This month I began work on a new engagement project funded by the Heterodox Academy. In the coming weeks and months I’ll be speaking with higher education scholars and stakeholders on how to make viewpoint diversity more visible on Australian university campuses.

On many questions, scholars will always differ on at least some points. And on some, they may subscribe to schools of thought that are starkly at odds. So, a premise of this project is that campus rules or norms that enable the practice of intolerance to prevent lawful free expression of opinion may restrict student learning, scholarly inquiry, or both. On some topics, peer intolerance may also put at risk the well-being of students or staff with minority viewpoints. At a system level, making otherwise debatable topics undiscussable goes against the main mission of higher learning institutions: to seek and share and strengthen truth and knowledge as reliably as we can. For all to participate fully in this, two-way tolerance and concern for others go hand in hand.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, Message to future generations, BBC interview 1959

A second premise is that on complex matters, conflicting doctrines persist in part because none is entirely true or false: they “share the truth between them”.

A third premise is that in liberal democracies, competing views on many matters of public interest have become highly polarised. In social media forums, commentators who denounce all who disagree as the enemy often render the substantive issues, on which others may differ in good faith and for relevant reasons, undiscussable.

In higher learning institutions, a key task for scholars and students is to find ways to “disagree well” on their topics of study, the problems they encounter among peers and colleagues, or the issues of the day.

Adam Smith on the contempt of hostile factions for the “impartial spectator”

Three main tasks will support this new project:

  • April-May: Interviews with up to 20 people (via Zoom)
  • May: Two seminars/workshops to discuss issues and options (via Zoom)
  • June: A discussion paper. This will canvas issues and options for promoting greater viewpoint diversity visibility in Australian higher learning contexts.

In the course of the project I expect to examine:

  • current and emerging challenges in this area at the policy and practice levels
  • ideas for improving policy and/or practice in the promotion of free inquiry and open exchange as defining values in Australian higher learning contexts.

The main themes, from leadership, staff and/or student perspectives, are:

  • Formal policy settings and administrative arrangements. For example, institutional responses to the 2019 French Review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education. Or, public controversies where commitments to free inquiry and open exchange may conflict with duties of care for the well-being of students and staff.
  • Frameworks, toolkits and practitioner support in teaching and learning and student engagement and/or public engagement. For example, how lecturers and tutors promote open discussion with their students. How best to help them deal with hot topics on which views are polarised? Or with controversies that arise on campus or in media forums?

With support from colleagues, I’ve been receiving suggestions for further reading. And adding to my list of people to contact (soon!) about interviews.

Those interested in participating, or suggesting others well placed to do so, can contact me on geoffk.sharrock@gmail.com

Meanwhile, my thanks to Heterodox Academy for accepting me as a member. And for providing financial support for this project.

(Updates: see the June project notes on interview and webinar topics here and the July discussion paper here).

Further reading from this author

Notes

Heterodox Academy is a nonpartisan collaborative of 5,000+ professors, educators, administrators, staff, and students who are committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.

This project, Building Viewpoint Diversity Visibility in Australian Universities, is supported in full by Heterodox Academy. The ability for HxA to provide Grants for HxCommunities events and other activities are made possible in full through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed at these events (or through such activities) are those of the individual Grantees, organizers, speakers, presenters, and attendees of such events/ activities and do not necessarily reflect the views of Heterodox Academy and/or the John Templeton Foundation.

4 thoughts on “Heterodox Academy project on viewpoint diversity

  1. Update 9 April: The early interviews this last week went well! Much food for thought already, in complex territory. More to come next week. And then an online seminar in May, open to others interested in “disagreeing well on campus”.

    My rules of engagement for this project are similar to an internal review of a change project I conducted for the University of Melbourne a few years back. As my invitees know, my interview recordings will not be replayed to third parties. and all attributed interview quotes will be confirmed with the interviewee before any use in papers or presentations.

  2. Update 14 April. Thanks to my early interviewees from the University of Melbourne, University of Sydney, Australian National University and Griffith University. More to come after the Easter break. The first online seminar on this topic will be on Friday 20 May.

  3. Update, 30 April. It was good to speak last week with interviewees at Deakin University and the Australian Catholic University. Looking forward to next week’s discussions with others at Avondale University, Federation University, La Trobe University and the University of Queensland.

  4. Update, 1 June: The 20 May webinar (just a day before Australia’s federal election) went well with many insights from guest speakers and a good wide-ranging discussion. A short follow-up webinar will take place next week (Wednesday 8 June, 5-7pm). There I’ll recap issues and options identified thus far for a wider audience. And invite discussion on possible next steps for promoting open and constructive debate on difficult topics, on campus and off.

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