I never thought in my career as an academic, I would be persecuted by a State for no other reason than doing my job.
My case in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was not part of a systematic persecution of academics, but was as a result of my activities as Vice-Chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology starting in 2012. In this role, I am duty bound to uphold the provisions of our University Act, and carry out the government’s policy of reducing the size of the University Council, and improving the quality of teaching by hiring academics with a PhD. In this role, I pointed out the need to set up an accounting system and appoint an internal auditor. External auditors had given an adverse opinion about the university’s financial practices since 2005, but Council had failed to hold management accountable to take measures in this respect.
These actions brought me into conflict with some members of the former University Council. The former Chancellor tried to dismiss me in an impetuous manner for no valid reason. He alleged that I was “arrogant”, and considered this a sufficient ground for dismissal. Former Council members put tremendous effort into lobbying the highest levels of government, and spreading silly and baseless allegations about me, provoking political interventions against me. These allegations involved the validity of my doctorate degree, and supposed identity theft. (The fact that my credentials and identity had extensively been checked by former employers in the USA (World Bank, School for Field Studies) and Europe (University of Ghent in Belgium, and Maastricht University in the Netherlands) was conveniently ignored. Fortunately, it was quite easy to produce recently legalised copies of my credentials and a full background check.)
On 17 April 2012, students launched the first two-week class boycott. During this time, I was able to escape from the gunmen some of my adversaries hired. Similarly, I avoided arrest by rogue policemen, who acted on frivolous and made-up complaints.
Meanwhile, our legal strategy was pro-active and prevented my dismissal or imprisonment. We were successful in preventing my legal dismissal, and I was never taken off the payroll. This strategy led to us filing an appeal at the Supreme Court, which was finally accepted on 12 December 2013.
Regrettably, I could not avoid being deported, twice on 8 February and 9 March 2013, and manhandled on a plane back to Australia. Remarkably, when I was deported I was still in possession of a valid work visa, a blatant breach of the due process and violation of my human right to return to my place of residence.
After my deportations, I was generously hosted by James Cook University in Cairns (Queensland), which is a member of the Scholars at Risk Network. My adversaries tried to force my ouster there also, and were able to influence certain sectors of the university, which have an interest in maintaining friendships with the ruling government in PNG. Fortunately, these forces were isolated and were neutralized by my engaging in a vigorous campaign of truth telling via my blog and Facebook page. The Vice-Chancellor, Sandra Harding, continued to stand behind the principles of the Scholars at Risk Network, including the principle that scholars should be free to work without fear or intimidation.
Meanwhile the combined efforts of my legal team, my active social media campaign, and nonviolent tactics of activists at UNITECH and in the country brought victory. Especially important was the support of the Chancellor, Sir Nagora Bogan, the united staff organisations, and the principled non-violent tactics of the Student Representative Council’s (SRC), including the proclamation of the SRC’s president Eddy Nagual to end the boycott in case any threats or violent means were used, which was crucial to mobilizing wider support among all stakeholders.
It ended happily with my return to the University on 3 April 2014, when I was carried onto campus by jubilant students who had just finished another five-week class boycott aimed at obtaining the restitution of my work permit and my return.
Mine was the first case in PNG in which a civil society movement obtained a major concession from the government. We can hope that all parties learned the importance of upholding the due process of law, and defending university autonomy and academic freedom. At the least, it offers several lessons for scholars facing similar pressures, and those seeking to assist them.
First, the support and attention of domestic and international advocates kept my situation visible. An article published in Times Higher Education was particularly helpful.1 (Its author David Matthews later tweeted it was the most bizarre story he had ever covered.)
Second, my vigorous self-defense, especially through social media, allowed me and my allies to combat the lies and slanders against me with the truth.
Third, support from James Cook University, a Scholars at Risk Network member, and especially its Vice-Chancellor, gave me a base from which to keep up my defense.
Finally, for me personally, I decided early on that this episode was not going to define who I was, or influence my academic career in any manner. Time will tell, whether I became any wiser as a result.