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Academic Autonomy, Freedom and Free Speech

Welcome Address to Summit on Academic Freedom and Autonomy, The Australian National University, Canberra, 5 December 2018

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a public lifetime engaged in conflict, crisis management and general Sturm und Drung, both international and domestic, it’s the overwhelming truth of the old adage that prevention is better than cure, that effective proactive anticipation beats the hell out of scrambled reaction.

I do agree very much with our newly minted ANU Distinguished Professor Glyn Davis, in his opening keynote address to this conference, that we do not presently have anything remotely resembling a free speech crisis in the Australian system, that talk to such effect by the culture warriors in some sections of the media and think-tank universe is wildly overstated, and that there really is no obvious present need for my Chancellorial colleague Robert French to have had his well-earned retirement interrupted by Minister Tehan’s request for a wide-ranging review of the health of the present system.

But at the same time there have been enough things happening recently within Australia and across the Tasman [1], and in places abroad from which we tend to take our cultural cues, to justify us now spending some time, as we will at this conference, re-examining those basic principles of academic autonomy, academic freedom and campus free speech which we have all long espoused, identifying such early warning signs that there may be that any of them may be at risk, and considering appropriate responses.

The ‘things happening’ that I am referring do include:

  • a handful, but only a handful, of instances of invited campus speakers espousing various perceived heresies being disinvited or shouted down by rival activists; [2]
  • a few instances of student activists here being entranced by the concepts of ‘no platforming’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ – all of them premised on the notion that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they strongly disagree – which have gained significant traction on United States campuses in recent times;
  • a handful of cases where universities have been rightly criticised for censuring academics for making public statements which managements thought unhelpful to their universities’ image; [3]
  • at least one recent case (no prizes for guessing which) where a putative donor made clear that a very large grant would depend on the university accepting, effectively, an external veto over its curriculum and staffing decisions, and close monitoring of its teaching of the course in question;
  • this year’s unprecedented ministerial intervention to stop certain fully peer-reviewed and supported ARC grants to humanities and social sciences scholars going ahead; and
  • evident governmental enthusiasm for far-reaching national-security based restrictions on particular lines of research or research collaboration.

These various developments, rare or overblown though they may be, do raise issues of, variously, free speech, academic freedom and academic autonomy about which we do need to get our heads clear and perhaps think afresh. We need to be clear for a start what each of these three concepts mean and how they relate to each other. The terms are sometimes used more or less interchangeably (including, I have to confess, by me in some of the things I have written in the past) but, while there is some obvious overlap and interconnection, they are in fact quite distinct.

In short:

  • freedom of speech refers in the present context to the right of free expression, without unreasonable restriction, exercised not only by academics, but by students, other staff and by invited campus visitors. While free speech is a principle of universal application, enjoyed in common with the rest of the community, it has particular resonance in an academic context, because it is central to the traditional idea of the university, at least in the Western tradition, as the home of free expression, of the clash of ideas, of unconstrained argument and debate;
  • academic freedom can be used in a collective, institutional sense, in which case it is an effective synonym for ‘academic autonomy’, but it is most usefully thought of as referring primarily to the right of individual academics to publish, teach, conduct research and engage in public debate without interference or penalty, subject only to the norms and standards of scholarly enquiry; [4] and
  • academic autonomy is the principle, and practice, which more than anything else guarantees the actual exercise of academic freedom: it is the right of universities to determine for themselves, on academic grounds, who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, who may be admitted, and what should be the institutions’ research priorities. [5]

Of course none of these principles are absolute, exercisable without qualifications, restrictions or practical constraints. The arguments and controversies about the application of these concepts that arise from time to time almost invariably boil down to whether a particular proposed limitation or constraint is reasonable in all the circumstances, or is so far-reaching as to denude the core concept of effective meaning.

Each case as it arises has to be argued out on its own merits, and I’m looking forward to some very interesting debates during the course of today’s summit as we work through the different concepts, exploring in detail, as we no doubt will in different contexts, the relevant principles and guidelines applicable to each.

My own perspective (which I hope that others will share, but academic freedom demands that I don't force it down your throat!) is that when it comes to accepting limitations or constraints on any of these core concepts – freedom of speech on campus, academic freedom and institutional autonomy – we should set the bar very high indeed. So what does this mean in practice?

In the case of free speech on campus, what I think that means is this. Of course there have always been well understood and perfectly acceptable limits on free speech, properly enforced on university premises as anywhere else, when it comes to causing not just offence or insult but definable harm – including outright incitement of racial hatred, or of gender or political violence, intimidation or humiliation. It’s not wrong in principle to deny platforms for speech of this latter kind.

On the question of ‘trigger warnings’, of course, again, it may just be an exercise in civility, not political correctness run riot, for lecturers about to address topics like the sociology of sex abuse to alert their students to potentially disturbing content. And in the context of ‘safe spaces’, of course it has also been long common, and perfectly uncontroversial, to establish campus centres where particular ethnic and religious minority students, when they feel the need for time out, can be physically inconspicuous and socially comfortable.

But, as I said in addressing University Chancellors recently in Adelaide, the bottom line seems to me, and I hope to you, to be this. Learning to live with uncomfortable ideas, and responding to them appropriately, is part of the business of growing up. How can anyone cope with the world if sheltered from awareness of any views he or she does not already hold? Lines have to be drawn, and administrators’ spines stiffened, against manifestly unconscionable demands, should these become more prevalent, for protection against ideas and arguments claimed to be offensive. If they are not, universities will lose their whole raison d’etre

Maybe I’m just an unreconstructed child of the 1960s, when I and other student activists were exercising to its untrammelled full our right to free speech about just about everything – not only not demanding protection from offence but devoted to causing it. But I hope – and if I prayed, I would pray – that our universities never become susceptible to the kind of safe-spaces/no-platforming/trigger-warning diseases that have infected a number of US campuses and which do have some advocates here.

I think we should also take a clear and common stand on the question which has arisen very recently about who should pay for any greater than normal security precautions that may need to be taken in the context of campus visits by particularly controversial speakers. At ANU, we have taken the view that if we are serious about free speech – which must mean allowing views we might find abhorrent to be heard – it would be unconscionable to make either those sponsoring the speech, or those wanting to protest against it, to pay for their exercising their rights. Of course we would prefer to be spending our scarce resources more productively, but bearing these precautionary costs ourselves, on the likely very rare occasions when they should ever become necessary, seems to us just to come with the territory.

In terms of academic freedom to teach, research, publish and comment publicly, the basic principles are well articulated in the ANU statement on academic freedom, the product of a recent consultative exercise led by our Academic Board. I do think, however, that in this and other pronouncements on this subject, it may be useful to recognise a little more explicitly the distinction between academic freedom and free speech, which sometimes get confused.

When academics engage in public discourse on matters within their discipline, badge themselves with their university position, and speak with such authority as that academic position conveys, they do have a responsibility – as they do with their research publications and teaching – to observe scholarly standards of rigor and evidence (as the ANU description of academic freedom makes clear). But we should also recognise that, as a matter of free speech rather than academic freedom, academics have the same right as everyone else in the community to speak their mind publicly, whether in disciplined scholarly mode or not, on matters unrelated to their own discipline, provided that in doing so they don’t try to draw overtly on such authority as their university position gives them.

It is a corollary of the concept of academic freedom – and the right of free intellectual inquiry and advocacy that goes with it – that the criteria for the appointment and retention of academic staff must be wholly scholarly, focusing on demonstrated intellectual merit and not at all on political or ideological leaning. But with that intellectual freedom of course comes some responsibility: what academic freedom cannot mean, in my judgement – and I hope and expect this would be uncontroversial – is freedom to underperform, or teach without regard to the disciplines or objectives of a particular syllabus, or to conduct research which does not meet scholarly or ethical standards.

One of the considerations that has to be taken into account in determining whether external philanthropic support should or should not be accepted is that the donor in question fully understands and accepts what academic freedom does, and does not, entail. Of all the governance concerns that lay behind ANU’s breaking off negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, for me almost a knockout blow in its own right was the Centre’s very explicit unwillingness to commit to the principle of academic freedom. We wanted a reference in the MOU to the parties’ ‘shared commitment to the principles of academic freedom’, but the Ramsay negotiators struck out ‘shared’, substituting the words ‘ANU’s commitment’! For all its stated passionate commitment to Western civilisation values, it seems that the Ramsay Centre itself was not in the respect for academic freedom business.

Lying behind the Ramsay approach to academic freedom, as we saw it, was a lack of understanding or acceptance of the principle of academic autonomy. The bar for autonomy has to be set high because it is this, above all that guarantees academic freedom – the two concepts are inextricably connected.

The distinctive value-adding role of universities has always been to generate not just the skills and knowledge that are immediately useful for today’s world, but the capacity for individuals to grow and adjust, and for society to create and apply new knowledge, in ways that will be relevant for the world of the future. If universities are to make this distinctive contribution it is absolutely critical that, when it comes to determining what they teach and how they teach, they retain that real autonomy of decision-making which has been at the very heart of the idea of a university, certainly in the Western tradition, for as long as universities have existed.

There are bound to be internal differences of opinion as to how that autonomy is exercised – and there will always be external economic pressures to take into account and navigate in making resource allocation decisions, given that university income can only come from taxpayers, students, philanthropy, or contracted research. But no university deserving of the name can yield its independence to the agendas of others, whether those others be governments or philanthropic foundations or anyone else, when it comes to staffing and curriculum choices. ANU withdrew from the Ramsay negotiations not because of any cold feet about the substance of the program, but because of our concerns about the extraordinarily prescriptive, micro-managing, approach adopted by the Ramsay Centre to its governance, particularly in relation to curriculum and staffing decisions.

When it comes to both individual academic freedom and institutional academic autonomy, research is trickier terrain, and we will be devoting a whole session to untangling its complexities. In an ideal world, I guess what is researched and how it is researched would be subject only to scholarly and ethical standards, internal resource allocation choices and, where relevant, researchers’ success in winning external financial support through transparent competitive processes with no substantive strings attached. But this ideal is very far from the contemporary reality, as – inter alia – governments become ever more anxious about the national security implications of certain research and research collaborations, periodically succumb to the kind of low-rent populism that led to the recent ministerial rejection of a number ARC-approved grants in the humanities and social sciences, and ‘national interest’ or ‘impact’ become everyone’s mantra.

While we do have to recognise both the inevitability and legitimacy of some of these and other constraints, and while I yield to no-one in my enthusiasm for universities being impactful in the sense of policy-engaged, it is critical that we push back against, and demand absolutely, rock-solid justifications for, anything which intrudes on our traditional autonomy, above all on our capacity to support and encourage those aspects of both research and teaching that go the very essence of what it is to be a university.

We have to make, unashamedly, the case for doing the blue-sky research that universities have always done, research for research’s sake, and research where even the potential for measurable real-world practical impact may be non-existent or, at best far distant, which may well be largely the case for humanities disciplines like history, philosophy, literature, classics, linguistics, art and music.

We have to make, utterly unapologetically, the case for research and teaching and campus debate which is simply intellectually stimulating, mind stretching, involving or encouraging creative and critical thinking, encouraging or satisfying curiosity about the past or the natural world we live in, making us better understand and appreciate human character and moral sense, helping us understand why governments succeed or fail, or simply helping us better understand, and love for its own sake, great art and architecture and music and literature.

It’s for these reasons – to be able to do these things – that academic autonomy, academic freedom and campus free speech remain so critically and fundamentally important. None of these values may be seriously at risk in the Australian university system right now, but it is the responsibility of all of us to make damn sure they never are. I hope and expect that our deliberations today will take us an important step forward in guaranteeing just that.

[1] The Massie University Brash case.

[2] Notably the University of Western Australia with the Van Meter case and Sydney with Bettina Arndt.

[3] Notably La Trobe in the Ward case, involving support for flying a red flag over the Victorian Parliament; the oft-cited Ridd case at James Cook University is much less clear.

[4] Compare the May 2005 statement on academic freedom of the Global Colloquium of University Presidents.

[5] Compare again Global Colloquium statement, referencing the landmark US Supreme Court case, Sweezy v New Hampshire (1957). See generally Roger W.Bowen, Institutional Autonomy, Academic Freedom & academic Responsibility, http://mtprof.msun.edu

[6] For a fuller account of ANU’s position on the Ramsay negotiations, see the articles by Gareth Evans and Brian Schmidt at http://gevans.org/opeds/oped200.html and http://gevans.org/opeds/oped201.html