Academic freedom & free speech in Universities
Professor Adrienne Stone and John Roskam debate the freedom to offend, the nature of expertise and the state of academic freedom in Australia and around the world
Glyn Davis: G'day, I'm Glyn Davis and welcome to The Policy Shop, a place where we think about policy choices.
Male: Academic freedom is under attack globally. I think academics often think of academic freedom as if it was just the privilege of a bunch of tenured professors. But in fact academic freedom is a lynchpin of democratic society itself.
Female: Why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of academic freedom? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard, one of academic justice when an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
Male: In other words, the truth when it's inconvenient should be squelched.
Female: Overnight, mayhem on campus. The University of California, Berkeley erupting in flames as over 1000 came out to protest an appearance by the self-described right wing internet troll, Milo Yiannopoulos.
Female: We will not tolerate racism or sexism or hate crimes and violence. He's a fascist and Berkeley did not welcome him.
Male: What happened to our college campuses, professor?
Male: Well they became places where people are afraid of ideas. They think they know the truth and they don't want to hear opposing points of view.
Male: We've seen how this plays out in the United States and it can turn into a censorious, highly politically correct and highly harmful to the mission of education that universities exist for.
[End of excerpts]
Glyn Davis: Attacks on academic freedom has been making headlines. The suppression of academic freedom has been called a global crisis by some, while others complain the academy is not challenged enough by different thinking. Yet the concept of academic freedom is complicated. What does it mean and who exactly is under attack? So in today's episode of The Policy Shop, we're going to explore academic freedom using a classic approach, the five Ws: the what, why, who, where and when of academic freedom. My guests today are Professor Adrienne Stone, who holds a chair at the Melbourne Law School where she's also a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellow, a Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies; Adrienne, thank you for joining us.
Adrienne Stone: Pleasure to be here.
Glyn Davis: And John Roskam, Executive Director of the free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. Before joining the IPA, he taught political theory at The University of Melbourne; John, welcome to the podcast.
John Roskam: Hello Glyn, hello Adrienne, it's great to be back.
Glyn Davis: Thank you both. So let's start with the what of academic freedom. Like any abstract concept, disagreements exist over the definition with regular disputes over the meaning and limitations of the concept. With this in mind, Adrienne, what is academic freedom?
Adrienne Stone: Well it's a contested concept and like many contested concepts, I think you can identify an agreed upon core and then a sort of contested penumbra. I think that perhaps the agreed upon core might be this, it's something held at once by academics and by academic institutions and it is something like a privilege of freedom in the way in which the conduct of teaching and research is undertaken.
So I think that there are also - there are another couple of layers that I think that most people would agree upon to some degree and then there are some hard cases. Staff of the university who are not academics who nonetheless seem to be probably clearly covered by at least a form of academic freedom, so if you think about somebody like research assistants or lab assistants, maybe even librarians who are kind of collaborative and getting engaged in research tasks, I think that they equally deserve a measure of freedom in the way in which they undertake that, which we might call academic freedom, although they might be subject to direction by other academics who, after all, are directing them in the interests of carrying out the mission of the university.
I also think that students hold a form of academic freedom, insofar as they are engaged with us as academics in the task of knowledge product that we're engaged in in the university, that they certainly have a form of academic freedom. Now that's very different from saying that they have a freedom to undertake any kind of speech activity, that's quite a different thing. But there are ways in which students are engaged with university academics in the task of learning and producing knowledge.
Glyn Davis: I look forward to getting to this question of students shortly. John, in the lecture at the University of New South Wales in 1964 Robert Menzies, then Prime Minister, referred to academic freedom as, and I'm quoting: a precious and shining example of that kind of freedom which all thinking men and women want for themselves and will not abandon without a struggle. Many like Menzies hold academic freedom in high regard. What do you consider to be a working definition of academic freedom and why would the Prime Minister consider it so central to broader concepts of freedom?
John Roskam: Let's unpack a couple of elements of academic freedom. At one level there's the freedom of the individual researcher to engage exactly as Adrienne said, in the pursuit of truth. Academic freedom at one level means the right of a researcher to engage in debate and discourse and research, without fear of sanction from the state or the government and I'd argue that doesn't just apply to academics, it applies to nearly all citizens. That's one aspect of academic freedom.
But then I think the discussion about academic freedom in Australia as it relates to institutions is different. I think academic freedom relates to what an individual or what a group does together. Academic freedom is not necessarily the right of an institution or a university to be left alone. Universities are public institutions in Australia with $17 billion of taxpayer funding and I think that very much changes the nature of academic freedom in Australia. I think it goes to a question, therefore of what are the things that a university, let's say university can do, without sanction, without direction from the state or taxpayer and what can't it do. So I think it's a contested concept.
More broadly, academic freedom, I regard it as not an end in itself. Academic freedom is one of the things that leads to an integrity of research and an integrity of discussion and I am completely comfortable with the idea of directed research, funded research for a particular end, as long as there's an integrity around it. For me, Robert Menzies was absolutely right, but it goes to an integrity and a worthiness. Melbourne University, I think, has an outstanding freedom of speech and freedom of academic inquiry policy. I think the key statement in that policy that this is about the pursuit of truth I think is right and academic freedom is but one of those elements that leads us to truth, it is not an end in itself.
Adrienne Stone: So I'd like to quibble with Sir Robert Menzies, if I may. Insofar as that statement is encouraging us to treasure academic freedom and take it seriously, I can't but embrace it. But it seems to me to run together two sets of ideas that I think are important to distinguish and I think it's important to distinguish our discussion about academic freedom from a sort of general discussion about individual liberty and human rights. There are all kinds of rights that we insist upon because we think that they go to something sort of essential for the human being; their dignity, their freedom, depending on what your version of rights is.
It seems to me academic freedom is just not that kind of right at all; it's something much more instrumental and by in saying that, I don’t mean to downgrade it, it's instrumental to something really important, which is the mission of the university. So I don't think it's something that all men and women should insist upon themselves, it's something that universities insist upon as institutions and those who are undertaking the central tasks of the university, research, learning, teaching, insist upon so they can engage in that.
Now some of the things that we do in the course of the exercise of our academic freedom also go to our dignity and our humanity and our autonomy. But that's an overlapping area with other rights like human liberty or freedom of expression, but conceptually I think they're quite different.
John Roskam: Well see I don’t think they are. I think universities have sought to privilege themselves with the idea of academic freedom in perhaps the way that journalists have with media freedom. Cancer is just as likely to be cured in a university as by a person working on their own in their kitchen and you raised your eyebrows, Glyn and a university probably is more likely to discover a cure for AIDS, but it goes to all of us as individuals. I mean for me, a university is an institution funded by a combination of private funding and taxpayer funding that has a wonderful history that has made a huge contribution as an institution of civil society, but it is no different from a think tank or a church or a private organisation. Universities have a lot of government mandated privileges, universities have a monopoly over the awarding of degrees, they have a monopoly over funding, they have a monopoly over even the title of university and I quite honestly think there isn’t a large difference between a citizen journalist writing on their bedroom table and a university lecturer writing a peer reviewed tome. For me, they're the same species of the same thing.
Glyn Davis: Let's turn to the question of why. So Adrienne's given us a very important sense of academic freedom, speaking to the claims of universities around institutional autonomy within civil society in order to pursue the mission that the society has given them. It argues, therefore, that universities should not be subject to external authority in the matter of critical reflection and that academics within universities should not be constrained by management or by colleagues when speaking. Adrienne, what's the basis of this claim to a special freedom?
Adrienne Stone: The basis for the claim to a special freedom is an understanding that the university plays a special role. Now they're not the only institutions and the people within them are not the only people in society who might, for example, take place in public debate. But they do more than engage in public debate and be form part of our public discourse. An academic in university has the responsibility to create new knowledge and that is a core part of what it means to be a scholar. Now nobody else has that responsibility to create new knowledge, to understand the world better, to see what we haven't seen before, to be original, not just to be articulate defender of ideals that we've been thrashing out for a long time, but to see it in a new and original way, or to solve the problem that no-one else has solved.
If you think that that is important and if you think that universities have a special role in that, then you want to protect it. Now I happen to believe that and it's a very long conversation. Now I suspect that the more we went into the hard sciences, maybe the more John might be inclined to agree with me and the less he might be inclined to accord expertise to the professor in the realm of moral discourse, so I think there might be some way in which we'd agree on some things. But I think we ought to defend the notion.
And can I say, I think this is really important. I actually think the undermining of the idea of expertise is a very, very problematic one, because it robs us of the capacity to resolve our disputes. Now if we're not prepared to accede to the idea that there are some ways in which that we can resolve the things that we disagree about, then we're always just going to disagree and then disagree about how we resolve our disagreements and universities are among those institutions that can provide the sorts of ideas that help us resolve this. For that reason, they have a heavy obligation, right, but they also deserve special freedoms.
Glyn Davis: John, you don't find this a defensible claim.
John Roskam: No, I don't. I think the question is what are those defensible freedoms? From my perspective, universities are wonderful institutions funded by taxpayers to do research and discover truth, as Adrienne said. A researcher for a chemical company is also discovering new things. A poet is discovering new things and finding new ways of seeing the world. For me the question is freedom from what and Adrienne raises a really interesting point about the differences between universities and there are differences and I think some of those differences are ill-founded.
University of Melbourne, to take an example, has a very good freedom of speech and academic inquiry policy. It specifically provides that in the undertaking of research, sometimes researchers say things that are offensive and I think that is part of free inquiry and living in a free society. But then on the same time, while let's say legal researchers have that privilege under university code, they don't have that privilege necessarily if they were talking about something that falls foul of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. So I think these are privileges that should be accorded to all of us.
I think universities, as we've spoken about, have a history, have a culture and have an absolutely key role, but I think certainly in Australia, universities have played a monopoly role on the dissemination of knowledge, the creation of culture, the discussion of what is in the public space and I think what we need to get to is, well, what is academic freedom from and certainly academic freedom is not the capacity to take, in Australia's case, $17 billion of taxpayers' money, regard it as a blank cheque and not have the public have a say in what is done. If a university or any organisation is completely privately funded and privately run, then it is entitled to engage in a research conversation and a research program as it deigns fit.
But in Australia, the discussion about academic autonomy and independence is different because everything is funded for a purpose and as Robert Menzies talked about and he of course was the founder of the idea of, I think, the modern Australian public university, he did that on the basis that universities provide public goods and they absolutely do. But if you're providing a public good, then that involves the public in what universities do, in what is taught in the form of research and it provides the state a role, for good or for bad and it provides stakeholders with a role.
So I think what we're getting to is, as Adrienne said, a contested and more complex discussion of exactly what it is and it goes to the heart of, well what is a university?
Adrienne Stone: So I can't resist saying I think it's just what you just said about rights to speak offensively is just not legally correct when you take into account the way in which the Racial Discrimination Act is in fact drafted and enforced. It provides a defence to anyone engaged in serious academic inquiry or discussion of a matter in the public interest, irrespective of whether they're in a university or not.
John Roskam: I'd disagree, Adrienne, but we can talk about that off air.
Adrienne Stone: I'd be very happy to take you through the case law in some detail, John.
The second thing is, I would say, that much of what you just said and characterisation of the university I would agree with. They are public institutions, they produce a public good, they are therefore beholden to the public in some kind of sense and to insist upon a serious measure of academic freedom is not the same as insisting on a blank cheque. But I would want to say this: that it is in the public's interest for the universities to have that measure of autonomy that enables them to undertake their role properly, because it's in the public interest that universities are able freely to pursue knowledge and truth.
Glyn Davis: So I'm going to turn to this question of where academic freedom applies. Expertise is often advanced as a case for academic freedom; that academics are the providers of expert knowledge to be shared with students and the wider community and that's a good in itself worth preserving. But of course in a world where experts are not necessarily welcome, scepticism about experts is on the rise around the planet, the former British Justice Secretary Michael Gove is famous for saying, I quote: people in this country have had enough of experts.
John, why are we hearing this rising scepticism about expertise and then Adrienne, I'm going to ask whether this poses a threat to academic freedom.
John Roskam: Glyn, that's a key question and to what Michael Gove said, I could of course quote Dan Hannan who said something like: an expert is simply someone who hasn't studied anything else for the rest of their lives, or words to that effect. No, but there is absolutely a role for expertise. You have put your finger on it. There is a rising scepticism about experts and expertise, not just because experts have got some of the big questions wrong and we can spend a few days and weeks talking about Brexit and Donald Trump. But expertise does not give one a superior moral insight.
Expertise, I would argue, does not tell one how to live. Expertise has been described as the captain of the ship deciding how we are to get to a location. An expert does not tell us what that location should be. An expert can't tell us whether taxes should be higher or lower, they can't tell us whether democracy is good or bad and you are right, I think there is a rising scepticism about experts, but I think experts have inclined to expertise outside their domain, outside of their experience and I think it has disempowered the community.
I'm radically egalitarian when it comes to the role of experts, Glyn. Nothing disappoints me more than the discussion that experts have and let's take Brexit as an example because that's a clear and obvious example, whereby experts have said, no Brexit is too complicated a question, it can't be given to the public to decide. Now what experts have done, I would argue, some have sought to change the role of democracy, they have sought to take things outside of the public realm and this has diminished democracy, I think it has diminished the role of politics. I think politicians and politics as a concept is at a lower level of standing that any time that I can remember and I think it has given rise to this birth of so-called populism.
So in the same way as we can unpack academic autonomy, the role of experts, I think, is really interesting and important. But I think the scepticism, as I said, relates to taking things outside of the democratic realm and I, for one, would have many more things inside the democratic realm.
Glyn Davis: Adrienne, you've argued that expertise is fundamentally important for academic freedom and you've linked it to the pursuit of additional or new knowledge and the necessity of having scope to do that, would you like to expand?
Adrienne Stone: Yeah, so let me say that there's a difference between expertise and arrogance and a lot of what you've just described is arrogance rather than expertise. The second thing…
John Roskam: The arrogance of experts.
Adrienne Stone: I understand what you're saying, the over-claiming by experts…
John Roskam: Yes, yes.
Adrienne Stone: …to think they can solve problems that they can't solve, or think that people can't solve their own problems. So let me just say two things and one is and perhaps is the most responsive to you, I think it's very important that academics really consider what the nature is of their expertise when they're speaking as academics. If you want to claim the status of an academic, then I think you ought to be speaking on something about which you are an expert, which is not everything, right? As a class, where we don't sort of respect or we're not thoughtful about that, we risk exactly this response, okay? But it's very important sort of not to throw the baby out with the bath water, all right?
Not all experts, by the way, think that we ought to increasingly judicialise or make our institutions more elite. Some experts argue exactly in the opposite direction, the leading political philosopher of his day, Jeremy Waldron, would be someone who I'm sure you have a lot of agreement with and let's take Brexit, right? What could expertise have added to that? Expertise is not going to tell you whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union or not. That depends on what you value most. But here's what an expert constitutionalist might have been able to tell you, which is if you're going to put it to a referendum, why don't you do some work first, why don't you do some work first in education your population, bringing them together in a deliberative fashion, getting some of the big questions, sub-questions, onto the table before you just ask the one big question.
Now if you talk to people in the British Government now, what are they doing? Well they're in a very difficult position because none of those questions were worked out before hand or even thought through and there were no plans. So expertise can't give you the answer, but it might help you have a much kind of more, a better sense of what it is you're really making a choice about. Now I think when academics respect the limits of their expertise, then academics are very powerful and universities very important and deserving of this measure of institutional autonomy that I want to defend as academic freedom.
Glyn Davis: This carries us to the final category of the five Ws and that is when academic freedom is at issue. There are of course regular controversies about academic freedom, usually with contested facts as well as interpretations. There are claims that individuals are being removed from jobs because they've upset powerful interests and sometimes the reverse is argued, that academics are abusing their freedom. A psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, has called certain university courses indoctrination cults.
John, the IPA has bought into a number of these controversies, often criticising universities for perceived punishments for individuals who have offended governments or management or donors. In your view, is academic freedom therefore a right without limits, or is there something that university management has to insist on as this is played out?
John Roskam: I think it's a process of collaboration and in any institution, it's between the researchers and the managers and the funders and the stakeholders and you're right, the IPA has taken a strong role and stance on academic freedom and not just academic freedom, the role of academics. So for example, when Roz Ward, the academic at La Trobe University was censored by her university for political statements, the IPA very strongly came out and said that is absolutely within her mandate to make those sorts of claims. The IPA has also been involved in practical cases such as the situation of physics professor, Peter Ridd, at James Cook University and his dismissal.
So I think we've had a really good discussion about academic freedom, but in the end it comes down to, as you say, when, were, how, why and what from. There will always be balances and Adrienne alluded to the difference between sciences and social sciences and there are differences. I think an academic or any researcher in any organisation should have the freedom, independence and autonomy to investigate without any sort of pressure whatsoever, for example, the efficacy of a medicine or a new drug. But if it comes to the social sciences and we have a researcher at a university or somewhere else investigating the nature of democracy and whether democracy is good or bad, I would have absolutely no problems with a potential funder saying, to a university, here is funding to investigate democracy from the premise that by and large democracy is better than the alternative. So there's context for everything.
Glyn Davis: Adrienne, I recall a new charter of academic freedom was debated at Melbourne a decade or so ago. You were very clear that civility is welcome in such debates, but cannot be demanded. So extrapolating from that, how should the rights to academic freedom, which you've defended so strongly, be expressed and exercised in university and are there legitimate limits to those rights?
Adrienne Stone: Well certainly I think there are legitimate limits to the rights and one clear one would be the limits imposed by the general law, the limits - and in Australia they're not insubstantial, so let me just say much of this debate is often, I think, played out by reference to what happens on US campuses and it ought to be remembered that at least on US public campuses, the position is very different because of the way in which the constitutional law of the United States works, which prohibits certain kinds of limits.
However, you are absolutely right. My own personal preference is certainly for civility in all forms of public engagement and not just because I find that personally more pleasant, I actually think that that's much fairer on everybody engaged in debate. I think robustness and offensiveness tends to exclude certain kinds of people from the conversation. So I think that offensiveness is a flaw in academic debate, however I don't think it can be demanded and the reason I don't think it can be demanded is that I think that academics ought to be able to make the choice about how it is they communicate their ideas. There are some times that it's worth being offensive. I occasionally, for instance, have spoken out against holocaust denial and I don't think that I'm under an obligation to be civil to those who are engaged in that form of hateful speech. I'll do my best, but if it turns out my views offend them, so be it and that seems to be just an instance of the kinds of circumstances in which academics ought to be brave and ought to be able, therefore, sometimes to push beyond the bounds of civility.
John Roskam: Adrienne, I think that's a really interesting question, but what I hear is you saying we should be civil unless they are holocaust deniers and I take your point - no, no, we can explore this - but I take your point, but where does that then lead to? Does that mean that we don’t have to be civil as, unfortunately as you've alluded to in the United States, people saying we don't have to be civil to voters for Trump?
Adrienne Stone: Okay, so…
John Roskam: So where do we - I hear you saying we must be civil unless we disagree.
Glyn Davis: It's not a general right to civility, it's a question of whether academic freedoms play out.
John Roskam: But you can't say we should be civil unless I disagree violently with what that person says.
Adrienne Stone: Okay, so let me say two things. One is that as a matter of what the universities' policy should be, I think it ought not to be demanding of civility, precisely for the reasons that you were pointing out.
John Roskam: Oh I completely agree, I completely agree.
Adrienne Stone: So while I regard it as an academic virtue, I do not think it ought to be a regulatory requirement or a policy requirement on behalf of the university, for just that reason. So my use of the example of holocaust deniers, to give you an example of exactly why the university ought not to be able to require is, so on that point, I think we're in agreement. I would just encourage my fellow academics to think that civil discourse is usually the most productive form.
John Roskam: Unless you disagree with someone.
Adrienne Stone: No, not unless you disagree, because you and I disagree very much, John and we're having a lovely, civil discussion.
John Roskam: But I - look I - but…
Glyn Davis: I want to take something else that Adrienne has mentioned, I notice earlier on we touched on the role of students here and this is where the question of academic freedom is often evoked, but it's really a discussion about free speech, it's not the same thing. Many of the controversies have actually taken these two things as being similar, but then John and Adrienne has argued why not. Let me give you an example. There was major publicity last year at Evergreen State College in Washington State in the United States and that university had organised a day to talk about race on campus. A particular academic criticised the event and the university for organising it; he found himself the subject of student demands that he be fired and eventually that professor and his wife, who was also an academic there, felt the need to leave the institution.
Adrienne, if a case has its own particularities, but this one goes to a common theme about students saying, should not have to deal with someone whose views they found offensive, is that a right of free speech and then how should universities manage that?
Adrienne Stone: So let me say something general and then something more nuanced. I do think that we ought to tolerate and I use that word, rather than welcome, on campus highly offensive speakers and we ought to recognise that the expression of offensive views by academics is, in most circumstances, within their academic freedom. However, I don't think that universities should therefore just ignore what are the concerns of students in this regard. I think universities need to do two things. One is I think they need to be sensitive to different contexts in universities. I think, for example, the public square of the university is quite different from the residential college. The residential college is a student's home and what goes on in a residential college I think ought to be quite different from what we're prepared to tolerate in the public square.
The classroom is a different environment again and the classroom of a first year student in an undergraduate degree is a different environment from the classroom in a graduate degree, where we might reasonably think that students have had some years of university experience that ought to make them better equipped. So that's the first thing, recognise the differences and respond to the differences in context.
Secondly, I frankly think universities ought to do more and be more explicit about what is expected in terms of public debate in the university. A step in this direction, but only a step, was taken by the University of Chicago recently when it wrote to its incoming class to explain the free speech ethos of the university. Now I think that was just a step, but it signalled to the students that by coming to this institution, this is what you're buying into.
The other step, in my view, is to start supporting students to become more resilient and more sort of courageous civic participants. It is simply not fair to expect a student from, say, a disadvantaged background in a minority religious or race in their first term of their first year of the degree, the first person in their family to go to university, to have - to be in a position to withstand the kinds of the hurly-burly and robustness of debate that I might, for example, as of a third year law student and I think that we ought to be a little bit more conscious and explicit about the way in which we differentiate these contexts and the way in which we build students up.
But my ideal, which I think maybe John and I would agree upon, is that we actually want to produce really quite courageous, resilient, civic participants, but that might be the end point and not the assumed starting point.
Glyn Davis: So John, the IPA's been a critic indeed of perceived catering to student demands, to no platforming, to safe spaces, to other initiatives that suggest students have a right not to be offended and as someone who works in a university, this seems a phenomenon largely found in elite universities in the United States.
John Roskam: Yes.
Glyn Davis: I struggle to find systemic student activism along similar lines, but US experience then gets played back to us. A 2017 IPA report claimed that Australia's universities failed to protect free speech on campus based on a review of university policies. The report, of course, attracted a mixed response and some very supportive op-eds, but also some tough minor criticism around methodology and accuracy. Can you take us through the evidence that concerns you from Australian campuses that makes you worry about the state of free speech?
John Roskam: There are particular instances and case studies in a number of Universities and, for example, The University of Sydney has attracted quite a degree of controversy. What the IPA did was look at the individual policies of individual universities and look at their implicit and explicit commitments to freedom of speech and freedom of academic inquiry. There's a difference between what a student does and what a university does. I would uphold absolutely the right of a student not to feel offended, not to feel challenged. I would be terribly disappointed by that. I would support a student to not participate in a lecture or tutorial for that basis.
But that doesn't extend to what is now happening in the US and I hope it never happens here in Australia, that doesn't extend to a student saying to a university, I'm offended simply by a lecture coming on to campus and for example, that has happened at The University of Sydney. So we have to distinguish again a couple of things, the individual right of a student not to be offended, but there are limits to that offence. As I said, I think it would be a tragedy for students not to be challenged by what they read, even if it might challenge their political views or religious views or any other sorts of perspectives.
But then what universities have to do and Adrienne's right, what the University of Chicago has done, a little bit of a model for many universities, is to then be robust and tell students, you are coming to university and you are engaging in a wonderful special experience that will challenge you.
Adrienne Stone: I want to say that I really take seriously the idea that for many students what they're objecting to goes well beyond offence and goes to a form of social interaction that they find excludes them from the university and from their classroom and from the public debate within the university.
So I do think that we want to take seriously the sentiment behind these demands because they go towards equality. It's not the same as agreeing to implement all those things that are requested, but I think the university just has to take seriously the fact that university is a more difficult, more challenging, more alienating experience for some people than for others and that these requests that I hear of in the United States and very occasionally here, for things like safe spaces, et cetera, are a response to that and if they're not the right response, then we need to find another one for students that enables the university really to be properly inclusive at the same time as being robust. Now I think that's a big challenge, but I think a great university ought to be able to do it.
John Roskam: It's a huge spaces, we can have safe spaces and trigger warnings, but then we are going to deny to every student not reading Pride and Prejudice.
Adrienne Stone: Well hold on, John, that's just silly. Nobody is objecting at all to Pride and Prejudice. And the trigger warning, not that I necessarily think that they're always wanted, a trigger warning is a warning that says, before you read this, know this and then go on and read it. So let's not overstate what's going on here.
John Roskam: No, Adrienne, I….
Glyn Davis: I'll never think about Elizabeth Bennet in the same light.
Before we turn for home, I just want to go to a very difficult issue and it's about the importance of diversity of views in universities and everyone can agree that this is a good thing and it should happen. But there seems to be no issue underscores this more than climate change, the right of climate change contrarians to express their views in classrooms and in the media is often described as threatened. Yet surveys suggest a vast majority, some say 97 per cent of scientists see climate change as essentially real and human caused.
John, how does the university deal with the debate when the scientific evidence, at least, or the scientific consensus so heavily leans in one direction?
John Roskam: Oh I'd argue, Glyn, science is not settled by consensus, as The University of Melbourne policy statements says, research is about truth and whether it's climate change or any other aspect of science, for example, the challenge always has to be to seek the truth. Now climate change is contested, the evidence on climate change is far from clear and from an IPA's perspective, what I see too often sadly, not universally, but too often, is scientists engaging in the reinforcing of an existing viewpoint and seeking justification for it, rather than questioning.
The other part of, let's take climate change as an example, is a large proportion of climate change research in Australia is funded by the government and I would argue that the government has a particular philosophical and policy viewpoint when it comes to the funding of climate change. I would be very wary of deciding any research program according to such consensus, because that defeats the search for truth.
Glyn Davis: Adrienne, what responsibility to offer diversity?
Adrienne Stone: I'd like to speak first, actually, outside of the sciences where I feel a bit more at home. I have to say that in that sphere, I think that the responsibility of university is very high indeed and I'm willing to countenance the view that maybe universities don't meet that fully. I certainly see a high degree of diversity amongst my colleagues, but maybe not as much I would always want. I think universities should not just tolerate it, but actively seek it out. However, I think that we've got a responsibility not just to diversity, but actually to the disciplines that we promote and contested is not the same as contestable and there being two sides to a debate does not meant that both sides ought to be treated as if they were equal.
I think a scientist could do this better and the Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University has spoken very eloquently about the importance of the scientific method. So if you really believe that universities are seeking truth through the sciences, then you need to respect the scientific method, which does not preclude disagreement, but it does take the consensus as a working hypothesis.
Glyn Davis: As someone who makes a life in universities and has been committed to perform through your career, do you worry about the state of academic freedom, or broadly of free speech on campus?
Adrienne Stone: I think it's important always to worry a little bit about it. I don’t regard it as in serious crisis, at least not at the institutions with which I am really familiar. But I think there's always pressures on them and they're hard values to commit to because they require us to tolerate things we really don't like and it's for that reason, whether it's students tolerating views they don't like, whether it's academics tolerating views they don't like, or whether it's the pressures that come from things like commercialisation and the needs to raise funds, there's always pressures on them. So I think we ought to, while not panicking, act very vigilantly in relation to them.
Glyn Davis: John, as a former academic and now as a policy advocate, how do you assess the state of campus?
John Roskam: I think in Australia universities are still healthy. As we spoke about, many of the ills befalling American universities have not yet fallen on Australian universities. As we've spoken about today, I think there are very disappointing instances where universities have not behaved as perhaps might be expected. I think there is a growing threat to freedom of speech on campuses, not at a systemic level, but at individual universities and in particular ways, I think the biggest challenge to Australian universities is actually viewpoint diversity. It is - and has been put to me by some of our 1000 young members of the Institute of Public Affairs, many of whom are at universities, to be blunt, they do feel uncomfortable sometimes on campus as a conservative.
I have spoken to students not at this university, but at other universities who would never admit in a tutorial that if they had been American they would have voted for Donald Trump or Brexit or even that they might challenge the prevailing views on climate change. So I think Adrienne is correct, we must be eternally vigilant. I think universities are an outstanding civil and public institution in Australia, but I think universities do have challenges and these challenges will only increase, I think social media is changing the debate, I think the idea of people being empowered to learn themselves through electronic media, through the disaggregation of Australia's, by world standards, very large universities, I think is a major challenge.
What we're finding now, certainly from our experience, is that if you're an 18 or 19-year-old, you will be hopefully doing the reading that your tutor assigned to you, but you're just as likely to go home and watch Jordan Peterson or David Rubin on YouTube. These are the big, really interesting challenges and I hope that universities continue to be at the forefront of the search for truth and intellectual inquiry in Australia, but whether they will have the monopoly position that I would argue that perhaps they've had for so many years I think is an open question.
Glyn Davis: So my thanks to our guests today, Professor Adrienne Stone from the Melbourne Law School.
Adrienne Stone: You're welcome, it's been a pleasure.
Glyn Davis: And John Roskam, the Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs.
John Roskam: Thank you Glyn, thank you Adrienne.
Adrienne Stone: Thanks John.
Glyn Davis: And thank you for joining us on The Policy Shop.
Voiceover: This episode of The Policy Shop was produced by Ruby Schwartz, with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer and the Horwood Recording Studio at The University of Melbourne. The Policy Shop is produced under creative commons, copyright The University of Melbourne 2018.
Attacks on academic freedom have been making headlines.
The suppression of academic freedom has been called a “global crisis” by some, while others complain the academy is not challenged enough by different thinking. Yet the concept of academic freedom is complicated – what does it mean, and who exactly is under attack?
This episode of The Policy Shop explores academic freedom, using a classic approach – the five Ws – the what, why, who, where and when of academic freedom.
To explore these questions with host, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne Professor Glyn Davis, is Professor Adrienne Stone from the Melbourne Law School and John Roskam, Executive Director of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.
Episode recorded: 28 June 2018
Produced by: Ruby Schwartz
Audio engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Series producer: Eoin Hahessy
Banner image: Jirka Matousek via Flickr