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Censure and Censorship: Academic Freedom and Public Comment



14 July 2014

In the assessment of the Australian Dictionary of Biography Professor George Arnold Wood was a patriotic man and a fervent supporter of the British Empire. But he held what the Dictionary calls "the Gladstonian view of an empire committed to liberty and justice."

Professor Wood had strong objections to the Boer War, and in January 1902 he joined with the likes of W A Holman to form the Australian Anti-War League. Holman, in parliamentary debate, had gone so far as openly to express his hope that England should be defeated in the war. This was heady stuff in a colony where England was still the 'mother country', or even, more simply, 'home'.

In time, various public pronouncements by Professor Wood regarding the war, quoted and misquoted at length in what seems to have been a moment of public and media hysteria, led to calls that he be censured by the University Senate, and even that he be dismissed.

No one doubted Professor Wood's right to a private opinion, but The Sydney Morning Herald distinguished between his private opinions and his opinions as a professor of history, with the implication that the latter ought to be subject to greater scrutiny. The Daily Telegraph wrote:

"Professor Wood … lectures on history at the University, and is in receipt of a large salary paid out of public funds [which was, in fact, not true]… It is a well understood ethic [it continued] that civil servants should take no part in political gatherings, and to all intents and purposes a professor at a University is a public servant …"

Indeed, even Professor Wood himself, in a letter to the Chancellor of the University, seemed to accept that his position as a professor of history imposed particular obligations upon him in relation to public comment. He wrote:

"While claiming the full rights of citizenship, save so far as these are limited by the terms of my appointment, I am conscious of the fact that participation by a University Professor in public disputes may, under certain circumstances, tend to affect the position and reputation of the University in an undesirable way. …. I wish to state … that I shall endeavor with the utmost carefulness, so far as circumstances permit, to avoid speech and action that would tend to affect injuriously the interests of the University."

In the end, the University of Sydney Senate did not dismiss Professor Wood. But it did censure him: indeed, it censured him at one point and then at a following meeting amended the censure to render it even stronger. The Senate agreed:

"That in the opinion of the Senate, the statements contained in Professor Wood's letters and speeches relating to the South African War, especially those alleging that Lord Kitchener hopes to end the war by destroying the Boer women and children, are unworthy of a Professor of History, whose utterances ought to be marked by strict impartiality and freedom from passion, and further that such remarks are highly reprehensible inasmuch as they tend to encourage the enemies of the country and to hinder the establishment of a just and honourable peace, and also to impair the value of his teaching in the University."

A more moderate motion was defeated. It read:

"That the Senate views with regret the speeches and action of Professor Wood in connection with the question of the South African War, and emphatically disclaims any sympathy with his utterances."

This history of Professor Wood has been somewhat in the mind of my University of late, as there have been various calls in the last year that the institution should censure the view or actions of particular academics. In one case, a prominent public figure believes that the research findings of one of our academics are simply wrong and that the University should distance itself publicly from her research. In another case, one group of academics had asked a public figure to speak at the University, while a second group of academics thought that doing so would both harm the reputation of the institution, and their capacity to do research, in the country from which he came. They asked the University to intervene. In a third case, a national newspaper and group of politicians called upon the University to discipline an academic for meeting the President of Syria and expressing views sympathetic to his position in that country's civil war. In a final case, the University is frequently criticized for failing to censure the unpopular views of an academic who works in the area of international affairs.

Now I don't want to give you the wrong impression! The vast majority of our academic staff attract little public attention except in relation to the extraordinary quality of their work and the contribution that they make to knowledge across an unusually large range of disciplines. But we do, from time to time, have staff who express views that attract notoriety, and the public not infrequently expects that we might take action against them; at least action of the type that the Senate took in 1902 against the otherwise very popular Professor Wood. These debates become all the more heated when it is remembered that the professors causing such scandal both receive public funds and educate the young and impressionable!

In the debate surrounding Professor Wood a number of unexamined assumptions were made that have also characterized contemporary debates at my University. I would like to consider four of those assumptions and in doing so to suggest a response to the question as to when, if ever, a University ought to take action against an academic for expressing views, or taking actions, that are widely regarded as reprehensible.

The first of these assumptions is that an academic who expresses a view in public debate does so as a member of the university; cloaked in the authority of his or her position as an academic. This is the assumption that a professor is always a professor, even on the weekend.

The second assumption is that the views of an individual academic may be attributed in some way to the university collectively; that they are a matter of collective as well as individual responsibility. This is the assumption that the university believes what any professor believes.

The third assumption is that it is possible, and even desirable, for a university collectively to hold a position on matters of substance, either as a commitment of institutional principle, or as a matter of institutional pragmatism. This is the assumption that it is possible for a university to believe anything at all.

The fourth assumption is that it is legitimate for a university to take action against an individual academic when his or her views or actions are in contradiction to the collective position of the university, or even merely threaten its interests understood more generally. This is the assumption that a university can, and should, rein in its wayward professors.

In considering each of these assumptions, it is clear that we need to begin with a conception of academic freedom. Academic freedom is invariably the value to which reference is made, in some cases by all sides, when a dispute of the kind I have described arises.

But that's a problem right at the start. The concept of academic freedom is incredibly elusive, almost beyond definition. It has been said that there is 'no clear and widely accepted definition or justification of academic freedom and no settled account of the way in which claims of violation may be assessed.' Perhaps the most widely cited statement of academic freedom, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers no straightforward definition of the term, but something of a mish-mash of associated norms and ideas. Eric Barendt has pointed out that most statements of academic freedom involve ideas about the freedom of individual researchers and teachers; ideas about institutional autonomy; and ideas about academic participation in institutional governance. But he goes on to admit that '[i]t is not particularly helpful to attempt a single definition of academic freedom" and that " [d]oubts are expressed not only in respect of borderline claims [of academic freedom], as with freedom of speech of personal privacy, but with regard to its central meaning."

Even in relation to questions of an individual's academic freedom, far less as to questions of institutional autonomy, issues arise as to the scope of the concept that have important practical ramifications: Does it apply equally to University officers, such as Vice-Chancellors who might be thought in some stronger way to 'represent' the University as it does to individual academics? Does it apply only when an academic is making comments within her area of academic expertise, or also more generally? Does it apply equally when an academic is operating in the classroom, potentially influencing the young, as it does to her work as a researcher or in more general public comment?

In order to answer these questions, and to examine the validity of the assumptions that were so much a part of the debate around the censure of Professor Wood, and continue to be so, it is necessary to settle on a justification for any concept of academic freedom at all.

In doing so, I think it is important to acknowledge that, in order to operate with integrity as an academic community, a university needs to have a clear sense of its purpose and core values. We tend to talk about 'the University' as having a kind of idealised hypostasis; a conceptual substance that is constant over time and culture. In fact, of course, we know that that is a nonsense and that part of the reason that so-called 'rankings' of universities are so ludicrous is that they are highly located institutions that operate within different traditions, for different purposes and on different historical precedents. The important thing is for a given university to know what it is about at any given time; to have a clear and agreed self-conception.

My University unashamedly stands within the tradition of institutions committed to teaching and research in the secular liberal tradition. That is not the only way to be a university. But it is one university tradition that has been particularly powerful in shaping international conceptions of the institution.

In his paper "We Need a New Interpretation of Academic Freedom", Professor Ronald Dworkin argues for a particular justification of academic freedom for universities in that tradition. He dismisses what he calls 'the instrumental ground' that academic freedom is about the pursuit of truth and that "[w]e have a better chance of discovering what is true … if we leave our academics and their institutions free from external control to the greatest degree possible." Instead, he advances what he calls, in a way that I regard as somewhat terminologically problematic, "the ethical ground". He says that at the core of liberal societies is a commitment to 'ethical individualism' which "insists, among its other components, that we each have responsibility for making as much of a success of our lives as we can, and that this responsibility is personal, in the sense that we must each make up our own mind, as a matter of felt personal conviction, about what a successful life for us would be." He says that "[e]thical individualism needs a particular kind of culture - a culture of independence - in which to flourish" and that academic freedom is essential to maintaining such a culture "by creating a theater [i.e. the university] in which personal conviction about truth and value is all that matters, and it trains scholars and students alike in the skills and attitudes essential to a culture of independence."

I think Professor Dworkin is on to something. But I think he is wrong to distinguish what he calls the 'instrumental' and the 'ethical' grounds quite so sharply. I would argue that liberal societies have found, over a long period of the development of the university as a social institution, that having places in which both academics and students are free from unnecessary interference in the pursuit of their understanding of the truth leads both to a more productive and creative exploration of the truth, and also fosters that culture of ethical individualism that is integral to the maintenance of a liberal society. There is a reason why western universities have been such powerful engines of innovation, as well as important institutions in maintaining a liberal political culture.

I chose to talk about 'truth' here very carefully, because, of course, one difference in the two justifications that Professor Dworkin explores, concerns not academic freedom in relation to the pursuit of the 'true', but academic freedom in relation to pursuit of the 'good'. His so-called 'ethical' argument would support academic freedom in relation to both. But proponents of the 'instrumental' argument may feel rather differently about academic freedom in the pursuit of the 'good'. A live question for many university systems at the moment is whether it is possible, instrumentally, to support academic freedom in the one endeavor without also supporting it in the other, or whether the chilling effect of inhibiting the discussion of the 'good' also hampers the pursuit of the 'true'. This is the case not least because the distinction between the two is often so fine.

If I am right that a commitment to academic freedom is grounded in a particular conception of the secular liberal university as a place which both fosters creativity in the pursuit of the true and the good and also helps reinforce the core commitments of liberal societies, then I think the assumptions that we identified at the beginning of this lecture, and the questions that we have been asking throughout, become easier to unpack and to answer.

First, when an academic makes a public comment, she does so as a member of a very particular kind of community, where diversity of opinion and the unfettered pursuit of individual conceptions of the true and the good is especially fostered. The term 'professor' comes as a kind of health warning that the person advancing an opinion is speaking on her own account, however informed that account may be by a body of learning and research that she may taken to have mastered. There is a tension between this approach and the community's expectation that a professor speak as an 'expert' about a given corpus of received knowledge. But any other assumption than that the professor is speaking on her own account and not representing the institution that employs her makes almost impossible the maintenance of the university as the distinctive kind of community that I have suggested has such benefits. A university should be a place where the ideas of so-called experts are heard, dissected, and where relevant, debunked.

This throws light, incidentally, on three other questions. While terms 'Vice-Chancellor' and 'Provost' must be treated in some sense in the same way as the term 'professor' if the academic community is to retain its distinctive identity, those terms also imply a corporate responsibility that is qualitatively different to that of any individual academic. It is not unreasonable for my governing body to expect me to keep my private opinions on some matters to myself in a way that it would be quite at odds with a commitment to academic freedom of the type I have advanced to expect that of individual academics. Similarly, while I think that justification for academic freedom offers strongest protection for an academic speaking within an area of 'expertise', the chilling effect of attempting to define areas of 'expertise' might be so damaging to the identity of a university as a community committed to the unfettered pursuit of the true and the good, that it is not desirable to place weight upon that distinction. Professor Wood claimed to be speaking on the contemporary South African War, not as a military analyst but as an historian. Finally, although I am conscious of the moral responsibility that we have to our students, I believe that our primary responsibility is to educate them critically to assess the views that they hear; that we should teach them to treat the opinions of the 'expert' with only such respect as their arguments and the evidence that support them demands. The student should indeed be exposed to the professor with whom she disagrees, precisely so that she can learn to analyse ideas, and articulately to advance her own. She also should learn to respect, but not to be cowed by, the body of learning with which she is engaging. The educational programmes of the university should be designed to ensure that the student is capable of, and rewarded for, forming her own ideas and expressing them well.

Second, I think it is extremely dangerous for a university such as mine to have a collective position on any matter of substance; at least a collective position that it has not explicitly been made foundational in the establishment of the community. I mention this latter possibility because I do think it possible for a university with a confessional tradition, even one that requires adherence to a statement of faith, to be marked by many of the core characteristics of universities within the liberal tradition that I am describing. It is just important that the boundaries of the otherwise open conversation are established at the outset.

To claim that it is extremely dangerous for a university such as mine to have a collective position on any matter of substance is not to say that a secular liberal university can have nothing to say about the work of its academics. It can, and should, have standards for the conduct of conversation. It should enforce norms of research ethics. It should not countenance speech by university staff or students that is for some reason unlawful. It should have a code of conduct for staff aimed at ensuring that the discourse of the University is, on the whole, consistent with the mission of the unfettered pursuit of the true and the good. As Professor Dworkin points out, that may involve censuring speech the primary purpose of which is to do harm to someone else in the sense that the speaker has no purpose in making the remarks other than to offend. I would also argue that it is not a breach of the academic freedom of any individual academic for a university to have a research strategy directing its resources to particular fields of work in which there is a national or international need, or in which the university has particular strength. At my own institution we have a strategy that emphasises the importance of harvesting the intellectual resources of the University to meet several pressing social issues, and have focused significant resources on the development of really innovative structures for interdisciplinary research. I would go further still and say that it is not unreasonable for a university to require an academic employed to engage in teaching and research to produce teaching and research, or even teaching and research judged by her peers to be of a particular methodological quality.

But if a university is to maintain the function in a liberal society that we have ascribed to it, it ought primarily to see itself as a forum for hosting the development of ideas, rather than an as advocate of those ideas themselves. If an institution employing academics were to take a public position on a matter of controversy, or perhaps even more on a matter of public consensus, then it would arguably have a strongly chilling effect on the unfettered pursuit of the true and the good by its academic staff. A university such as mine simply cannot have opinions if it is to retain its credibility as an institution in which academic freedom flourishes and which has the social function in which we have seen such value.

This is a highly puzzling position to many in today's world. If a university boasts about the breakthroughs of its staff, ought it not similarly to take responsibility for their unpopular views? And if the university wants to see those breakthroughs promulgated, ought it not seek to see those unpopular views suppressed? It is a tempting line of thought.

But for a secular liberal university to adopt a collective position on any issue is to betray the purpose for which it was founded, and to break faith with the political and cultural traditions that have given it shape. So I will not ask our academic to withdraw published work simply because it is found to be wrong, unless there has been some breach of a norm of research ethics. I will ensure that, absent concerns such as public safety, academics are free to invite to the campus whomever they think has something important to say. I will not censure academics for visiting unpopular figures or taking unpopular political positions. I will not listen to calls from a national newspaper to silence academics, but neither will I listen to the calls of those academics that we should ban links with universities in a country with which Australia is in diplomatic relations. The most I will do is to remind the public that the views of an individual professor are not those of the University.

That all sounds very unsatisfactory to those who think of the University as a 'business' and particularly an 'export' business, with a reputation that must be protected at all costs. They tend to talk about reputation as if it were the reputation for being a place in which, one the whole, the kinds of things are being said and taught that a sensible chap would say and teach.

But the reputation that I most value for my institution is its reputation, not only for excellence, but also as a place of free enquiry. The reputation I most value is that of a forum for the free discussion of ideas of a type that has been such a powerful engine of economic development and a cultural custodian of our traditions of liberty. It is a particular vision of the university as an institution. It is a vision often as unpopular with those of the political left as those of the political right. But it is a vision that for many years has been extremely fruitful and is arguably more vital now than ever before.

As a university president, to be custodian of that vision, is a difficult, frustrating, poorly-

understood, but also quite extraordinary privilege. I believe that my university owes Professor Wood an apology, not least in light of what we now know about the South African War. It is my job to see that we do not get it wrong again.


Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Dr Michael Spence, delivered this speech in March this year at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. An edited version was published in the July edition of Campus Review.

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