The case of a "Holocaust Denier on Campus" offered Waikato University some important, difficult lessons. Did it take them onboard?
How is it that Waikato University, that famous bastion of political correctness, finds itself repeatedly embroiled in controversies involving members of the unpalatable far right?
The simple and obvious answer to this question? Because Waikato University's management keeps mucking up.
Nine years ago, when I was editor of Waikato Student union's magazine Nexus, I published a six-page article about racist, anti-Semitic, Holocaust denier Hans Joachim Kupka. My article revealed that he had enrolled at Waikato University to complete a Doctoral thesis on a topic that would likely involve approaching German-speaking Jews for participation.
Looking back at that article today, I cringe at some of the tabloid language we student media types used ("If you read only one issue of Nexus all year, make it this one" blared the front-cover), but it remains one of the most important stories that I think I have ever been involved in telling.
National and even international media picked up on it immediately. It was a heated, confrontational time on campus. There were very emotional protests against the University's handling of Kupka. There were nasty online rants from fascists and Holocaust deniers, complete with bizarre threats.
Eventually, an external investigation was held by William Renwick. It was a constructive, intelligent review, which concluded: "The controversy that came to surround Mr Kupka did not happen of its own accord. It took on its very particular character through the decisions of individuals, university committees, and administrators."
To me, one of the most disturbing parts of the long-running Kupka saga was that university administrators failed to ever appreciate that the best way to deal with the controversy was to bring it out into the open. Instead, they gave the appearance that they would dearly love to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. And – most insulting – they treated Jewish staff who expressed concern early on in the piece as though they were just annoying trouble-makers.
The external reviewer recommended that then-vice chancellor Bryan Gould apologise to the Jewish community for the university's failure to deal with cultural concerns, and its inattentiveness to its statutory duty to permit public scrutiny of the ethical standards applied to Kupka's doctoral research. Gould followed the official prodding and issued an "apology" through the media.
Nine years later, the controversy over a thesis about New Zealand fascist Kerry Bolton seems a bizarre mirror-image of the Kupka affair.
This time around, it is a thesis about a fascist, and supervised by a prominent member of the Waikato Jewish community, Professor Dov Bing: an excellent academic whose area of expertise includes Holocaust Denial and the Far Right.
Once again, it is student magazine Nexus that has the inside word. An excellent feature article by editor Josh Drummond shows, I think, that either Waikato University learned nothing from the Kupka case about the benefits of communication and transparency, or it has forgotten the lessons too quickly.
The thesis this time is by Masters of Arts in Philosophy, Roel van Leeuwen, and it is titled, "Dreamers of the Dark: Kerry Bolton and the Order of the Left Hand path, a Case-study of a Satanic-Neo-Nazi synthesis". It looks at the transition of an organisation from being a Satanic order led by a neo-Nazi (Bolton) to an openly neo-Nazi Order that uses Satanic philosophy to justify and popularise its conception of National Socialism."
I find it disturbing and fascinating. If you're interested, you can download it yourself as a PDF here.
One day last September, without notifying van Leeuwen or his supervisors (Professor Bing and Marg Coldham-Fussell), the university removed this published, marked, First Class with Honours thesis from its library and online publishing repository.
It did so because of a complaint from Bolton. (Check out his Wikipedia entry here). He demanded "financial compensation" from Waikato, and complained of high blood pressure as a result of discovering the van Leeuwen thesis after it was published. Despite this medical handicap, he maintains and updates a website where he complains about "Zionists with a personal axe to grind".
That the university failed to inform van Leeuwen, Bing or Coldham-Fussell of their original action was lousy.
This June, it republished the thesis and declared that an internal investigation had found no wrongdoing. Waikato University vice-chancellor Ray Crawford declared:
The University of Waikato is a place of academic rigour. We don't shy away from tackling controversial research."
But Nexus has uncovered papers showing that between last September and June, the University took some bizarre twists in its quest to establish itself as a "place of academic rigour".
Most disturbing is an internal report by deputy vice chancellor Doug Sutton that agreed with a core complaint from Bolton that the thesis's co-supervisor, Professor Dov Bing, had a possible conflict of interest because of his "well-known and longstanding views against neo-Nazi groups".
"The fact that his views are publicly so well known, leaves him open to criticism that he may not have viewed this research objectively," Sutton reportedly said.
The logic is twisted. If we followed the vice chancellor's thinking, then – as the tertiary educators' union pointed out in a fiery rebuttal to the institution – "innumerable other research fields might similarly be declared off-limits to scholars and supervisors who lack the required degree of ‘detachment'.
"For example, Pakeha society for Maori activists; creationism for mainstream scientists; Western colonialism for Third World nationalists; patriarchy for feminists; militant Islam for committed Christians; upper class privilege for the working class; Irish Catholicism for Protestant Ulstermen. The list is endless."
The letter from the tertiary union (which Nexus got hold of) was written at the request of Bing, Coldham-Fussell, and others (including one of the two external reviewers of the thesis).
The union even warned Waikato that it was possible "academics in other New Zealand and overseas institutions may refuse to examine theses from the University of Waikato, or to co-operate on research generally, because of your institution's heavy-handed response to the examination process undertaken by two eminent external scholars." Academics don't make these sorts of threats – or express concerns about bureacracy impinging on academic freedom – lightly.
Back during the Kupka affair, when members of staff including Bing raised concerns about Kupka, they were stone-walled by the institution.
In the van Leeuwen case, when a former secretary of the National Front wrote a rambling, 3400-word letter crying "libel", the university didn't bother communicating with the paper's author or supervisors, and then questioned the academic credentials of the paper's supervisor.
Once again, there is internal discord where there didn't need to be any. Once again, there are accusations that the University has failed to communicate with those involved in an open fashion. Once again, it is Waikato's reputation that suffers.