In Australia and New Zealand, university leaders have called on their institutions to promote more open-minded and constructive debates, to help societies respond to complex challenges.

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater writes that campus communities should be exemplars where scholars speak bravely and freely and with respect.

At the University of Melbourne, vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell agrees. He calls on scholars to model productive modes of disagreement. One challenge, he suggests, is a wider media culture that polarises public opinion and oversimplifies complex problems. He argues for respectful listening as well as robust expression on campus. In concrete terms: refraining from throwing metaphorical bricks at each other.

Source: University of Melbourne, Vice-Chancellor’s Fourth Annual Address, June 2022

As seen on Australian campuses in recent months, this doesn’t always happen. A panel discussion in Melbourne or an invited guest speaker in Sydney may be met with attempts by campus activists to disrupt or shut down the forum before it has even begun.

How can today’s universities promote careful, honest and open debate, in practice as well as in policy?

“Respect” or “Tolerance” as policy principles?

As seen here, many university leaders invoke the term respect. This is a form of shorthand for tolerance, civility and upholding the rights of others, in otherwise robust debates and exchanges in university settings. (As John Henry Newman put it in the mid-19th century: the collision of mind with mind in a place where the intellect may safely range). In the Australian higher learning context, it has wide currency. For example, the slogan RESPECT. NOW. ALWAYS has been part of a sector-wide project to prevent sexual assault and harassment on campuses.

Rights such as these must be protected. And as a form of civility, respect works well as an informal norm on campus. But as a general concept it should not be set in stone as a formal rule. The 2019 French Review observed that it did not take much imagination to apply a respect rule too restrictively, in ways that undermined institutional goals of free inquiry and open exchange. Nor should a respect rule be applied to campus activists who engage in lawful protest – itself a form of free expression in liberal democracies. As the French Review notes: Members of the university community or others may take objection to the content of a speaker’s views and wish to protest against the expression of those views and/or against the appropriateness of the university providing a platform for their expression.

In the Peter Ridd vs James Cook University case, Australia’s High Court concluded that as a matter of law, asserting a general right to respect was absurd; and that in a university context, such a rule must undermine the core meaning of intellectual freedom.

Likewise, in their book Open Minds, legal scholars Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone confirm that: academics should be able to speak out … even when doing so involves harsh and even disrespectful criticism of their colleagues or university.

In sum, respect rules can be used to demand conformity with views that fair-minded, well-meaning, law-abiding scholars neither accept nor respect. The flipside of a right of respect is another absurdity, a right of intolerance. In the UK, a recent debate on a proposed respect rule led Cambridge University to opt for a policy of tolerance instead.

This recalls a hard-won Enlightenment principle, invoked by Voltaire to counter the religious-war atrocities of 18th century Europe: The supposed “right of intolerance” is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger … indeed worse, for tigers tear just for food, while we rend each other for paragraphs…

Image source: Wikipedia

Too much self-censoring? It’s complicated

If we want more open-minded, socially inclusive universities, where truth and knowledge are mobilised to serve society as part of their enlightenment agenda, what follows?

A common concern is that often, students and scholars feel compelled to self-censor, due to fear of peer backlash, or of future career repercussions. (This is seen by many as part of a wider problem in democracies with free speech in general decline – perhaps in crisis – and cancel culture on the rise. Claims and counterclaims about this reflect an apparently endless culture war – with its echoes of past religious wars – as seen in media narratives and social media dynamics.) Meanwhile the principle of being free to disagree on campus, within lawful limits, seems clear enough. As does being free from discrimination and other social harms, such as defamation. But the real and optimal extent of lawful free expression on campus (or the actual extent of oppressive self-censoring, or oppressive social harm in its absence) is very hard to measure reliably.

In Australia, our latest (2021) Student Experience Survey indicated that 3 in 4 undergraduates felt free to express their views and 4 in 5 felt free from discrimination, harm and hatred. And (as for undergraduates) 1 in 4 postgraduate students were not confident that they were free to express their views.

Chart 1 Data source: QILT 2021 higher education Student Experience Survey (published August 2022)

What do such results mean, for policy purposes? They indicate no crisis on campuses, but also good scope for improvement. And they raise context questions that warrant further research.

One complicator is that today’s students inhabit so many overlapping social contexts. On any given day, on-campus and on-line, they may share views with peers in class, friends on-campus, networks off-campus, and family connections. As well, they may inhabit different jurisdictions, residing in their home country with its own set of laws and cultural norms, while studying on-line in Australia.

This may entail self-censoring in line with multiple layers of context, according to different social norms and different lawful limits. The combination will influence which terms and viewpoints are culturally acceptable within different group settings. As well, it will influence whether students feel free to share their view in (say) an on-line study forum.

A second complicator is that perceived pressures to self-censor are topic-specific, as seen in recent US data. A course of study may include lots of politically controversial material, or very little.

A third (as seen in US data) is that students may self-censor in class for positive reasons, such as empathy for a vulnerable fellow student for whom the discussion topic is personal. Not just negative ones, such as fear of social sanctioning by peers for holding an unpopular view.

A fourth (as seen in UK data) is whether students rate their campus freedoms higher or lower in part by comparing these with off-campus experience, in the wider society.

UK survey data presents more detail than seen in Australia. For example (as I outlined in a recent Melbourne webinar), a 2019 survey showed that UK students with conservative views were less likely to express them than those with left-wing views. Subgroups of activists and libertarians took quite different views on whether campus rules on free expression in the UK were too restrictive.

From a tolerance on campus perspective, many UK scholars will be concerned that, in a 2022 survey of 1000 UK undergraduates, 1 in 3 students agreed that academics should face dismissal if they teach material that heavily offends some students (see Chart 2). In a 2016 survey, 1 in 6 or 7 UK students agreed with the same proposition – that for scholars to teach offensive material was a sackable offence.

The UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute reporting presents the shift to less liberal views on free expression as not in line with traditional academic norms. (To some of the Australian scholars I have heard from on these questions in 2022, this UK snapshot will recall the Chart 15 scenario outlined in my July discussion paper.)

Chart 2 Source: Higher Education Policy Institute, June 2022

Frameworks for “hard heads, soft hearts” debates

Research metrics and data reliability aside, these factors argue for a lot of two-way tolerance and intellectual charity in higher learning contexts.

On any university campus, there will be topics where the relative priority students give to personal goals and values and affiliations will shape and differentiate their standpoints. To disagree well in any diverse group, where views will often diverge sharply, students may benefit from a “hard heads, soft hearts” framework.

At the University of Melbourne some scholars use simple guides to set up group norms for class discussions and project work. These draw on a US program designed to promote dialogue between students with different backgrounds and belief systems.

Chart 3 shows my elaboration of these, based on a recent project on viewpoint visibility in Australian universities.

Chart 3 Source: G Sharrock

The emphasis on two-way tolerance and concern for others is the soft hearts side of “enlightening up”. A key aim here is to make it risk-free to share your thinking openly in class; and to commit to hearing classmates out, without prejudice. A further aim is to reduce the risk of in-class (or out-of-class) claims that (from what you say on the topic at hand – or disclose about some aspect of your personal life) you must be mad or bad or both. These can lead to peer exclusion on-campus or public shaming on social media – in effect denigrating a classmate’s minority viewpoint or minority status.

Here we must note that for some students, the topic under discussion may be deeply personal, and wider social narratives about it may entail real risks of social harm. (As a colleague points out on recent sex and gender debates in universities: For most people, the issue of “cancel culture” is an abstract intellectual battle. For us, we are in an actual real battle with actual real consequences to our actual real lives. It is a battle about whether other people can take away our right to appropriate medical treatment, our right to exist in public without reprisal, and our right not to lose our jobs for being ourselves. It is about whether we have the right to be ourselves without fear of losing everything…)

What about the hard heads aspect? Chart 4 updates a framework I outlined in a Conversation article in 2020. This is designed to help guide students on how to disagree well on complex or controversial topics.

Chart 4 Source: G Sharrock

Level 3 shows how easy it can be to score superficial points. And worse: instead of presenting their counter-argument with better logic and better evidence (Level 2), participants may team up to throw metaphorical bricks at Level 4. Whatever you believe, labelling your opponent a bigot or a snowflake is not an argument. As Maskell suggests, this is intellectually lazy and not the way for a university community to handle substantive disagreement.

Taking offence too early or too often may derail the learning task: to seek and share insights on complex problems. Unless class members commit to tolerance, exclusionary tactics (often framed as a form of cancel culture – but here best seen as meta-argument allegations) may end a discussion before it has properly begun.

Here concerns about offensive views must be taken seriously (see Chart 3). But so must intent, and the loose use of common terms with variable meaning for others. This is where concept creep (with ever-longer lists of expressive conduct regarded as harmful) may leave valid insights unexamined; and few matters clarified, much less resolved.

(As with harm, the problem of concept creep also arises with hate speech. As former Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven has argued: the danger is that hate speech no longer denotes speech that provokes hatred. To many, it now simply means speech that I personally hate… A further irony, in today’s culture-war debates on these themes, is that the term cancel culture has also been politicised. It too is open to concept creep and ever-wider application as a meta-argument allegation.)

Connecting campus culture to the “idea of a university” as a social institution

By long tradition, universities serve society by expanding their capacity to seek and share and strengthen truth and knowledge reliably. In large part, they do this through what their scholars teach, and what their students learn. By making intellectual freedom a defining institutional value, universities create a safe place for scholars to test ideas, challenge majority opinion or official orthodoxy, and speak truth to power without penalty.

Campus cultures must keep finding ways to accommodate the fact that, on many important topics, scholars and students will disagree strongly, in good faith, for reasons well worth examining. Very few will be entirely right or entirely wrong. More often, as John Stuart Mill argued in the 19th century, their competing doctrines will share the truth between them.

For university leaders and scholars alike, this means not giving in to the people who shout the loudest as Cambridge philosopher Arif Ahmed put it recently. And for this, he suggests, they need a spine as well as a brain. The most radically inclusive campus community, then, is a place where all members can acquire the moral and intellectual discipline to be neither intolerant nor intolerable, as Voltaire would say. After all, Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Adam Smith called as much on social empathy as the power of abstract reasoning to inform their view of social progress and the public good.

Used in tandem, the frameworks at Charts 3 and 4 are designed to build group capacity to engage with a wide range of views. And to guard against premature judgements and punitive measures in the name of someone’s personal brand of ideological extremism or moral absolutism. They are also designed to be generic, and not tied to the policy specifics of any particular university. This is because, as Evans and Stone argue in their discussion of the Chicago Principles in an Australian context, universities can discuss these matters in many ways … It is a commitment to these values in the hearts and minds of the university community, more than in any specific statement or policy, that would respect the inheritance and fulfil the promise of our universities.

This hard heads/soft hearts model is one way to align practice with the institutional stances outlined earlier, by VC Duncan Maskell, and below, by VC Dawn Freshwater. (And perhaps add some spine to the policy mix, to lower the risk of soft headed/hard hearted outcomes, whenever the least tolerant parties rely on meta-argument allegations and call for sanctions against those who won’t subscribe to their doctrine.)

In their own careful and qualified pronouncements, these university leaders have called on their own scholarly communities to enlighten up.

Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater, University of Auckland. On Freedom of Expression, August 2021

In summary…

In simple terms, what guiding principles should the enlightened university promote? Put simply: if the aim is to SEEK KNOWLEDGE ALWAYS, they must urge scholars to PROFESS TRUTH ALWAYS.

But, since speaking truth to power poses risks, they have a duty of care to PROTECT ACADEMIC FREEDOM ALWAYS.

But, since unlimited free expression by some students may hamper the learning of others – or even pose risks of harm – they must also be socially inclusive and insist that on campus we will RESPECT RIGHTS ALWAYS.

But, since the general idea of respect is open to concept creep, campus cultures must also uphold the RIGHT TO DISRESPECT intellectual fallacy, delusion and dogma. Beyond the protection of lawful rights, respectful debate should lean toward tolerance for other viewpoints. That is, respect should not entail uncritical deference due to fear of giving offence: RESPECT (BUT NOT ALWAYS).

In sum, the idea of tolerance offers a cornerstone for the enlightened and inclusive university, with less risk to the goals of higher learning than a systemic expansion and enforcement of respect rules. As for shutting down campus debates – in case they might offend students or promote harmful ideas – universities should aim to reduce these risks primarily through more debate and better-quality debate, not less.

All this is an endlessly complex balancing act for institutions, their leaders, their workforce and their student bodies. Over the course of their lives, university graduates will face many serious debates and difficult decisions on real-world problems. They will need hard heads as well as soft hearts (and yes – strong spines).

To equip them for this, scholars at the frontline of teaching and learning need simple frameworks that they can apply with diverse student groups, in diverse fields of study.

Image source: REDBUBBLE. Text: G Sharrock

© Geoff Sharrock 2022 (Contact geoffk.sharrock@gmail.com)

Notes

Times Higher Education published my summary of the case made here on 13 December 2022, with some further links to other THE reporting and commentary. It begins: In Australia and New Zealand, university vice-chancellors have recently called on their communities to enlighten up – although not in those words…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s