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Lecturer's sacking over email sparks fierce debate

By Simon Collins

The sacking of a university lecturer who denied a student an essay extension saying her father's death was a "lame excuse" has sparked a flood of emails to nzherald.co.nz.

In his email, former Auckland University lecturer Paul Buchanan also attacked the "poor quality" of overseas students being accepted for post-graduate courses - and accused the student of preying on "some sort of Western liberal guilt".

Discussion on the site's Your Views section has developed into a debate not just about the rights and wrongs of the sacking of Dr Buchanan but about New Zealanders' treatment of foreigners and two about the standards of universities who are encouraging highly paid overseas students and whether that is at the expense of academic standards.

Among those writing have been a number of Dr Buchanan's students who have praised his approach to teaching - one student described it as an "alternative teaching approach".

A number of tertiary lecturers at various institutions have also written in using pseudonyms and saying that they have been similarly frustrated at feeling under pressure to pass the work of an overseas student even though the student's work is not on a par with an English-speaking Kiwi student.

Other writers have been appalled at the tone used in Buchanan's email and consider the University of Auckland took the right course.

Out of 2596 respondents to a nzherald.co.nz poll that asked whether it was right for Dr Buchanan to be sacked, 36 per cent said yes and 64 per cent said no.

Dr Buchanan, a widely quoted expert on international security, sent the email to a student from the United Arab Emirates telling her that she was "under-performing and under-qualified".

The student, who does not want to be named, said yesterday that her bachelor's degree from an Emirates university was in communications and public relations, with only some papers in politics.

She studied English at Massey University for a year and gained the pass mark of 6.5 in the International English Language Testing System.

In her May 30 email to Dr Buchanan, she said she had the backing of Auckland University's medical centre in seeking the extension following her father's death.

Dr Buchanan replied that she was unsuitable for a graduate degree, and even if she supplied her father's obituary he would not believe that he had died.

"You are close to failing in any event, so these sorts of excuses - culturally driven and preying on some sort of Western liberal guilt - are simply lame," he wrote.

It is believed this remark has caused the greatest offence among the university's hierarchy.

About an eighth of Auckland University's roll - 4777 out of 37,924 fulltime-equivalents - are full-fee-paying international students.

They contributed a significant proportion of the university's $162 million fee income last year.

The university wants to boost postgraduate students from the present 17 per cent of its roll to 22 per cent because they lift its research output, which is now separately funded through the national performance-based research fund.

The student who received Dr Buchanan's email comes from a wealthy family.

She said her father ran his own contracting company and was a close friend of Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the ruler of the small emirate of Fujairah, where the family live.

But no one from her family or anyone else in the Emirates had put pressure on the university to get Dr Buchanan sacked.

"My family doesn't know how to speak English," she said. "No one knows about my case. No one contacted me."

She said she was the only student in Dr Buchanan's class who covered her head with a shawl.

She had complained to the university's mediation service and the Human Rights Commission because she felt Dr Buchanan's jibe about her "culturally driven" reason for seeking an extension for her essay was racist.

"He is pointing at our culture - why?" she asked. "Does he say that only the white people have the right to have this feeling when they lose their parents?"

Dr Buchanan said yesterday that he should not have sent the email.

He said he had sent it at 7.24pm after a day in which he had argued with a colleague, Associate Professor Steve Hoadley, about a course which Dr Hoadley runs to prepare overseas students for post-graduate studies in international relations.

"He and I had had an exchange about the poor quality of the students being admitted to his degree programme," Dr Buchanan said.

"It was hurting us in our graduate classes because these people were badly under-prepared and in some cases had no background in political science whatsoever.

"It's extremely hard to teach at graduate level when you have people who literally do not know the language of instruction."

Dr Buchanan said he was recovering from bowel surgery at the time and was affected by a university decision in the same week to stop funding the New Zealand Centre for Latin American Studies, of which he was acting director.

He had also had disagreements with the dean of arts, fellow political scientist John Morrow, who sacked him.

Professor Morrow and Professor Hoadley yesterday declined to comment.

Paul Buchanan

* Born in New York, USA.

* Aged 52.

* Taught at US Naval Postgraduate School, University of Arizona and University of South Florida.

* Senior lecturer in politics at Auckland University since 1997.

* Critic of President George W. Bush's foreign policy.

* Opposed sending NZ troops to Iraq after the US invasion.


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