Academic freedom: justified privilege, or overreach of expertise?

Academic lawyer and conservative thinktank leader go head-to-head

July 28, 2018
Hoovering a red carpet
Source: Getty

Does the “special role” of universities in solving intractable problems entitle institutions to “special freedoms” that trump individual rights of expression?

It does, according to Adrienne Stone, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Melbourne, who argued that academic freedom was “much more instrumental” than the freedoms expected by ordinary citizens. “It’s something that universities insist upon as institutions,” she said.

“Nobody else has that responsibility to create new knowledge, to understand the world better, to see what we haven’t seen before – not just to be [an] articulate defender of ideals, but to solve problems no one else has solved. Universities have a heavy obligation, but they also deserve special freedoms.”

Professor Stone was dissecting the concept of academic freedom – and its relationship with free speech, equality and civil discourse – in a debate moderated by Glyn Davis, Melbourne’s vice-chancellor.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Stone and sparring partner John Roskam examined the interplay of academic freedom and controversies such as Brexit, climate change, trigger warnings, dismissals of outspoken academics and protests against firebrand speakers on campuses.

Mr Roskam, who heads the Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne-based conservative thinktank, said that universities’ claim to special freedoms smacked of “arrogance rather than expertise”.

“Universities have played a monopoly role on the dissemination of knowledge, the creation of culture, [and] the discussion of what is in the public space,” he said. “Academic freedom is not the capacity to take taxpayers’ money and not have the public have a say in what is done.”

Professor Davis said that expertise was often advanced as a case for academic freedom, but noted that scepticism about experts was “on the rise”. Mr Roskam accused experts of “diminishing democracy” by trying to “take things outside the public realm”.

“Experts have inclined to expertise outside their domain, and it has disempowered the community,” he said. “Expertise does not give one a superior moral insight.”

Professor Stone said that while polite debate was an “academic virtue” – because “civil discourse is usually the most productive form” – it could not be demanded. But she said that it was unrealistic to expect all new students to immediately embrace the “hurly-burly” of robust debate, and fearless free expression should be considered “the end point and not the assumed starting point”.

She said that academic freedom experienced “pressures” from the need to raise funds – a phenomenon that recently played out in the Australian National University’s rejection of philanthropic funding for a degree in Western civilisation.

Professor Stone told Times Higher Education that academic freedom was not jeopardised when private donors dictated subject matter, but that it was clearly compromised when they dictated viewpoints. Their influence on teaching methodologies was a grey area, she added.

“If a university is not comfortable for academic reasons with what a private donor wants, then it ought to refuse the money,” she said. “But I suspect that in most cases, push doesn’t come to shove. We need to be alive to the very real pressures placed on universities now, because of the impossibility of thriving without private money.”

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