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Taking arts into the digital era

By Stuart Cunningham - posted Thursday, 28 June 2007

Readers of The Courier-Mail and viewers and listeners to local TV and radio could be excused for being concerned, not only over QUT's regard for academic freedom and the humanities but also confused about how these matters are connected.

There has been much commentary on these matters - both locally and nationally - from supporters of the suspended academics, Dr John Hookham and Dr Gary MacLennan, and supporters of the continuation of School of Humanities and Human Services. Nothing less than the reputation of the institution is at stake.

Such institutions live and die on their reputations; these issues require serious consideration.


Hookham and MacLennan wrote a substantial article in The Australian newspaper recently (also republished in On Line Opinion) accusing a doctoral student of a deeply offensive and unethical stance towards the disabled and argued that this was symptomatic of the cultural and ethical relativism engendered by postmodernism in the Creative Industries Faculty of which they are part.

The actual words they used to describe the student's work were "misanthropic and amoral trash produced under the rubric of post-structuralist thought".

About the same time, QUT proposed to close Humanities and Human Services, with Vice-Chancellor Peter Coaldrake saying the humanities would continue at QUT in the shape of creative industries. Some of the debate has also focused on whether QUT's creative industries is part of the humanities at all.

Is this managerial fiat riding roughshod over academic freedom while dispensing with pure humanities in favour of a postmodernist house of cards? It is time now to set the record straight.

The suspension of Hookham and MacLennan followed a unanimous finding by a properly constituted review that they had engaged in academic misconduct through abusive behaviour towards a student and his supervisors.

QUT's code of conduct states "academic staff members have the right to express unpopular or controversial views, but this does not mean they have the right to vilify, defame or intimidate".


This was not the first time that Hookham and MacLennan had written a thoroughgoing put-down of the Creative Industries Faculty and all its works. In 2005, they published a long article in the national press saying that its governing philosophy was rotten to the core, its educational practices were suspect, its students were turned off, and even its precinct was a wasteland.

No matter how harsh staff or the university had thought this attack, it was treated as defensible as an exercise in academic freedom of speech.

What differentiated this latest attack was that it contained virulent criticism of a student for whom the university has a duty of care. This was not a case of academic freedom denied. It is a proven case of academic bullying and intimidation.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on June 22, 2007.

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About the Author

Professor Stuart Cunningham is director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT. His Platform Papers paperback What price a creative economy? (Currency House) was released in July 2006.

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