Features Australia

The job of universities

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

Amelia is an academic at an Australian university. She reached out to me earlier this year after seeing my work on free speech. I could hear the passion yet the fear in her voice. Of the Left, Amelia has voted Labor all her life but is now speaking to someone from a free market think tank about free speech.

Amelia’s ordeal began when she was asked to take down articles from her office door because they were allegedly making others feel unsafe. The articles were general medical science articles, not some extreme viewpoint. Nevertheless, Amelia was reprimanded at a meeting with the head of her faculty. Amelia says she felt ‘gaslighted’ – that’s when you’re told to believe one thing but your observation of reality is the opposite. ‘I was told that academic freedom exists and then I was told to take down these research articles,’ Amelia says.

Steve is a student at an Australian university who I met a few months ago. He tells me about a lecturer who relentlessly mocks Donald Trump and instructs students to voice their outrage on Twitter. The lecturer tells students they are doing the wrong thing if they are not pursuing social justice causes.

Steve pretended to be a ‘satirical feminist’ for an assignment on domestic violence, which led to good grades. Steve stays quiet about his political views because he fears the repercussions. These concerns were confirmed when another student presented on male victims of domestic violence. The student was interrupted and berated by the lecturer for expressing a contrary perspective. He was told that male domestic violence is not an issue worth talking about and because it was a right-wing perspective he would get lower grades.

Campus free speech has featured prominently in national debate in recent months. This has been spurred by the controversy surrounding the Australian National University’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, the riot squad being called to the University of Sydney in response to protestors disrupting psychologist Bettina Arndt and the sacking of geophysicist Peter Ridd by James Cook University after he expressed a contrary viewpoint on the Great Barrier Reef. These recent incidents are merely the tip of the iceberg. Australia’s universities are rapidly becoming closed intellectual shops. I speak to academics and students almost every day, people just like Amelia and Steve, who tell me about a worrying culture of censorship. This is a real and serious problem.

We live in an era of disruption. There is no guarantee that the traditional university model will continue to exist in the future. There is an extraordinary quantity of knowledge already available on YouTube for free. There are online competitors to universities that have much lower costs. The Uber of education could be just around the corner.

At this juncture, Australia’s universities have a choice to make. They must decide the purpose of their institution. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at New York University, argues that universities cannot be both social justice institutions and protect free intellectual inquiry in the pursuit of truth.

A social justice university is one with a specific ideological purpose, to ‘improve’ society towards a predefined outcome using certain methods. It is a university that tells students not to try to understand the world, but to be activists who try to change the world. A social justice university ascribes to Michel Foucault’s idea that knowledge is merely power, and therefore some ideas should be censored to fight the powerful and make students ‘safe’. A social justice university introduces trigger warnings and safe spaces, censors academics and students and puts a security fee price on expressing controversial ideas.

Charles Sturt University’s Student Charter states that ‘all members of the University community are expected to value:… social justice including ethical practice and global citizenship [and] economic, social and environmental sustainability, including the responsible stewardship of resources’. This effectively banishes anyone who holds a different idea about society’s goals or environmental issues.

A free inquiry university, by contrast, protects free expression for academics and students because the only way to find out whose ideas are more valid, more correct, is to discuss and debate. A free inquiry university encourages academics from a wide variety of perspectives to challenge each other’s research, to find flaws and improve quality in the academy. A free inquiry university exposes students to a variety of perspectives, including those they find uncomfortable, distressing or downright offensive, so that students understand all sides of an argument and can grow intellectually.

Far too often, Australia’s universities are being captured by the social justice idea of a university. This is primarily because of the domination in the academy by those on the progressive left side of politics. Australia’s universities are lacking in viewpoint diversity – a range of perspectives challenging each other in the pursuit of reason, truth and progress. This leads to groupthink, self-censorship and sometimes active shouting down when people express a different viewpoint.

In order to undermine these biases it is necessary to have people with different perspectives challenging each other. Conservatives must question the findings, premises, data and methods of progressives, and vice versa. Without people challenging each other, viewpoints harden and hostility grows.

There is a serious danger that if universities continue down the monocultural social justice path, they will undermine their own existence. A large gap in attitudes to higher education has emerged between Republicans and Democrats in the United States following free speech issues beginning in 2015. The same could happen in Australia, threatening the $16.9 billion that universities receive from Australian taxpayers every year. Individual universities could also lose students if they become known as censorious – like Evergreen State College which has had a 50 per cent drop in first year admissions since a mob went after biologist Bret Weinstein last year.

If they are to survive, Australia’s universities must rededicate themselves to free inquiry and reform policies that restrict free expression.

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