Universities should operate in an ethical and socially responsible manner

I was first really exposed to the concept of what social responsibilities a university has when I was a student at Monash University in the early 1970s. The issue was the University’s decision to allow the napalm-producing company, Honeywell to use the Monash Careers and Appointments office facilities on campus to conduct interviews and recruit potential graduates. I was reminded of this dispute the other day for two reasons. First, I did a radio interview for the national broadcaster (ABC) where I was asked about the decision by the Newcastle City Council (my local council) to divest itself of fossil fuel investments (see story – Newcastle Council abandons fossil fuel investments). This is a global trend. This was a shock to some, given that Newcastle is the largest coal exporting port in the world and there are major coal mines nearby up the Hunter River valley (the river flows into the Pacific Ocean at Newcastle). Second, around the same time, we learned that the University of Newcastle, my homeinstitution, had awarded a lucrative contract to Transfield Services, who hold the contracts to provide welfare and garrison support services in the offshore prisons (detention centres) which the Australian government established to ensure that asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat never reach the mainland. These prisons house families including young children for lengthy periods. There is strong evidence that the detainees incur mental illnesses and other health issues from the isolation. There have also been allegations against Transfield staff in relation to rapes and sexual assaults on detainees. These instances raise questions about the responsibilities of public institutions such as universities to operate according to acceptable community standards which makes the decision by the University of Newcastle (NSW) to enter into a commercial arrangement with Transfield rather odd indeed.

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