Godwin’s Lawyers: the van Leeuwen scandal revisitedPosted: September 8, 2009
Honorary Israeli consul and former president of the NZ Jewish Council David Zwartz is demanding that Waikato University apologise for its handling of Roel van Leeuwen’s thesis, which was pulled from the university’s library when its subject, former National Front secretary Kerry Bolton, wrote to the university to complain.
Zwartz may well argue that the university’s behaviour constituted cultural insensitivity – but if any apology is forthcoming, it should also be to the country’s academic community.
To be fair, the thesis has been back on Waikato’s bookshelves since July, when Vice Chancellor Ray Crawford told the Dom Post that “we don’t shy away from tackling controversial research”. You’d think that would be the end of it.
But there are several issues worth revisiting: the university did not notify van Leeuwen of the complaint. The university chose to withdraw a first-class honours thesis rather than face even preliminary legal action. And when it did withdraw van Leeuwen’s thesis, the university didn’t deign to tell him about it.
And within days of Crawford’s comments to the Dom, confidential documents were leaked to Nexus editor Joshua Drummond that revealed a deeply troubling milquetoast attitude from Deputy Vice-Chancellor Doug Sutton. Specifically:
“In this case, the possible conflict of interest was Professor Bing’s well-known and longstanding views against neo-Nazi groups and ideology which could be seen as preventing him from being objective in relation to this thesis.”
This is like saying Jewish academics cannot be trusted to produce research on the holocaust, or that South Africans should be dissuaded from discussing apartheid. If you think this is taken out of context, Sutton continues:
“Irrespective of how well and how objectively Professor Bing supervised this thesis, the fact that his views are publicly so well known, leaves him open to criticism…”
To clarify, Professor Sutton is implicitly stating that private members of society (and therefore reputable academics) are generally neutral on the issue of white supremacist doctrine. It’s a ridiculous and indefensible assertion and it’s good to see that the university ultimately opted for, you know, rational thought. But the professor’s comments – in conjunction with the university’s initial actions – do nothing to reassure the university’s staff and students that Waikato is a place which nurtures and defends academic freedom. If anyone deserves a public apology apart from the Jewish community, it’s them.