The University of Sydney has terminated Professor Manuel Graeber, following his submission of public interest disclosure (PID) about alleged wrongdoing by the University’s management.
Graeber is the President of the University of Sydney Association of Professors (USAP), Vice-President of the Australian Association of University Professors (AAUP) and one of the co-founders of Public Universities Australia (PUA). In 2021 and earlier this year, Graeber submitted a PIDs in his role as USAP President, which he also felt “obliged to do […] as an employee”. A few weeks later, Graeber was suspended from the University and was terminated on Friday 3 November. On the University website, it outlines that “At the University of Sydney, we are committed to a culture of speaking up about wrongdoing. If you witness or become aware of possible wrongdoing, we encourage you to report it.” However, it appears the University management is complicit in a pattern of silencing or penalising those that come forward because Graeber’s is not the only case.
Graeber notes that this case was handled inappropriately, with “no independent investigation” and a Vice-Chancellor that “didn’t ever meet [or] ever wanted to meet”. Graeber notes this similar pattern of experience at another higher education institution. At USyd “neither the Vice-Chancellor nor the Chancellor behaved in line with what I would have expected according to academic standards.”
Because his first PID was mishandled, in his view, Graeber issued an official public vote of no confidence against the Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott and Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson in 2022, “which is a rare thing to do […] and I think now they’ve taken revenge and terminated me.”
The University of Sydney Association of Professors had also made a submission to the previous NSW Minister for Tertiary Education, Tim Crakanthorp. The submission cites a decline in academic standards, arguing that they are a result of a University run by non-academic management teams without academic values, a lack of understanding of high-level expertise needed for each discipline area, authoritarian determinations undermining academic freedom, and a University Senate responsible for oversight of management which does not exercise its governance function.
The submission also highlights two cases of “egregious, destructive authoritarianism” in the University and “failure of the ICAC to investigate potentially corrupt acts”. The first refers to a submission to the Federal Parliament’s Select Committee into the Provision of and Access to Dental Services by a former University academic that claims the current Dean of Dentistry has falsified his credentials and has “damaged teaching in a clinical school and endangered public health, but who is protected by management”. Graeber notes that this is not the first known case of missing credentials that was not addressed as required by management and not investigated by ICAC which made the more recent ICAC rejections so alarming. The second refers to an “instance of management abuse protected by procedure” where staff that speak up are “routinely subject to gas lighting, bullying, harassment, discrimination and unfair dismissal, subject to the significant power imbalance of authoritarian management supported by seemingly unlimited HR and legal resources.”
On the 15th of October, the USAP council released a statement condemning the University’s suspension of Graeber. “The University of Sydney Association of Professors (USAP) has as part of its mission, the role of the Professoriate to stand for and defend academic values and standards, and to similarly support probity in the University. Professor Manuel Graeber is the President of USAP, and has in that capacity made public interest disclosures about alleged wrongdoing by the University’s management. The USAP Council is alarmed that he has been subsequently suspended from employment. These and further circumstances compel the USAP Council to speak in defence of Professor Graeber and to condemn his suspension, an act in seeming retribution by management for him fulfilling his USAP and fundamental academic responsibilities via his public interest disclosures. There has clearly been a profound erosion of university staff’s trust and confidence in the current University of Sydney management.”
Graeber has made two officially recognized public interest disclosures, the second painting a wider picture of the widespread University management misconduct, which was accepted as a PID by the Inspector of ICAC, whilst the first involved “a younger, vulnerable person that was approached by a former head of school […] allegedly attempting to blackmail and bribe them in order to go after their supervisor.” Graeber sees such culture to be reflected in the treatment of his own students as “three of my students have been terminated as unfairly, and a fourth student with publications has been prevented from enrolling for almost two years, and in my view solely to target my work”. When asked about actions since, Graeber added that “The Vice-Chancellor knows about it and has engaged Deloitte to help issue a report that denies all reprisals. However, I believe that all conclusions of the report for which Deloitte is partly or completely responsible are contradicted by provided facts, including evidence held by ICAC. However, the same ICAC officer refused to investigate the issue twice, even when submitted by the Ombudsman, who started an independent investigation which was later blocked.”
Management has been consistently accused of failing to listen to academic staff and employing measures without proper consultation. Graeber emphasises that “I think there needs to be a different executive, a different chancellor, ASAP, because both the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor are not academics. They don’t really know what I’m talking about when I refer to academic values.”
A spokesperson for the University stated “While we’re not able to comment on individual staff matters due to our privacy obligations, we don’t take disciplinary action lightly and all matters are carefully considered and managed in line with our policies and procedures. Our expectations for our staff are outlined in our code of conduct.
“Our community is free to express their opinions, including about the University as our Charter of Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech clearly states; we strongly refute any suggestion we would take action against a staff member for simply doing that.”
Graeber outlines that “this is where the students should really stand up because you don’t deserve this. You deserve better. You pay a lot of money and I think you can expect a proper treatment. The students are the most important part of a university. They are the future. The students and their teachers form the core of every university. Management must serve the academic mission but in Australia it is the reverse currently, which is why legislation needs to be improved, to provide appropriate governance that protects academic values.
“The current Universites Accord is a ladder that is leaning against the wrong wall because academic values were not mentioned a single time in the Accord’s interim report. This needs to be rectified urgently or the condition of the Australian universities will deteriorate further. USAP has asked the NSW government for an external and independent investigation of the current university management but this has not happened yet.”
A website has been established by Graeber which is “dedicated to the support of academic whistleblowers and victims of university management misconduct”. A GoFundMe has been set up as well to support both Graeber’s case and for “the establishment of an Academic Defense Union (ADU) in Australia as there is no such support for academics at present.”