Preamble: this project is an issue-mapping-and-engagement exercise, funded by Heterodox Academy.

(The purpose of HxA deserves wide support: to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement).

At the June webinar I shared insights from some interviews in March and April, and took up some points raised at the first May webinar. From discussions so far a recurring theme is that the uses and limits of free expression in Australian universities – whatever local rules apply – are embedded in wider socio-cultural contexts. On many topics, public discourse is polarised and tribalised in ways that discard scholarly norms of open, honest, critical engagement on substantive issues (i.e. with logic and evidence, not dogmatic assertions and accusations).

With our two webinars taking place just before and after Australia’s federal election, it seemed timely to recall Adam Smith’s insight that factions and fanatics don’t like independent thinkers honest enough to speak their minds. While set up to pursue higher learning projects, university communities are not immune from these mass society dynamics. How well placed are we to defend their work, and promote progress based on doctrinal pluralism and deliberative democracy?

Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire highlighted tolerance as an essential precondition for competing doctrines to co-exist under wider social contracts; and as a rebuke to fanatics intent on attacking any who dared dispute their views: If you want us to tolerate your doctrine here, start by being neither intolerant, nor intolerable.

In modern democracies, intolerance toward scholars who air lawful views at odds with a community belief or lobby group agenda is most visible in cases of cancel culture. If a scholar is attacked on social media for an “offensive” view, coupled with calls for their university to sanction them, how should their leaders and colleagues respond?

A culture in which online mobs seek to sanction scholars who question their case or cause, undermines university norms that support free inquiry. In such cases a Voltaire drought does not reflect the idea of a university as a place where opposing views are contested with arguments; not what Griffith University philosopher Hugh Breakey describes as meta-argument allegations.

To highlight this issue I outlined the argument of Jonathan Haidt’s recent Atlantic essay on the rise of “vigilante” justice via social media in the US context, and its corrosive effects on a community’s civil norms and a nation’s social fabric.

The Haidt critique can be applied to Australian examples such as those discussed by one of my Melbourne colleagues, law professor Katy Barnett.

Since academic, media and social media contexts often overlap, an issue with such cases in a university will be: how much visible local institutional support should scholars expect? Particularly if their (lawful, considered, intellectually coherent) critique is at odds with the dominant view in their field?

With excerpts from the Heterodox Academy’s “Cancel Culture Toolkit” I illustrated how a scholar may face months of distress from online attacks – where even casual remarks become part of the case for sanctions “context be damned” – without much visible local support. Under Voltaire drought conditions, colleagues may know that an accusation is unjust; but fear of being tagged a fellow-heretic prevents them from offering public support. To dramatise the point, a bright young law professor – let’s say played by an actor from The Good Wife – may find the distress of his ordeal transforming him into a weary, long-dead philosopher (here played by John Henry Newman).

At the June webinar I outlined some historical examples of government censorship from earlier writing (Galileo, Kant) to illustrate that scholars who “speak truth to power” have always faced political risks. Some (such as Voltaire) had their books burnt if they challenged official policy or otherwise offended the authorities.

Recalling these stories was a way to recap the rationale for an Enlightenment logic of protecting intellectual freedom as a key enabler of academic inquiry, and a foundational value for modern universities in the Western liberal tradition.

These ideas were presented in the “Dare to know!” Enlightenment tradition outlined by Kant in 1784. Kant’s idea that, by design, a university should make room for scholarly critiques of prevailing doctrines by way of a conflict of the faculties foreshadowed the “collision of mind with mind” campus culture articulated by John Henry Newman in 1852.

At the May webinar some noted that Australian universities are often sensitive to critique from within, where a scholar’s public commentary poses a perceived risk to their brand or to a stakeholder relationship. At the June session I recalled some earlier work on the tensions between academic professionalism with its focus on establishing truth and knowledge, and managerial professionalism, with its focus on protecting the institution’s public standing, resources and capabilities.

See Sharrock, 2010 Two Hippocratic oaths for higher education

In the interviews and at the webinars we discussed the complex balance modern universities must strike in cases where policies designed to protect free inquiry and scholarly exchange run up against those focused on other institutional priorities, such as staff and student well-being – particularly for minority groups. And here we noted that academic freedom and free expression are never absolute, but protected only to the extent that they are lawful.

Source: Professor Dawn Freshwater, Freedom of Expression, 10 August 2021

On the complexity of this balancing act, the 2019 French Review of free speech in Australian higher education offers useful insights. The Review called for greater policy clarity, while recognising also that institutional culture is key (with the implication that leaders need to send clear signals on institutional values and priorities).

For university leaders, dilemmas often arise when staff or students spark media controversy by airing a sharp critique or unpopular view on a sensitive topic. In their 2021 book Open Minds legal scholars Evans and Stone consider the wider Australian debate before and after the French Review. They warn against “free speech absolutism” on one hand; and on the other they argue that academic freedom means that scholars should be free to contest the positions of their colleagues or institution – however disquieting this may be for a colleague’s sensibility, or a university’s concern for its standing.

As flagged by the French Review, a recurring insight in these discussions is that university policies that require staff and students to “respect” others’ views, even those they reject, can lead to administrative over-reach.

While others’ lawful rights must be respected, to demand respect for all other opinions would severely restrict the normal exercise of intellectual freedom. If invoked to enforce tone or courtesy, on any highly contested academic topic “respect” will be a laudable norm but a risible rule.

In the UK, we noted, a recent Cambridge debate led to the reworking of a proposed policy requiring “respect” for others’ opinions to one calling instead for “tolerance”. (As that debate made clear, the idea of respect can cover a spectrum of meanings: from passive non-interference to positive affirmation. In the latter sense, a call to show respect for a view one rejects is a call for a “display of lip-service”).

From the interviews it was clear that problems may arise if a guest speaker’s complaint against a rowdy student protest must be adjudicated according to a code that calls for students to treat others with courtesy. A general problem raised in this project is that key terms in the policy debate (e.g. respect, prejudice, harm, hate, safe – and free speech) are open to “concept creep” in their popular usage. In turn they can be misapplied in the adjudication of disputes in scholarly communities.

At the webinar I noted that the Australian High Court findings on the Peter Ridd dismissal case turned in part on the university’s (mis)application of the term respect in its staff code. Other university sector commentators have flagged similar risks in relation to the ideas of harmful speech and hate speech.

See Craven, 2016 Free speech can’t be restricted to ‘progressive’ ideas

Public controversies aside, the webinars also raised the issues of how sensitive topics are best handled in day-to-day scholarly work, such as teaching. At the May webinar, for example, a Melbourne colleague teaching sex, gender and science introduced the ideas of academic freedom, free speech and constructive disagreement to their students, with materials drawn from a range of sources (including Heterodox Academy’s All Minus One edition of John Stuart Mill’s thinking).

Another May webinar participant raised the concern that in the Australian higher education sector there are moves to label the critiques that some scholars profess in their work as hate speech – and thus out of bounds for higher learning purposes.

Reflecting on how costly and counter-productive some academic disputes can be (notably the Peter Ridd case), at the webinars I suggested that a better response to internal staff or student complaints in such cases might be for a university to call on the parties to have an open debate on the substantive questions in the academic domain. Setting up an academic forum to air the concerns of both parties may be a simpler (and ultimately more enlightening) approach to incidents of offence-taking and misconduct allegations than some slow and secretive bureaucratic process of adjudication by administrators. First, it would refocus the debate on the substantive questions. And second, it would offer a space for the protagonists to address among their peers why a view was deemed offensive, and how the substantive case might be debated with less animosity or umbrage.

In such a scenario the protagonists would do well to debate the substantive issues, rather than invoke the niceties of staff or student codes that few members of scholarly communities otherwise bother to read. And for students attending such debates, a bonus feature of such a forum might be for a student panel to rate the quality of the cases made on both sides, using a rubric for constructive debate such as the one below.

See Sharrock (2020) Feel free to disagree on campus … by learning to do it well

Having noted at the start of the project that Australia does not have good data on students’ experience of self-censoring on campus, to assess whether this represents a serious problem, a suggestion at the May webinar was to consider adapting the Heterodox Academy’s Campus Expression Survey for the Australian context.

At the June webinar I presented some of this US material. Context issues complicate the issue of self-censoring. That is, there there may be positive reasons for students to self-censor (out of empathy toward others) as well as negative ones (such as fear of social sanctions).

On the question of university staff self-censoring, I presented some snapshots from a large multi-country survey of political scientists. This indicated that in many Western democracies, conservative or right-leaning scholars felt more pressure to self-censor.

This discussion picked up a theme built into this project from the outset. For the March and April interviews, an “iceberg” model illustrated contextual factors which may lead students to self-censor more or less on different topics in different circumstances.

As one respondent pointed out, students in Australian universities often inhabit multiple contexts at the same time. They may engage in social media exchanges in tandem with classroom or social exchanges on campus, and are likely to encounter different norms and risks in those settings. In the case of international students studying online at an Australian university from their home country, students may also inhabit different jurisdictions. Topics that are openly discussed without risk under Australian laws and according to Australian campus norms may be no-go zones in other cultural settings. In such cases, students may self-censor for reasons that have nothing to do with what their lecturer says, or what their Australian classmates think of the matter at hand.

On this question another interview respondent referred me to some detailed UK student survey data, which looked into these questions from a range of angles. In this snapshot the results indicate that conservative students were seen as more likely to self-censor on campus.

Presenting excerpts from this material at the webinars, I noted that the UK survey compared student responses of their experience off-campus as well as on-campus. This data indicated that while most students regarded academic freedom, free expression, freedom to protest and freedom from hate as highly important for their own campus experience, most also thought that all four of these freedoms were less protected off-campus, in the wider social contexts they encountered in the UK.

(Update, 24 June: new Higher Education Policy Institute student poll data (of 1000 undergraduates) suggests greater intolerance toward scholars who teach “offensive” material on UK campuses. Does this indicate a growing Voltaire drought in UK universities? Report author Nick Hillman interprets the overall poll results this way:

“… it is clear most students want greater restrictions to be imposed than have tended to be normal in the past. This may be primarily for reasons of compassion, with the objective of protecting other students, but it could also reflect a lack of resilience among a cohort that has faced unprecedented challenges.“)

Source: Higher Education Policy Institute, June 2022

(Update, 24 June: As in New Zealand, Australian university vice-chancellors are fully aware of the balancing act university communities must strike between free expression rights and other rights. And their institution’s role in promoting informed debate on matters where public opinion is highly polarised.)

Source: Vice-Chancellor’s Fourth Annual Address, 21 June 2022

Towards the end of the June webinar we discussed what role a new Association for Viewpoint Diversity might play in the Australian context. We looked at some overseas models. Some focused on supporting scholars caught up in social media attacks or campus controversies. Others (such as Heterodox Academy) also focus on curating educational resources to help scholars teach students how to practice constructive disagreement on complex topics. As seen with some overseas cases, a challenge for any new association focused on the freedoms of scholars will be the risk that it is tagged a “culture war” platform with its own partisan agenda.

My next task will be to prepare the final part of this engagement project: a discussion paper that sets out issues and options for promoting academic heterodoxy in Australia. My main theme here, as in the webinars, will be tolerance for diverse views and doctrines on campuses, as well as for their diverse student and staff communities.

With sincere thanks to all who have contributed time and insight to this project, thus far.

From BBC interview 1959. Philosopher Bertrand Russell’s “message to future generations”

Further reading

Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic April 2022, Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens, The Minefield April 2022, Is anger corrosive to the moral life? A conversation with Christos Tsiolkas (podcast)

James Button, The Age November 2021, Gender, sex and power: the debate dividing universities

Geoff Sharrock, November 2021, Peter Ridd, the High Court and academic freedom

Ilana Redstone, October 2021, Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes: the problem of unintentionally treating beliefs as facts

Dawn Freshwater, University of Auckland August 2021, Freedom of expression

Adrienne Stone, Sydney Law Review August 2021, The Meaning of Academic Freedom: The Significance of Ridd v James Cook University

Geoff Sharrock, July 2021, Book review: Open Minds (and the French Review connection)

Alex Fasseis, Brown Political Review July 2021, Religion, Politics and Truth: an interview with Simon Blackburn

Julie Szego, The Age June 2021, Silencing transgender conversation leads us nowhere

George Williams, The Australian June 2021, As Peter Ridd case shows, pursuit of truth not always a civil affair

Tim Dodd, The Australian May 2021, Australian Association of University Professors backs Peter Ridd

Andrew Norton, April 2021, Academic freedom as a principle and a practice (a review of Open Minds)

Peter Tregear, The Conversation March 2021, Book review: Open Minds explores how academic freedom and the public university are at risk

Sean Coughlin, BBC News December 2020, Cambridge University votes to safeguard free speech

John Ross, Times Higher Education October 2020, Are corporate overreach and political correctness really undermining academic freedom?

Geoff Sharrock, September 2020, Peter Ridd and the French Review connection

Hugh Breakey, Springer Nature August 2020, “That’s Unhelpful, Harmful and Offensive!” Epistemic and Ethical Concerns with Meta-argument Allegations

Robert Simpson, Ethics International Journal of Social Political and Legal Philosophy April 2020, The Relation Between Academic Freedom and Free Speech

Jonathan Grant and Kirstie Hewlett, WonkHE December 2019, What students really think about freedom of expression

Hugh Breakey, The Conversation September 2019, Actually, it’s OK to disagree. Here are 5 ways we can argue better

Katy Barnett, Quillette July 2018, Inducing people’s employers to fire them should be a civil wrong

Gay Alcorn, The Guardian June 2018, Peter Ridd’s sacking pushes the limit of academic freedom

Edmund Adam, University Affairs/Affaires universitaires November 2017, Wise words: think for yourself, reject conformism

Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian October 2016, Treatise on Tolerance by Voltaire review – an attack on fanaticism

Jonathan Haidt and Nick Haslam, The Guardian April 2016, Campuses are places for open minds – not where debate is closed down

Rebecca Attwood, Times Higher Education August 2010, I swear I am just doing my job

Geoff Sharrock, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 2010, Two Hippocratic Oaths for higher education

Geoff Sharrock, Australian Universities Review 2007, After Copernicus: beyond the crisis in Australian universities

One thought on “Viewpoint visibility in Australian universities: project update

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