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.

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 groups, particularly at senior levels in universities.

So far the project has had no other media attention.

One part of the July 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 a 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.

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