed Lockdown. One more western economy bites the dust.

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