Back in March I started work on this project, funded by Heterodox Academy. At the start this was a loosely defined, exploratory engagement project with 3 main tasks: some one-to-one interviews (in April-May), some seminars to discuss issues and options (in May) and a discussion paper (in June).

The paper would aim to map and make sense of viewpoint diversity issues in Australian higher learning contexts where controversial topics seem less open to scholarly debate than they could be. And suggest ways to promote greater viewpoint visibility on our campuses. The principle here is that intellectual pluralism should be accepted (and protected) as an inescapable feature of the practice of rigorous and open-minded scholarly inquiry in universities.

Motto for Heterodox Academy members

Time constraints made the project quite challenging. Under the HxA funding agreement, the firm deadline for task completion was mid-July. In the event, while some parts of the process were quite stressful, there were few insurmountable setbacks, and only minor delays. After contacting many people across the university sector in March and April, I had good support from some colleagues (old and new); good engagement from some senior people willing to make time to share views; generous support from those willing to speak (and listen) at the May and June webinars; and some wider engagement since then, from those willing to read and comment on the (very long and wide-ranging) July working paper.

Project participants (since April 2022)

In Times Higher Education John Ross reported on the June webinar discussion. Since then, I’ve shared the working paper widely, but with at times very limited response from some university groups, particularly at senior levels.

One part of the working paper that has attracted a good deal of front-line scholar interest is Chart 11 (some rules of engagement for class discussion, or Six ways to enlighten up). I’ve updated these several times since first posting, in response to suggestions which (adopted or not) have been always constructive. In a separate post (or further Conversation commentary on these themes, if feasible) I’ll discuss some of the issues readers raised. These I think must arise with any attempt to design rules of engagement for scholars to use as a common approach across diverse fields of study, with diverse groups of students, on campus and online.

To summarise progress to date: as the working paper illustrates, many issues here are multi-faceted and intertwined. Their complexity goes well beyond the left-right labels and culture-war narratives that have politicised and polarised so many current debates. They could easily make the normative preconditions for higher learning in Australia very difficult to sustain. And they won’t go away anytime soon. They are embedded in wider public discourse disorders, well beyond the control of universities.

With social media dynamics that often promote intolerance and antagonism instead of rational dialogue or problem-solving, a core task for universities still must be to seek and share and strengthen truth and knowledge reliably. In liberal democracies these are essential public goods. 

My sincere thanks to all those who took time to engage with a project that, inevitably, touches on many areas of potential controversy within and beyond universities. My next step will be to write a summary paper that reflects further on these issues; on reactions to the project over the past few months; and on how higher learning institutions can continue their essential work in the cause of enlightening up.

Socrates, Galileo, Smith, Voltaire, Kant, Newman, Mill, Orwell, Popper and Russell (hypothetical group tweet, circa 2020). See the Discussion Paper for details of their relevance to this project.

Notes

My paper’s argument represents the author’s own views. Readers should not assume that the contributors listed above – who were approached to seek a range of perspectives – all subscribe to all (or any) of the author’s views. Nor should anyone assume that Heterodox Academy necessarily endorses these.

Post-project process update

As noted, this project entailed a lot of work within tight timelines. In the event the most stressful aspect was lack of local management support. As I told those attending the May webinar, I’d been running the project on an understanding that my honorary fellow role at the University of Melbourne would continue over 2022. But in the days leading up to our webinar, an email informed me that my School had decided not to renew my affiliation. Overnight, I quickly rebadged my webinar presentations, and continued with the work.

In June I forwarded a progress report to the Dean, and called for a review of the May decision, without success. Others at the University were finding my work of interest. In September I forwarded a further update. This time I suggested that the May decision was Kafkaesque, and that those responsible should read my work and enlighten up*. When this drew no response, a small group of professors signed a letter of support.

Letter to the Vice-Chancellor and the Dean, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

As University of Melbourne scholars, we write to express our support for Dr Sharrock in his work on open inquiry and constructive disagreement in Australian universities; and in his request to be re-appointed as an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University. Dr Sharrock has a long association with this University. He has:

  • worked with former Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis on the University’s Growing Esteem strategy;
  • published scholarly work on university leadership and higher education policy and management with the Centre for the Study of Higher Education and LH Martin Institute (the Centre);
  • taught and supervised postgraduates in his field with the Centre;
  • engaged in expert commentary with The Conversation and other media outlets on higher education policy; and
  • conducted an independent and confidential internal review of the University’s Business Improvement Program restructure.

We share Dr Sharrock’s concern that, shortly after he commenced work on an externally funded project in 2022, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education undertook in April to extend his honorary appointment for a further year, but then reversed its decision in May without explanation or discussion. The reversal took place mid-project, when it was known that Dr Sharrock was relying on University systems to conduct recorded interviews, host recorded webinars and transcribe material to complete the project on time, as per his funding agreement with Heterodox Academy.

When Dr Sharrock appealed to MGSE to reconsider its decision in June, there was again no explanation or discussion. Instead, an email from HR advised that he was about to be cut off from the University’s IT systems. Whatever the concerns were that led MGSE to reverse its initial decision mid-project, by its refusal to explain or discuss the matter, MGSE has allowed no opportunity for these to be addressed by a long-standing member of this University. Those of us who have participated directly in the project, and/or have read the discussion paper, believe that the issues it examines are complex and relevant to the work of universities. We believe the conduct of the project itself has been transparent, constructive and scholarly, with its aim of improving dialogue across viewpoints on these matters. The administrative treatment of Dr Sharrock’s affiliation with the University does not seem consistent with the spirit of such a project. Nor does it reflect the procedural fairness that should apply in such cases, whatever decision is reached.

As the weeks went by, this too drew no management response. Fortunately, some colleagues in another School proposed an honorary role with their group. With luck, this new affiliation will support my future work in this area of higher education policy and management in Australian higher education.

*UniMelb’s Academic Freedom of Expression policy has application here:

…all scholars at the University are free to engage in critical enquiry, scholarly endeavour and public discourse without fear or favour … the University supports the right of all scholars at the University to search for truth, and to hold and express diverse opinions. It recognises that scholarly debate should be robust and uninhibited. It recognises also that scholars are entitled to express their ideas and opinions even when doing so may cause offence. These principles apply to all activities in which scholars express their views both inside and outside the University. The liberty to speak freely extends to … criticism of the University and its actions. Scholars at the University should expect to be able to exercise academic freedom of expression and not be disadvantaged or subjected to less favourable treatment by the University for doing so… 

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