Features Australia

Closing young minds

The ‘Lomborg affair’ shows the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary Australian academia

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

Aren’t you wonderfully proud of this nation’s universities? Over there in Western Australia we see a Vice Chancellor on a seven figure salary cave in to people who oppose the contest of ideas and so decide to turn away Bjørn Lomborg and the centre he wanted to set up there, one that would have brought with it some 4 million dollars. Yes, that is the Bjørn Lomborg who was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by the US magazine Time a few years ago. And yes, that is the Bjørn Lomborg who was going to be collaborating with, and bringing to Australia, a host of top notch economists, including Nobel Prize winners, once this new centre was set up.

So what was Lomborg’s sin? Get this. Lomborg had the audacity, the effrontery, to question the prevailing orthodoxy. And we can’t have that in an Australian university now, can we? And I mean that literally. ‘We cannot have that in an Australian university, full stop.’ That is how pathetic our universities have become. And let’s be clear, the orthodoxy in Australian is all of a left-wing variety, but more on that below.

Notice, too, that Lomborg isn’t even much of a sceptic or ‘questioner of the prevailing orthodoxy’ when it comes to climate change. Lomborg thinks man-made emissions are indeed causing warming. But Lomborg, a hard-nosed cost-benefit kind of guy, thinks that the money governments are spending on this – to reduce the rate of temperature increase by some miniscule, nearly invisible amount – is more or less wasted. You could and should spend it on a host of other things far more efficiently, he argues. To put that differently, the thousands and thousands of rent-seekers who benefit from the myriad government subsidised climate-related programs and policies around the democratic world (because let’s be honest, China and other developing countries may mouth the expected pieties but they are doing nothing) would find themselves seriously out of pocket if Mr. Lomborg got his way.

That is the sort of questioning of orthodoxy that Bjørn Lomborg is all about. That, and that alone. In years gone by, that would have been precisely what academic institutions were about, say to poke the subsidy gobbling renewable energy behemoth in the eye and to cast doubt on the wisdom of any government spending that has the effect of changing (on the non-sceptics’ own figures) the world’s temperature rise by zero point zero, zero something or other come the year 2100. (And notice that the Coalition’s Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt is no more able to account for or defend the idiocy of such spending that has next to no results than his Labor predecessor.) Put differently again, Lomborg is questioning what amounts to theology, which is what academics are supposed to do. Well, maybe not here in Australia. Or at least not at the University of Western Australia, whose protesting academics are each and every one of them a disgrace and whose Vice Chancellor looks pusillanimous at best.

Of course it’s not just some single university out in WA. The University of Sydney’s Vice Chancellor, another top uni bureaucrat forced to scrape by on a seven figure, taxpayer-provided salary, managed to get rid of a distinguished academic, Barry Spurr, late last year after his private email account had been hacked and some offensive language disclosed. Really? This is a university? Of course, when it’s got to do with people trying to shut down debate over Israel – as in people who come in and shout down a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan who was defending Israel – well, nothing much happens on that front. We’ll have a Yes, Minister style committee to look into this, shall we?

Look, Australian universities unsurprisingly lean left, a long way left. All the pious talk of ‘diversity’ on campuses always pertains to sexual orientation, to women being oppressed by men, and so on. It never focuses on the fact that many students never get exposed to professors with right of centre views. In the hard sciences this doesn’t matter, so much. In the arts and social sciences it does. I am against any and all affirmative action type programs. But if we must have these things, the one of most importance would be to insist on a few conservatives being hired. Otherwise you get this closed, lefty attitude pervading universities.

Don’t believe me? A while back they did a study of Ivy League law professors in the US based on their tax donations to political parties, which is public information in the US. The professors leaned left by more than 5 to 1. And that has been repeated lots of times looking at the top 100 law schools and more, always with the same result. And law schools, in my view, are more balanced than sociology departments, or those of women studies, politics, English – the list goes on.

Does anyone doubt this all holds true in Australia, too? Indeed it may be worse here, and I say that as someone who has worked in law schools in Canada, the US, Hong Kong, New Zealand, here and visited the UK. Take ARC funding in Australia not to the hard sciences, which is defensible, but to the social sciences and law. How many pro-strong border control projects get funded, ones looking for the benefits of these policies instead of the flaws? Or how many that oppose same-sex marriage? Or how many that question multiculturalism? And so on.

In that part of the universities outside the hard sciences, the ABC would look like a bastion of balance and impartiality. Sure, you can find some conservatives. But not many. Meanwhile, you have taxpayer money that went to setting up the Whitlam Institute, the Grattan Institute, the Bob Hawke Centre (and a separate Hawke Institute) and so on, while all sorts of ex-Labor politicians get hired by the universities across this country. Not a single academic protests about any of that or calls for ‘balance’. But a world class guy like Lomborg who wants to question how taxpayer money is being spent and whether it is delivering value for money? Keep him out, shout those UWA academics with the pea brains. And out he is kept by the Vice Chancellor whose massive salary all you readers are indirectly footing.

I love Australia. It is a great country. Its universities, alas, are not.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland

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