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Student holding sign 'NO CORPORATE UNIVERSITIES' at protest
Dan Peled/AAP

Book review: Open Minds explores how academic freedom and the public university are at risk

Academic freedom has become a common topic of Australian public debate. Yet the concept is rarely examined or critiqued in detail.

That has not stopped it becoming a totemic issue for many on the political right. They consider Australian universities to be increasingly prone to doctrinaire and censorious attitudes. In particular, they point to issues of identity politics, climate change and other so-called “progressive” causes.

Read more: University free speech bill a sop to Pauline Hanson and other critics, but what difference will it make?

Prominent cases include the 2018 sacking of geophysicist Peter Ridd by James Cook University and protests against Bettina Arndt’s visit to the University of Sydney to give a controversial speech on date rape that same year. The federal Coalition government responded by commissioning the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers by former chief justice Robert French.

Cover of Open Minds book
Black Inc.

Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech of Australia, by constitutional law experts Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone, is the first book-length examination of the French Review and the idea of academic freedom that lies behind it. The authors are especially well qualified to comment on both the context and specific recommendations of the review.

What is academic freedom?

Among many helpful insights, Evans and Stone point out that academic freedom is not the same thing as freedom of speech. The latter is already at least partially protected by various specific and implied rights to freedom of speech in law.

The exercise of academic freedom, however, as Geoff Sharrock has noted in The Conversation, invokes a particular kind of social relationship. It is both public-facing and aims to be an expression of a public good.

Read more: Feel free to disagree on campus ... by learning to do it well

Academic discourse seeks to be both well-reasoned and true. An academic opinion is thus different to an academic merely expressing their personal views.

For instance, climate scientists do not need to “believe” in climate change. Instead they must justify any assertion they make based on rigorous standards of scientific evidence and proof.

Thus, as Evans and Stone note, universities do not provide academic staff with an untrammelled right to say what they like on any issue. Theirs is a more narrowly conceived right based on an underlying obligation to justify their public utterances through the application of disciplinary expertise and values.

Adrienne Stone, one of the authors of Open Minds, discusses the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The most contentious debates about academic freedom in Australia have not been about such academic concepts, however. Instead they have been more interested in trying to out a perceived underlying left-wing bias. This shows how skewed the understanding of academic freedom has become in Australia.

Read more: How a fake 'free speech crisis' could imperil academic freedom

The French Review found no substantial evidence of any organised attempt to limit the capacity of students to encounter alternative political ideas. Evans and Stone note:

If anything, today’s students are less radical and politicised than their predecessors.

The federal government followed up the French Review by commissioning Sally Walker to report on universities’ adoption of a code of free speech.

What are the real threats?

Glyn Davis’s foreword draws attention to concerns he also expressed in a recent Conversation article. He says threats to academic freedom might arise from direct government intervention, or from the rise in tied grants from big business, or from philanthropic trusts directing teaching and research.

Read more: Special pleading: free speech and Australian universities

What has been much less self-evident, or at least less acknowledged, is the possibility that the very way Australian universities are now constituted and governed may pose an even more fundamental threat.

What, after all does “institutional autonomy” mean when universities are now so closely regulated and controlled by their senior managers and councils, and by the market forces they have unleashed to help fund their operations?

Early on, Evans and Stone assert:

[Universities] are not commercial institutions, nor are they instruments of government. They are special communities dedicated to teaching and research.

But towards the end of their book, they implicitly suggest things might not be so rosy:

Academics should not be required to support the university’s brand or to avoid embarrassing it if doing so comes at the expense of academic freedom. On the contrary, academics should be able to speak out about research, teaching and university governance even when doing so involves harsh and even disrespectful criticism.

Read more: Governing universities: tertiary experience no longer required

It is easy for academics to conclude that essentially unaccountable senior university administrators, not disciplinary professors or other disciplinary experts, have become the ultimate determiners of a particular discipline’s educational and research priorities, and thus of the true limits of academic freedom in its broadest sense.

As Ron Srigley has noted of US campuses:

Ask about virtually any problem in the university today and the solution proposed will inevitably be administrative. Why? Because we think administrators, not professors, guarantee the quality of the product and the achievement of institutional goals. But how is that possible in an academic environment in which knowledge and understanding are the true goals? Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s because they aren’t the true goals any longer.

In such a context, even an everyday event like the Australian National University’s recent announcement of a brand relaunch can start to seem much less benign. The university itself describes it as part of a “journey to foster cohesion, reduce the issue of brand fragmentation and use research to address the cognitive dissonance between how we see ourselves versus how our community and the world sees us”.

Brand managers, like most senior university managers, are generally not practising academics. Thus, they should not be expected to understand, let alone articulate or defend, academic freedom.

Read more: Unis are run like corporations but their leaders are less accountable. Here's an easy way to fix that

One of the many ways Open Minds may prove to be of lasting value is in helping academics question the propriety of such managerial pronouncements, by framing them properly as issues of academic freedom.

This is why academic freedom is a central concern for Academics for Public Universities. We would argue this issue ultimately requires us to reexamine and revitalise the underlying public character of our universities.

That, too, is something we now need to defend.

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