Flat White

How Australians are in the front line of the global war to save the university

4 July 2019

5:42 PM

4 July 2019

5:42 PM

The free speech code drawn up by former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, Robert French, is a welcome affirmation of the necessity of free speech on university campuses. The code forbids prohibiting speech merely because its content is unpopular or controversial.

The French Report was commissioned by Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, after some high-profile cases of viewpoint punishment or viewpoint censorship, such as James Cook University’s sacking Peter Ridd following his public statements about the state of science about the Great Barrier Reef and the violent protests against an event at Sydney University featuring anti-feminist speaker Bettina Arndt. Dozens of instances of free speech interference compiled by the Institute for Public Affairs were summarised in the French Report in Appendix 14.

The French Report into freedom of speech on Australian campuses resonates with similar concerns now being addressed by academics in the United States. Last week around three hundred academics met in New York City to discuss freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity on university campuses. The Heterodox Academy—‘heterodoxy’ meaning ‘different belief’—began in 2015 when co-founder, prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, asked an audience of academic psychologists to identify their political affiliation. Eighty per cent identified as left-wing; only three individuals identified as conservative. There were a thousand people in the room. Haidt knew something was wrong.

Haidt was right, but conservatives had been saying this for years. William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) claimed that Yale had become overrun by socialist and secularist professors whose mission was to undermine students’ beliefs in capitalism and Christianity. Over the past five years, the bullying by the identity politics left towards the traditional liberal left on American campuses has now prompted many academics to do something about hostility to viewpoint diversity.

But the primary concern of last week’s Heterodox Academy conference, like the French Report, was viewpoint diversity and openness among students. Students at the more elite campuses in America, encouraged by some academics and aided by ideological university administrators, have been shouting down and harassing guest speakers, fellow students, and academics for either speaking out against identity politics or simply questioning many of its assertions.

Australia, legendarily pragmatic, does not have university campuses as strongly animated by ideological zeal as America. But displays of enthusiastic intolerance towards speakers who question global warming, same-sex marriage, feminism, and anti-Western bias has occurred on a number of campuses. The free speech code in the French Report is a significant step in the right direction. But the problem is more complex.

There are at least three ways speech is stifled on a university campus: speech codes outlawing “discriminatory” speech; students sabotaging public events by rowdy protest or threats of disruption (no-platforming); and what free speech scholars call the “chilling effect”, that is, staff and students feeling inhibited from stating their views out of fear of demonisation, ridicule, and victimization by an academic and administrative culture biased towards the ideological left.

The first two problems can be solved by the free speech code of the French Report and disciplining disruptive students who make it impossible for ideas to be expressed. The right to protest is most definitely a part of freedom of speech, but not the right to intimidate or deliberately drown out other people’s speech through amplification. The third problem is much more difficult, as it demands a change in university culture, particularly within faculties.

The truth is that for over a generation there has been a broad orthodoxy at universities, principally among the academic staff in humanities departments. In some ways, the student body puts faculties to shame with all sorts of conservative, leftist, religious, and irreligious societies on campuses. Similar deep and wide debate is largely absent from university humanities faculties, which, for the most part, are made up of academics of various shades of ideological grey.

But, as Jonathan Haidt stressed in New York, ideological uniformity and free speech in our universities needn’t be a culture wars issue, it can be addressed via concerns for the integrity of science. Science or knowledge is best pursued as a dialogue between mutually opposed voices, but which are united in the joint pursuit of truth. How can the university succeed in this task if one half of the dialogue is systematically ignored, or taught only in caricature by ideologically unsympathetic academics?

I’d also add that deep and wide viewpoint diversity is about our obligations to our students. After all, students don’t leave universities educated; the best leave merely with the tools to spend the rest of their lives educating themselves. Right now we are only giving students a half-full tool kit. Is it any wonder that public debate is so broken, with little evidence of empathy on either side of our most vexing debates?

It shouldn’t surprise us that conservatives often have a resentful and bitter tone, while progressives often speak to conservatives as though the latter are intellectually and morally deficient. Surely this is partly explainable in that conservatives have been unfairly locked out of public institutions—the ABC and the universities—and students can go through university without intelligent conservatism being modelled by their academics. Universities have a role to play in addressing the state of public debate.

A Quixotic proposal: University departments should publish (voluntary) anonymous heterodoxy surveys of academics’ ideological-political leanings. Let universities compete for those students who want to receive a proper induction to the dialogue of Western civilisation, as opposed to a largely one-sided account of it. I don’t expect this to happen any time soon, but is it so ridiculous? Universities routinely praise themselves for their diversity of gender, sexuality, and race on campus, why not intellectual perspectives?

To date Australia has contributed 91 members (three per cent) to the Heterodox Academy, showing there are many academics concerned with free speech and viewpoint diversity on our campuses. The hard truth is that the hostility towards freedom of speech displayed by some Australian university students reflects a similar viewpoint intolerance practiced within faculties, evident in the absence of a competing conservative culture within faculties. The task of reforming academic culture will be the hardest challenge of all, but one well worth pursuing so long as we care about the education of our youth, the future of public debate, and thus the quality of our democracy in Australia.

Stephen Chavura is a lecturer in history and politics at Campion College, Sydney.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments