Flat White

A lecture from UQ on diversity and tolerance – not

6 February 2017

7:27 AM

6 February 2017

7:27 AM

Lofty notions of free enquiry, open debate and tolerance are paid no shortage of lip service in Australian universities. In practice, however, the commitment of many of our premier institutions of higher learning to these much-vaunted ideals is fair-weather at best.

Last week the Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland sent out an outrageous email to staff and students purporting to condemn President Donald Trump on behalf of the university for his moratorium on immigration from certain war-torn countries in the Middle East.

The email starts reasonably enough, stating that the temporary ban may affect researchers and study-abroad plans and that the university is seeking to understand the implications for those potentially affected.

Fair enough. Unfortunately, by the third paragraph it appears the temptation for Vice Chancellor Peter Høj to use his platform to take a university-wide stand against the freshly minted President got the better of him:

Mutual respect and diversity are amongst our core values and we aim to create an inclusive environment in which ideas flourish and future generations, regardless of background are empowered. Whilst The University of Queensland condemns terrorism in all its forms, the decision to enforce restrictions based on nationality fundamentally contravenes our values and is not something we can endorse.

Professor Høj – backed by his self-proclaimed monopoly on the virtues of the mutual respect and tolerance – seems to think that it’s inconceivable to be a moral, right-thinking person while having sympathy for Trump’s hardheaded stance on immigration. Indeed, his email suggests that supporting President Trump amounts to a fundamental contravention of UQ’s values.

At one level, the email is typical of the vulgar culture of finger-wagging and virtue signalling that pervades professional academia right around the world. Apparently not content with his day job of running one of the nation’s most esteemed universities, Professor Høj felt compelled to offer up a gratuitous moral lecture about the domestic politics of the United States.

Buoyed by an acute appreciation of their own intellect, academics feel empowered to proffer their worldly wisdom on matters far outside their actual expertise. It’s an attitude that tends to hold itself in far higher esteem than the popular opinion of the unwashed masses. Accordingly, intellectuals and professors see it as their duty to walk down from the ivory tower on occasion and endow us with correct opinions when uneducated groupthink takes root.

For an occupation whose main output is often nothing more tangible than ideas, one might expect this to be par for the course.

But what’s perhaps more troubling about Professor Høj’s email is the way it seeks to portray a controversial decision on a gravely difficult area of public policy as a simple matter of right and wrong. Armed with a pipeline to God and the moral platitudes, Professor Høj genuinely believes it’s unthinkable that anyone with even the most sclerotic moral backbone could agree with Donald Trump.

The possibility that how we deal with the scourge of Islamic terrorism is a difficult question on which reasonable and equally moral minds might disagree is wholesale ignored. Instead, arguments about trade-offs, drawbacks and benefits are overruled by high-handed statements about moral absolutes.

This febrile outlook on politics is intrinsically hostile to the culture of open inquiry universities should be striving to uphold. It fosters an atmosphere where it’s easier to spurn opposing views as tokens of uninformed prejudice rather than engaging thoughtfully with the substance of conflicting ideas.

For students and staff receiving Professor Høj’s email, the take out is clear – if you find yourself in agreement or even qualified sympathy with President Trump, you are not only wrong; you too are an enemy of our university.

With respect to Professor Høj, I’d venture that it’s entirely possible to favour a more cautious approach to immigration from hotbeds of Islamic extremism while wholeheartedly believing equal respect and diversity are values worth upholding.

And for the record, I don’t support Trump’s immigration lockdown. I don’t think it’s evil, I just think given it’s unlikely to improve safety and isn’t worth the inconvenience and turmoil.

University professors and bureaucrats that see it as their job to feed undergraduates correct opinions and censure those who dare to step outside the campus hive mind are in the wrong business.

Instead of running a commentary on the cut and thrust of Presidential politics, universities should refocus their energies on their core business; teaching, research and academia. In the meantime, if diversity and mutual respect really are more than empty platitudes, perhaps our higher learning system might consider these virtues worth upholding in the forum that they matter most – the contest of ideas.

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