Dr Gary MacLennan, a long-time socialist activist and lecturer in creative industries at the Queensland University of Technology, was suspended for six months without pay on June 6. He, along with a colleague, Dr John Hookham, was charged with misconduct following the publication of an article in the Australian that criticised a PhD film project that mocked the disabled. Students and staff launched a support campaign for the two suspended lecturers which has linked up with a struggle against QUT's decision to close down the school of humanities and human services.
MacLennan has three broad concerns: the university's support for a project that ridicules the disabled; the duty of academics to speak out against this; and today's universities being run by "neoliberal economics and neoliberal ideas".
Asked about the link between his suspension and QUT's decision to close the school of humanities and human services, MacLennan replied: "QUT is determined to make money and it is willing to trample on the rights of the disabled and to crush the rights of academics who oppose it."
"This university is eager to devalue the human,
to devalue the ancient, to devalue culture. It's eager to
embrace the market, to be at the cutting edge of the 'reality
TV' phenomenon. QUT has invested in cultural 'shock and awe'
and that's why they're defending this project. That's why
I'm being suspended. I broke the rule: you're not allowed to criticise."
MacLennan said that the 10 minutes he saw of the film, Darren and James: Mystery Tour Down Under, was not funny. "It is about a young autistic man and a man of intellectual impairment in various difficult situations", he said. "They were sent out to Boulia [western Queensland] to ask people about the Min Min lights. It's like sending an apprentice to look for a left-handed screwdriver. It also mocked the sexuality of the disabled who have the same needs and longings as you and I."
MacLennan was upset when he saw students and academics laughing. "When Michael Noonan [the PhD student who devised the Laughing at the Disabled film project] showed this tape in his class, in two lectures the two young men were present, and they were laughed at by the students. The whole thing is an outrageous assault on the rights of the disabled."
MacLennan said that human worth and feeling is devalued
by capitalism. "That's why I am a socialist", he said.
MacLennan and Hookham are being assisted in their legal challenge by people who are similarly outraged at
the way they have been treated. "Six months without pay is a savage sentence. It's the equivalent of a sacking." He said that they are being supported by the disability community, who are outraged at QUT's involvement in this project. The two lecturers have received support from Ireland, the US and Britain, and they are talking to networks in Singapore and some Scandinavian countries. "We are targeting the international community, because we need all the help we can get." There's also been a very successful YouTube campaign. (Visit YouTube.com and search for "Laughing at the Disabled QUT".)
QUT, with its resources and expensive lawyers is fighting back. "It's a major battle" MacLennan said, "but we will win if we get public support".
For MacLennan, this campaign is about more than his right to teach and free speech. "It's a battle for the worth of human beings. It's not a coincidence that QUT has attacked me. They stand for one thing, and I stand for something quite different."