Academic freedom prevails at Murdoch University

Murdoch University has agreed to abandon its attempts to silence a West Australian academic who blew the whistle on poor treatment of international students.

Murdoch University attempted to remove Associate Professor Gerd Schröder-Turk from his elected position representing academics on its University Senate and personally sue him in the Federal Court after his appearance on ABC’s Four Corners Program. That legal claim and the threat to remove the Associate Professor from the Senate has now been withdrawn by Murdoch University as part of a legal settlement of the case.

The legal battle began in May 2019 when Dr. Schröder-Turk appeared on ABC’s Four Corners commenting on Murdoch University’s practices with respect to international students.

After the program went to air, Murdoch University took immediate steps to remove him from its university Senate which Dr Schröder-Turk challenged as unlawful in the Federal Court of Australia. Following this, Murdoch made the unprecedented move to sue Dr Schröder-Turk himself for millions of dollars in compensation.

The settlement includes both parties withdrawing legal action, and importantly, allowing Dr. Schröder-Turk to continue to represent staff on the Senate with the motion to remove him withdrawn.

“This is a momentous day for academic freedom”, said Dr Alison Barnes, NTEU National President. “All academics, including those elected onto our university senates, have the right to speak publicly about matters that concern Australian universities, which may include criticism of their own institution. This is fundamental to ensuring that academics are free from the threat of penalty or persecution in the pursuit of truth”, she said.

“NTEU, its members and the broader community stood with Gerd in a historic campaign to support him and academic freedom. Students, media, civil society and politicians all supported Gerd, as his actions symbolise how society should cherish intellectual freedom and critical thought. Not only that, the community clearly denounced Murdoch’s actions in attacking him for standing up for vulnerable international students.”

Associate Professor Schröder-Turk said: “I am glad the court proceeding has now finished. I look forward to continuing to contribute to the governance of Murdoch University through my membership of its Senate, and to contributing to the broader public discussion around governance and international student recruitment practices of public universities.”

He went on, “I gratefully acknowledge the NTEU. My membership of the NTEU has enabled me to defend my right to speak and to defend my reputation. The NTEU also enabled hundreds of its members to send me caring messages of sympathy and strong expressions of support, all of which were essential for helping me and my family through a very difficult year.

“I hope that in a few years’ time we can look back at this case as one that has highlighted the substantial benefit of staff representation on university governing boards. I hope it empowers the academic and professional staff representatives on governing boards across the country, not just at Murdoch.” he said.

Maurice Blackburn Principal Josh Bornstein, who represented Dr Schröder-Turk, welcomed the resolution reached between the parties:

“This claim and its resolution underline the importance of the general protections provisions of the Fair Work Act, and the critical protections they afford whistle-blowing employees. It has been a privilege to represent Dr Schröder-Turk and we are delighted that he and the University have been able to resolve this matter.”

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