The Ridd Affair is a debacle for James Cook University

  • Date: 24/04/19
  • Tim Dodd, The Australian

Thank God for the National Tertiary Education Union. Sacked professor Peter Ridd won his Federal Court action against James Cook University this month ­entirely because the university’s enterprise bargaining agreement, negotiated by the union, included a lengthy and carefully worded protection for intellectual freedom.

Peter Ridd with his legal team

And that is the simple fact. Ridd’s win (he was found to have been wrongly dismissed) was a big victory for intellectual freedom in academia, and its legal foundation is in the commitment of the tertiary union to free speech.

Why is last week’s decision, from judge Salvatore Vasta, so important? It helps to look back at the history of this dispute.

First of all, Ridd is a respected scientist. He was head of physics at JCU from 2009 to 2016, and he managed the university’s marine geophysical laboratory for 15 years. He has expertise in studies of the Great Barrier Reef.

But he held concerns about the methodology used by some colleagues who said that coral bleaching on the reef was a recent phenomenon and linked to global warming.

Ridd also questioned the methodology behind findings that sediment in run-off was damaging the reef.

Ridd spoke to journalists and made public statements about these concerns. He questioned the judgments of colleagues and called on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority as well as the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies to “check their facts before they spin their story”.

But the point about this is that Ridd was arguing about scientific judgments. His views may be right or wrong. But they are testable in the way all scientific assertions should be tested — by observation and experiment. Scientific controversies are a staple of the history of science and, eventually, truth outs.

But the university, offended by Ridd’s contrarian views and possibly fearing the impact it would have on its relations with other bodies such as the GBRMPA and the ARC Centre of Excellence, went after Ridd personally, saying that he had breached the university’s code of conduct by not upholding “the integrity and good reputation of the university”.

The university also trawled through Ridd’s work emails and came up with things that reflected on the organisation and some of Ridd’s colleagues.

There was this statement by Ridd: “ … our whole university system pretends to value free debate, but in fact it crushes it whenever the ‘wrong’ ideas are spoken. They are truly an Orwellian in nature.” And this, referring to some colleagues: “Needless to say I have certainly offended some sensitive but powerful and ruthless egos.”

Such statements, in the view of the university, were again not upholding the university’s good integrity and good reputation.

Sensibly, Vasta took the view that Ridd was just exercising his right, contained in the enterprise agreement, to “express opinions about the operations of JCU” and “express disagreement with university decisions and with the processes used to make those decisions”.

Naturally the university doesn’t agree. In a statement last week, issued after the decision, it stood by its view that Ridd “engaged in serious misconduct, including denigrating the university and its employees and breaching confidentiality directions regarding the disciplinary processes”.

“We are a university,” JCU also proclaimed in the statement. “Within our very DNA is the importance of promoting academic views and collegiate debate.”

With respect, it is exactly the lack of commitment to academic and collegiate debate that is the problem.

If the university had taken Ridd’s scientific objections to findings about damage to the Barrier Reef seriously, it’s very unlikely that this debacle — which is highly damaging to the university — would have occurred.

There is another point that needs to be made. The science at issue here is not about whether or not global warming is occurring, or whether or not such warming is caused by humans. What Ridd questioned is whether recent bleaching (which nobody disputes occurred) is itself evidence of warming. Ridd presented evidence — which should have been ­investigated, not summarily dismissed — that bleaching is a recurring phenomenon not specifically linked to warming.

In the court decision, Vasta offered his own defence of intellectual freedom and an implicit rebuke of JCU.

“It (intellectual freedom) allows a Charles Darwin to break free of the constraints of creationism. It allows an Albert Einstein to break free of the constraints of Newtonian physics. It allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth. And that, at its core, is what higher learning is about. To suggest otherwise is to ignore why universities were created and why critically focused academics remain central to all that university teaching claims to offer,” the judge said.

The Ridd affair should be of major concern to the JCU council — the university’s governing body — and its chancellor, former diplomat Bill Tweddell. If the council doesn’t look into why the university sacked a professor whose honestly held scientific views happened to be unpopular, then it’s failing in its duty.

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