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Interview with Alan Davison

Written by: John Ross
Published on: 14 Dec 2021

Alan Davison UTS

Source: Andy Roberts Photography

Alan Davison is dean of arts and social sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. His Permission to Think podcast series, a project with Australian broadcaster Josh Szeps, examines the role of intellectuals and institutions at a time when outrage dominates public debate of complex social issues.

Where and when were you born, and how has it shaped you?
Victoria in 1968. I’m fortunate to have been born into a liberal democracy where the church has limited capability and the state has been supreme.

You run an arts and social sciences faculty in a university of technology. That suggests broad interests?
I was homeschooled, which was unusual in the 1980s. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it provided opportunities to do interesting projects as a child. I got into science and biology by working at Melbourne Museum. I wrote my first scientific paper when I was 15, on marsupial mice. I studied music at the same time. The piano eventually reigned supreme. I got into the University of Melbourne through a special admissions programme, on audition.

Humanities tinged with the sciences – what perspective does that give you?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in the debates around the so-called culture wars – that all knowledge is a social construction…unless it’s something to do with white fragility – in which case, it’s as true as gravity. You find those sorts of inherent contradictions within a lot of critical theory.

Are universities denying people permission to think?
Over recent years, we’ve seen the rise of ideological conformity and echo chambers in some areas. An intellectual perspective tends to metastasise around a dominant idea that suppresses alternatives. If something is very ideologically driven – if there’s already a view about the truth of the matter – an academic’s role risks being to simply prove that point rather than to address the evidence on its merits and engage in good faith discussions. You get a continual narrowing of intellectual enquiry around very difficult societal issues. I’m keen that academics and, especially, students get exposed to a range of ideas and the critiques of those ideas.

When did your concerns arise?
Decades ago we saw the rise of critical theory, which offers many important insights into how language, culture and society influence our knowledge of the world. It’s an important element within a broader discussion around intellectual enquiry. It could embrace or withstand multiple viewpoints. In the past five to 10 years, overseas and increasingly in Australia, these views have become more dogmatic. If I can use an analogy, I’m worried that universities are going to become effectively what the Catholic Church was to Galileo – not the other way around. Universities are now pointing out what you can and can’t think and helping the mob police that by identifying people who say and think the wrong things.

What is the danger of this for universities?
They’ll be producing graduates who are ill-equipped for the real world, with a bachelor’s in motivated reasoning rather than critical thinking, and universities will increasingly make themselves redundant in some critical areas.

Isn’t this a peripheral issue affecting just a few disciplines rather than the entire academy?
That’s a fair perception. Disciplines that are grounded in the real world – making a GPS unit that works, an aeroplane that flies, a bridge that stands up – are constantly being challenged by the real world. It’s problematic where there are disciplines that have a very indistinct relationship to reality yet claim to understand it. Those disciplines are typically in the humanities, arts and social sciences, but they’re beginning to encroach on other elements of the university, such as administration.

Can you give an example?
Why would a university insist on implicit bias training when the evidence shows it to be highly dubious? We have the perverse outcome where an equity and diversity unit within a university might impose mandated implicit bias training, even though the research underlying it is highly questionable and the academics know it.

Is it OK for academics to be activists?
There’s nothing wrong with academics wanting to make a difference. The issue is whether activism dominates your intellectual approach such that you exaggerate the evidence in favour of what you’re doing and dismiss contradictory evidence. Many academics are comfortable calling themselves activist academics, yet in broader society they trade off the reputation of being objective truth seekers. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to be an activist, join a thinktank or PR group.

What do you like most about academic life?
I enjoy working with clever people and trying to create an environment of real academic enquiry and rigour. That has to be done through management, not just through academics. If managers don’t stick their head above the parapet and show the way, we can’t expect academics to.

What do you like least?
Academics often spend most of their working lives studying a very narrow range of things in great depth. These are the people we put in front of students to prepare them for an ever-changing world. Let’s be honest: academics who’ve only done one job in their lives aren’t well equipped to be telling 18-year-olds that they’re going to have 20 different jobs. Academics need to be more cognisant of how that limits their ability to advise young people.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
I’d call all the vice-chancellors in and ask what they’re doing for viewpoint diversity and making sure academics feel they can speak openly and critically. The role of the university should be to model critical debates that our society needs.