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Easy targets from the anti-Rhonda Grant release


May 2, 2008/3.49

I ?nally came across the full text of the press release attacking Massey University over its story on its alum Rhonda Grant, Miss Universe New Zealand’s second runner-up.
   You can read the statement from the Association of University Staff’s president, Assoc Prof Maureen Montgomery, via Scoop. I think she was pretty persistent, sending it out to the NZPA as well as other news sources—she really disliked the story.
   It’s a shame Dr Montgomery has received anonymous hate mail over this today, when her release is ?lled with good targets for debate.
   I respect her right to hold an opinion and I think she was right to circulate it, but I wonder just how it might bene?t the Association of University Staff, or any institution promoting tertiary issues.
   A lot of the arguments are addressed in our own release, which pageant director Val Lott asked me to write. I was more than happy to put the record straight, something that Dr Montgomery gave me a good opportunity to do.
   You can tell Dr Montgomery failed to do what I thought academics should do ?rst and foremost: get suf?cient evidence and maintain an open mind.
   The story on Rhonda Grant was no better and no worse in quality terms than the puff pieces about alumni on the Massey University website, so we know she has been singled out.
   Dr Montgomery writes, ‘Massey’s story reads like the formulaic sort of thing that aspiring beauty queens are expected to say when interviewed on the catwalk.’
   As I said in our release, the reality is the interviews are tough—and there are no expectations of formulaic answers at Miss New Zealand.
   I defend the pageant because I know how tough the judging got: Rhonda was allowed to talk about nutrition, and other contestants were quizzed about everything from the moral repugnancy of bank charges to genetics versus socialization, depending on their university specialization.
   ‘One might expect a university public relations of?ce to do more than piggy-back off what comes across as a publicity statement produced by the Miss Universe organisation,’ she said.
   Publicity statements from the Miss Universe Organization seldom focus on second runners-up but, whether we like it or not, Massey has engaged in journalism. We might argue over the quality.
   I share some of her concerns over objecti?cation but I believe that was suf?ciently addressed when Rhonda’s bikini-clad photograph was removed from the Massey University website in favour of something more conservative.
   Once that was done, then the complaint really is a case of the lady protesting too much, unless all alum puff pieces are equally, to use Dr Montgomery’s word, ‘banal’.
   And as deep journalism, maybe that’s not unfair—but it should apply fairly to all puff pieces, not just Rhonda’s.
   If it were couched in such terms, I would gladly stand by her.
   Dr Montgomery’s complaint on Rhonda’s piece speci?cally might be better directed at government educational policy that has supposedly bred a generation of sex-obsessed high school graduates who might ?nd Rhonda Grant’s ?gure the reason to join Massey University.
   Actually, on the sexualization of youth, I would also gladly stand by her.
   But for now, as a colleague here at Lucire said to me today, ‘You have to ask yourself: what does Maureen Montgomery get out of it? It’s none of her business. Why has she been allowed to be involved?’
   I suppose the answer comes, rightly or wrongly, from the anti-American stances of liberal universities around the world, and Dr Montgomery’s own informs them. It helps the pro?le of the University of Canterbury, where she works, and cements its liberal position.
   My own father equated Dr Montgomery’s release to Rosie O’Donnell’s outburst on The View against Miss Nevada 2006 and Donald Trump: ill-considered, narrow-minded, poorly investigated and founded on opinion.
   Where Dr Montgomery and I do share some basic views is how images can shape agenda. I know this. I publish fashion magazines. Let’s not kid ourselves. 
   She wrote, ‘Massey University has provided an excellent example of how the desperation to market universities as “attractive” places to gain knowledge and transferable skills intersects with the use of the sexualized female body as a site of desire.’
   There is an element of truth to such statements, but I question if university choices are made based on attractive alumni—even with my rant yesterday on sexualization.
   When I went to university, I had far more pressing concerns such as degree programmes and career prospects.
   Vitally, we are talking about a story that is hard to ?nd on the Massey University site—a site that had proxy errors in the small hours of this morning that rendered it inaccessible. If it were not for her own strong and widely disseminated disapproval, it would have been seen probably by a few dozen people—perhaps one prospective student.
   I’d personally have saved the energy for when universities started putting out alumni swimsuit calendars.
   By all means, speak out—I do on even lesser issues. But consider the effect of the publicity: right now, it seems Rhonda Grant is going to be promoted to national stardom on Close-up and Campbell Live, and the pageant will get prime-time coverage on the same day Miss New Zealand Samantha Powell did her Good Morning interview on TV One. Earlier today, Paul Holmes promoted this as a major item on his radio show in Auckland.
   We couldn’t have dreamed of this pro?le.
   This has played into the hands of the pageant exceptionally well and, as a judge, I thank Dr Montgomery, even if I do so somewhat sel?shly.

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