This is a short (less than 10 minutes), voluntary, and anonymous survey that enables you to express your views about the things you like, the things you don’t like, and the changes you would like to see to make UC better. Your views matter, and the Uni-Voice team would like to hear them. We will analyse the results and share them with everyone in due course.
Jack Heinemann and Ursula Cheer introduce UniVoice.
A few years ago I was the focus of a small but spirited rebellion in the 100 level course I teach in Biology. My sin was to have a question on a test that had an answer students only could know entirely from the assigned reading. This came to the students as more than a surprise, it was unfair.
I had gone to the trouble of saying on the Learn pages, in the same place that I listed required readings, that not all content material was possible to cover in lectures and that reading to an appropriate level was a required skill of the course. But this defense rang hollow with some students.
My purpose in raising this historical event with my colleagues now is not to criticize the actions of the students. What the event taught me was that through our teaching culture we trained students to expect that all they needed to do was attend, and possibly understand, lectures. Some sections of our 100 level courses had no required reading and in most others, the requirement apparently was never enforced. Not only were these sections of our courses not encouraging students to read, they were de facto encouraging them to not read.
I am sure that this will come as a surprise to colleagues in many parts of the University. An essential skill students hone through university is the ability to read efficiently at their academic level. Achieving this proficiency at 100 level helps in their transition to 200 level. In their book Academically Adrift analyzing the most important aspects of a university experience to learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that assigned reading and writing activities were two of the most important correlates with measured increases in critical thinking.
Biology now has a policy that requires, at least for 100 level courses, that students should have an assessment based entirely on the assigned reading. This could be an unavoidable test or exam question.
But it isn’t enough just to assign some reading and then write a test question on it. Students should be given guidance and feedback on their progress. The reading and the scale of reading has to be appropriate for the course and the learner. Based on the nominal 150 hours for a 15 point course, students should be assigned selected readings that they can be reasonably expected to have time to read and understand.
“How much is that?”, so I wondered as I dismounted my high horse reaction to students’ umbrage at having to demonstrate competence in the material I assigned them to read. The answer was not easy to find nor does it remain a fully satisfying answer. What I settled on for now as a working estimate was this advice from Rice University: at an average density of 750 words per page in a textbook, the average student should be able to read 7 pages per hour.
In courses I coordinate, I subtracted the contact hours from 150 which left me with the time a student has to read and write or perform other course-required tasks. I did not include the time in an assessment such as a test or exam, but the time to complete a problem set and to study for the problem set was included.
I then evaluated what reading is ‘need to have’ and what is ‘nice to have’ relative to how I prioritise other activities and that can reasonably be expected of a student to complete in a 150 hour course. The completion of this exercise resulted in a table such as below.
15 point course = 150 hours
|Activity||Assessement value||Number||Estimated hours/activity||Hours|
|pre-Lab problem sets||10||4||2||8|
|~number of pages|
|Assigned reading||–||318 (26.5 pages/week)||NA||45|
|*Textbook page density is 750 words; engaged reading ~7 pages/hour|
|Undirected self-learning (other readings, laboratory readings, etc)||43-44|
|Values in blue are not considered part of the 150 hours because these are text/examination times.|
One of my colleagues, on seeing this, exclaimed “That is far too much.” But is it? Undoubtedly it indicates that we have different priorities on what to emphasise in a course for our stated (or unstated) learning objectives. However, unless we attempt to inform our course structure with research-based evidence, we will be vulnerable to standards drift. A sign of this is when committees spend more time determining the line between C- and D grades than they do discussing the use of readings to support learning in courses.
Biology now uses such workflow analyses in all applications for new courses and encourages their use in all annual course review exercises. It is a work in progress.
Novel teaching practices within a course can be used to motivate students. However, they may be ineffective, or worse counterproductive, when used sporadically in a curriculum, as my anecdote illustrates. Only when adopted at a threshold regularity in courses do some practices become part of a constructive learning culture. We need more than to innovate in teaching; we need to innovate in our approach to curriculum-wide innovation and research-assured confidence in its effectiveness.
In December 2018 the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University (LU) presented a joint partnership proposal to the Minister of Education for consideration having already signed a joint MOU in August to allow UC and LU to ‘explore partnership and merger options’ about which former VC Rod Carr commented “any new partnership or arrangement must bring additional benefits to both universities”. Speculation by one media outlet reported that LU ‘could be governed’ by UC: “Lincoln University is likely to keep its name, degrees, assets and academic staff – but answer to University of Canterbury (UC) bosses under a yet-to-be-confirmed “partnership” proposal.”
So which is it to be – ‘partnership’ or ‘merger’, or neither?
At the time that the UC/LU partnership proposal was being formulated Lincoln and AgResearch were also progressing a proposed $206 million joint facility “considered central to Lincoln’s future and financial sustainability” which was subsequently scrapped: “[Lincoln] university is heading back to the drawing board because AgResearch, its partner in the beleaguered project, will build its own facility”.
Both UC and LU are awaiting advice from the Minister Chris Hipkins about the December 2018 partnership proposal, but the scrapping of the LU/AgResearch joint venture may change the entire partnership game plan and give UC a convenient ‘exit strategy’ from a proposal that may not now ‘bring additional benefits’ after all. With the LU/AgResearch joint facility now sunk the 200 million dollar questions for UC are:
- What are the ‘additional benefits’ to UC from any type of partnership arrangement?
- Will potential benefits outweigh both the costs and the risks?
- How will we, as a university community, answer these?
As a general staff member and student of UC I’m most interested in question 3. The partnership proposal was formulated by selected governance members and senior managers from both institutions and then presented to each university council for approval. It was considered in public excluded session by the UC council without being socialised within the wider university community, although it was discussed by Academic Board. If the minister accepts the proposal, or even indicates the likelihood of considering a subsequent version of the proposal, a sequence of processes could be set in motion that could potentially change the University of Canterbury in its entirety – constitutionally at governance level, senior management level, and operationally at every level of the university, administrative and academic.
Given that LU had been reported to be ‘underperforming’ and that “it would fail to survive another event like the global financial crisis of 2007-08” any kind of partnership arrangement should be viewed with a high degree of caution, but most worryingly according to a media report from 2017 former LU Chancellor Steve Smith was quoted: “if the Lincoln Hub is successful then the university will be successful”. With the LU/AgResearch joint facility scrapped the potential for success of the
Lincoln Hub has to be re-assessed, and with that a re-assessment for UC about any possible future partnership with LU.
In March a new UC academic strategic planning process was initiated – E Tū, Kia ora. Described as “an exciting opportunity for staff to help set the future academic direction of UC” and asking “What kind of university do we want to be when we turn 150 years in 2023?” If the UC/LU partnership proposal submitted in December is accepted by the minister, or approved for further development, then the ‘kind of university’ UC will be by 2023 may largely be defined by its relationship with LU.
1 VC’s report to UC Council, Feb2019, 2.3 Partnership Proposal with Lincoln University; https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/media/documents/governance/VC-Report-to-Council-February-2019-.pdf
2 Lincoln and Canterbury universities sign MOU; https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/lincoln-and-canterbury-universities-sign-mou-.html
6 29 March 2019; https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/intercom/category/e-tu-kia-ora/
A wave of violence and hatred reached our shores on Friday March 15. We hope such extreme manifestation of ignorance never touches our home, Aotearoa, again. The lives of our immigrant brothers and sisters have been cruelly extinguished. As the immediate shock from the assault on our emotions eases, it is time to pause and try to understand what has happened. In her speech, our Prime Minister reflected; “[they] are not us”, their fear and hatred of the ‘other’ robs them of their humanity. It is not only geographers who understand that the world is a complex, multi-faceted place, where cultures interact across vast spaces, ideally enriching each other. We know that all communities, clusters of people wonderfully distinguished by language or cultural distinctness, are a unique aspect of the human legacy and its promise.
The anthropologist Wade Davis writes “Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before … [we] are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7000 different voices, and these answers collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species as we continue this never-ending journey.” We should choose to celebrate our differences, not be afraid of them. He goes on to say that the “legacy of humanity is a single continuum. Race is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and then, on a journey that lasted 40,000 years, some 2,500 generations carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.” We have now made our home in this corner of the world. Our corner of the world understands this message, this is why I live here.
The shocking massacre that took place in Christchurch on 15 March 2019 brought into horrible focus the lethal damage that can result from hateful and discriminatory ideology, and the sharing or publicising of this via the internet. The government and media were swift to condemn the gunman’s hate speech manifesto circulating on social media and there followed a unified response from many sectors of New Zealand society that “this is not who we are”.
However, hate speech is not limited only to the extreme right or those with racist views and since 15 March the public debate about what actually constitutes hate speech has cranked up to a new level. University of Waikato professor of law Alexander Gillespie, referring to the Bill of Rights, and Human Rights Acts made the point that “rather than the public battling back and forth over what is, or is not” in breach of these acts, the Government needs to “give much clearer guidance of what (and why) speech or words are legally acceptable/ or not”. 1 In 2016 the New Zealand Law Society published an informative article that reviewed several cases that had attracted widespread media attention titled: When is it hate speech? 2
But what about when media outlets, or media personalities, become the propagators of hate speech? One example played out in mid-March but was immediately overshadowed by the 15 March massacre. In the first weeks of March national media attention was on the Canterbury measles outbreak which attracted wide ranging media commentary. Duncan Garner on NewsHub’s AM Show gave a malicious rant that was later reported with the headline: Anti-vax murderers shouldn’t get access to the welfare system. 3 Characterising tens of thousands of New Zealand parents as ‘murderers’ and all parents that do not vaccinate as ‘Anti-vaxxer’, Garner included such hateful remarks directed toward parents as being “a selfish idiot”, “murderers”, “you might just die early”, and “truly delusional flakes”. If this is not considered a form of hate speech then I wonder, what is?
Media commentators frequently target non-specific groups such as parents, beneficiaries or the homeless with vitriolic attacks that often appear to go unchallenged. In the same week, on 15 March, NewsHub published another opinion article about the measles outbreak, this time by managing editor Mark Longley titled: Not vaccinating your kids is a form of child abuse.4 Longley’s article was more measured in tone than Garner’s rant, but accursed parents of child abuse and used retributive language such as “being stupid” and “you can punish them”. What kind of punishment did Longley have in mind?
In both instances Garner & Longley made intimidating accusations, and used discriminative language that denigrates and threatens. If either of them had directed this kind of language toward Muslims or Māori they would probably have lost their jobs by now.
As a university community we all have a part to play in combating the use and spread of hate speech wherever it occurs. Academic staff and students have the of academic freedom to enable them to publically criticise individuals or organisations that may be overtly, or covertly, discriminating. General staff can be mindful of this in the workplace, and at a personal level can call-out discrimination in their own social circle. Discrimination and denigration in the media can be challenged by submitting a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority by any person.
We have an opportunity to be a more loving, caring, and inclusive society through accepting people’s cultural, religious or ideological differences that are not hateful or divisive. To be more caring and inclusive in the ways we communicate with each other. And to be less tolerant and more vocal about hateful or divisive attitudes or messages in the media that for some time now have gone unchallenged.
Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.
1 The Press, 27 March 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/the-press/20190327/281762745605019
2 NZ Law Society, 1 Dec 2016, https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news-and-communications/latest-news/news/when-is-it-hate-speech
3 NewsHub, 13 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/03/duncan-garner-anti-vax-murderers-shouldn-t-get-access-to-the-welfare-system.html
4 NewsHub, 15 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2019/03/opinion-not-vaccinating-your-kids-is-a-form-of-child-abuse.html
The rights of the public to freedom of expression, and the privileges and responsibilities of academic freedom have been put to the test in 2018 by several high-profile events that attracted national media attention. First there was Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s decision in July to ban Canadian far-right speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from council owned venues.1 Goff was criticised by Don Brash for infringing the public right to free speech in a legal motion by the Free Speech Coalition that aimed to “force Mr Goff to recognise he is in breach of the Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Act”.2 For a short while Don Brash became the ‘public face’ of the Free Speech Coalition, and then in an ironic twist of events found himself the subject of a ‘speaking ban’ when in August Massey Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas ordered his visit to the Massey Manawatū campus be cancelled “over fears the event could lead to violence”.3 While it could appear the decision by Jan Thomas crossed a line between the public’s right to freedom of expression and the rights of university students and academics to academic freedom (since Brash had been invited by a student society) this is not necessarily the case since Massey had “no obligation to provide infrastructure for Brash to espouse his views”.4 However, public condemnation of Thomas’ decision was wide-ranging and included commentary by at least one senior Massey academic who viewed it as “unequivocally wrong”.5
Then in September e-mails obtained under the Official Information Act revealed that Thomas had “misled the public” by claiming her decision to ban Brash was for ‘security reasons’ which led to calls for her resignation.6 Thomas’ decision to ban Brash, and attempt to justify it for security reasons, set a worrying precedent firstly as a possible infringement on the rights of students and academics to academic freedom as defined by the Education Act (1989)7, and secondly to conflate subject matter that may be controversial with public safety inferring that any controversial topic of discussion ‘could lead to violence’.
In October an entirely different sequence of events unfolded concerning public freedom of expression, and the responsibilities of academics to the privilege of academic freedom. On 2 October RNZ (Radio New Zealand) reported on an Auckland billboard that had been up for one day and then removed by the billboard operator following a stream of complaints. The billboard featured a poster by a public advocacy group called WAVESnz8 depicting a man holding a young baby with the caption: If you knew the ingredients in a vaccine, would you RISK it? The poster was professionally produced and contained no offensive or defamatory images or information, yet attracted more than 140 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority in a single day. A spokesperson for the billboard operator Ad-Vantage Media said “[he] did not fully understand the controversy that a billboard questioning the efficacy of vaccines would cause”, and presumably ordered removal of the poster for commercial or reputational reasons as there was no legal compulsion to do so. In this case the decision to infringe upon the right to freedom of expression of WAVESnz was made by a commercial operator exercising ownership of the billboard under (or in breach of) whatever terms and conditions the advertising contract with WAVESnz allowed. Later that day a line was crossed concerning academic freedom when John Fraser of the University of Auckland was interviewed by RNZ. Dr Fraser claimed the billboard was “underhanded and deceitful” and “almost organised terrorism”.9 How something can be ‘almost’ terrorism is in itself a bit perplexing (either it is, or it is not), but what was really concerning was the use, or abuse, of academic freedom to characterise a group or organisation as ‘terrorist’. There is wide-ranging controversy concerning vaccine safety, it’s a controversial subject, but that doesn’t give academics the right to defend their expertise or opinion by attacking opponents with allegations of terrorism. This was not the first time Dr Fraser had characterised an activity or group as ‘terrorist’. In May 2017 RNZ reported on the film Vaxxed, an investigative documentary concerning the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) where officials allegedly ordered vaccine research evidence destroyed. The film was touring New Zealand, an activity Dr Fraser described as “the same as terrorism”.10 These comments characterised the film and its tour organisers as terrorists in an incredibly divisive and dehumanising way. When questioned about this University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon stated in an e-mail “[he] is a world-leading expert in infectious diseases and I would back his opinion on these matters any day of the week.”11
The issue here was not a question of Dr Fraser’s academic expertise but rather of his extreme use of divisive, and possibly defamatory, language toward an advocacy group which McCutcheon failed to address. The use of terrorism, where it is deliberately implied as a tool to supress freedom of speech has been condemned by the United Nations12 and should not be tolerated by the wider academic community.
Critic and Conscience Responsibility
The privilege of academic freedom comes with a responsibly to act respectfully towards the views and positions of others. The right to ‘state controversial or unpopular opinions’ (to which the public also have a right) does not imply that slander, defamation, or outright verbal abuse is ever acceptable. Thomas’ decision to ‘ban’ Don Brash might be seen as an infringement on the academic rights of students and staff at Massey, and McCutcheon’s unwillingness to admonish Dr Fraser’s extremist language is at the very least disappointing. Vice-Chancellor Thomas could be said to have failed in her duty under the Act “for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards” (s161, 3 (a), Education Act, 1989). However, in the situation concerning Dr Fraser it is up to individual academics to moderate themselves in their exercise of academic freedom.
In September this year the University of Canterbury reviewed and revised its policy on academic freedom, renaming it Critic & Conscience of Society and Academic Freedom Principles and Policy.13 The policy confirms and protects all of the rights of academic freedom under the Act, but goes much further by providing guidance to all members of the university engaged in scholarly activities (and as a guide to university management) and explicitly states it does not allow a member to “defame others, intimidate or discriminate against those who hold dissenting or non-conforming views or opinions, either within or beyond the University”. The policy only applies to members of the University of Canterbury, but in the cases outlined here, and for the wider academic communities of New Zealand, this policy sets a standard by which we as scholars, and the public at large, can all benefit.
Commentary by Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.
1 RNZ, 6 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361220/far-right-pair-banned-from-speaking-at-auckland-council-venues-phil-goff
2 RNZ, 11 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361535/auckland-council-to-be-taken-to-court-over-ban-on-right-wing-speakers
3 RNZ, 7 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/363534/don-brash-s-talk-to-massey-students-canned
4 Univoice, 21 September 2018, https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2018/09/21/brash-is-not-a-victim-but-thinking-so-could-harm-academic-freedom/
5 RNZ, 11 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/363686/the-decision-to-cancel-don-brash-s-speaking-event-is-unequivocally-wrong
6 RNZ, 20 September 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/366920/massey-uni-vice-chancellor-has-no-intention-of-resigning
7 s161, Education Act (1989), http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0080/latest/DLM183665.html
8 WAVESnz – Warnings About Vaccine Expectations, https://wavesnz.org.nz/
9 RNZ, 2 October 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018665071/immunologist-slams-anti-vaccine-billboard-as-almost-organised-terrorism
10 RNZ, 25 May 2017, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201845189/nz-immunologist-likens-anti-vaccination-movement-to-terrorism
11 E-mail from Stuart McCutcheon, 27 May 2017.
12 UN News, 2 January 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/01/640852-un-experts-decry-saudi-arabias-use-anti-terror-laws-against-peaceful-activists
The government has signalled that the PBRF will be reviewed commencing in mid 2019. The ToR have been published http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Further-education/Policies-and-strategies/Performance-based-research-fund/Terms-of-Reference-for-the-2019-Review-of-the-Performance-Based-Research-Fund.pdfbut the membership of the review committee has yet to be finalised.
The foci of the 2019 review include:
• Revisiting the 4 primary objectives and 3 secondary objectives of the PBRF to determine if they are fit for purpose or require modification.
• To date the individual researcher has been the unit of assessment in terms of the “quality” parameter of the PBRF assessment framework. The review will investigate the merits of individual vs group based quality assessment. The underlying driver here is to boost collaboration between researchers and between researchers and the end-users of the research.
• Investigation of options to maximise the impact of PBRF funded research to stakeholders, including mechanisms to measure impact.
• Engaging in the PBRF process comes with both transactional and opportunity costs. There is a desire to minimise these PBRF related costs and options to achieve this outcome will be investigated. For example, the periodicity of assessment rounds could be lenghtened from the current 6 yearly cycle to a 10 or 12 yearly cycle.
• Investigation to ensure that the PBRF assessment framework is equitable across all types of research.
• Investigate if the PBRF assessment framework is delivering a highly-skilled, sustainable and diverse research capable workforce.
Professor Jonathan Boston, VUW, has narrated a video on the history of the PBRF, he was an advisor to the group that developed the PBRF framework, it can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TasZd0QzKfI
Want to contribute to the discussion? Do so below:
One thing that is puzzling me about Kia Tōpū is – why? What is the strategic objective here? Why have a unifying theme project like this in the first place? And if we do have such a project then why choose food? Is the objective to be more attractive to students? Or to raise our position in the various rankings? Or to secure more external funding? Or to compete head-to-head with Lincoln and take their space?
The original business case document that was circulated has a short section titled “Strategic Case” where it says:
This section of the business case confirms the strategic context for the investment proposal and makes a compelling case for change. It takes previous options considered and develops the preferred approaches to the opportunities while considering defences to competitive threats.
New Zealand is currently exporting $30 billion in agri-food exports, however by the time they reach offshore markets, they have a retail value of $250 billion. Not only is New Zealand losing this gap in value, opportunities are also being lost to respond to and benefit from significant global food market disruption created by new ways of growing food without the need for land or animals, and distribution approaches which remove the need for intermediaries.
By 2050, the world’s population is forecast to hit 10 billion, and global agricultural production will have to grow by 70% by this time if current production and consumption patterns remain unchanged. In reality, to meet the global demand for food, increasing agricultural yields will not be enough. This population growth means that the percentage of arable land per person is decreasing; currently 3% of the Earth’s surface is arable land (of this 11% used for biofuels, 18% for food and 71% for animal feed) and 7% is for pasture. While these pressures exist, about a third of food produced is lost or wasted.
At the same time, climate change will have a drastic impact on food production. For example, it is predicted that by 2050, 40% of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages.
New Zealand has a role to play in feeding the world, and also needs to address its own issues in environmental and production challenges.
The application of new and existing technologies or business models in innovative ways to the three parts of the food supply chain – the production, processing and distribution of food including drink – can provide both opportunities and threats to New Zealand’s largest export sector.
None of this explains why UC is adopting this project. Are we simply being good global citizens?
The VC’s report to Council in September 2018 states:
Kia Tōpū is a new UC research and teaching initiative that aims to contribute to the global challenge of future food and food security. Over the next five years, UC will invest in research and teaching to help develop Kia Tōpū’s vision for the sustainable production, efficient processing and secure distribution of healthy foods across the themes of Food Equity, Food Intelligence and Food Innovation. These themes underpin the four projects that largely underpin Kia Tōpū’s programme of work: programme development, EFTS growth, the development of a research institute, and an online repository. Research and programme development continued on the realisation of Kia Tōpū delivery, with two representatives from each college on each of the main oversight groups – one related to establishing the research institute and one to develop taught programmes. This multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment in interdisciplinary research and teaching will require UC to develop and apply collaboration skills to leverage the contribution UC can make to the work of other institutions including other universities, CRIs and private sector partners.
However, this is also lacking in strategic objective reasoning.
No-one is questioning that food is an important issue (although the world has more kilojoules for more people than ever before). However, water is an important issue and so is climate change and so is energy security. So why food? What comparative advantage did we have in that area?
And no-one is questioning that universities should use their scarce resources for the greatest benefit. Is this where UC can actually make the biggest difference? There is an opportunity cost to this project – has anyone established what we will NOT now be doing? (i.e. what is the opportunity cost). The business case document is strong on benefits and very weak on costs. All projects have benefits – the question is are those benefits worth the costs.
The project may very well be worthwhile but I don’t know as I can’t see what the strategic objective is and I can’t see any evidence of weighing costs and benefits. I think knowing those two things would be helpful.
Have a response? Want to comment? Comments are open below.
Brash stood to benefit by associating his views with Massey University’s name. The University decision to not host him could be seen as a threat to Brash’s brand. He might regain some loss to his brand by questioning the integrity of the University. Massey was of most value to Brash because its name gave him legitimacy by association; now it is of most use to him if its name is worth less than his own. This controversy creates a danger to academic freedom but only if staff and students of the University unwittingly contribute to an agenda that undermines institutional autonomy.
As I write this, Massey University’s Vice Chancellor Dr. Jan Thomas is in the news because of evidence that she lied and sought to manipulate students hosting a political event featuring Dr. Don Brash. If it is true that she tried to mislead and censor, then the matter is rightly subject to the review of the University’s Council. Her ability to perform her duties without the confidence of staff and students1 must be central to the Council’s consideration of the case.
However, I fear that her alleged actions are meanwhile being misunderstood as tacit support for Brash’s outrage at not being hosted on a Massey University campus. In my view, the actions of the University were in no way a reasonable impediment to his right of free speech or the silencing of the academic freedom to which students’ are entitled.
Massey University has no obligation to provide infrastructure for Brash to espouse his views. That infrastructure is expensive. Not only are buildings and real estate costly, but the obligations of public institutions to ensure the safety and well-being of those on campus is also expensive. It would be reasonable for Thomas to take that into consideration.
Brash and his supporters have more than the financial and social means to ensure the expression of their views; Massey is not obligated to be the venue (for him). Indeed, if there is an ethical obligation upon Massey University to be a venue for free speech, it is to use its limited financial resources to provide a venue for the airing of views from those less able than Brash to access New Zealand’s ears.
Separate from the issue of free speech, was the cancelling of his speech an attack on the academic freedom of the students who had invited him? In denying Brash use of Massey facilities, did Thomas use autonomy (the institutional form of academic freedom) “as a pretext to limit the rights of”2 students?
There would be no question that she did if students wishing to express their views on the same topics as Brash were censored, provided that they are acting within the law. But students don’t have the absolute right to use Brash as a surrogate form of expression. It is expected that students are capable of accurately presenting his views and other students are capable of responding to them.
If you view academic freedom and institutional autonomy as rights, then they are elitist and privileged. Perhaps that is what Parliament intended when it uniquely conferred them upon some tertiary institutions. I think instead that Parliament expected our universities through their staff and students to provide a service using these academic freedoms as one of the essential tools provided to the sector. That service requires we staff and students to use our scholarship to identify and responsibly express unpopular and controversial opinions for the benefit of society, pursue teaching and research of high quality unfettered by the interests of those who may be affected by it, and in doing so to associate ourselves with our University’s name. It does not mean dispatching the hard and risky work to someone else on your campus, avoiding the personal and professional costs of the scholar.
Thomas’ decision is consistent with the centrally important role of autonomy to ensure that academic freedom for some does not come at the expense of academic freedom for others. The role of institutional autonomy is to protect the academic freedom of all within the academic community, and from threats outside of it. Using Brash as a surrogate for the presentation of ideas pits staff and students with contrary views against him, a person who does not have to play by the same rules of scholarship and debate and obligation to respect cultures. This is very different to a contest of ideas among equals in the academic community. It would be reasonable for Thomas to avoid putting staff and students in this position.
We must be careful, staff and students of universities, in how we participate in the debate over Thomas’ actions. She has some explaining to do, especially the alleged threat to student body funding. Indeed, hold her to account for any breach of trust or issue of integrity.
But this is a discussion separate from the academic decisions made by Thomas. It is important to keep her alleged failings as chief executive away from any perception that Brash was wronged. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy includes the right to not promote already privileged views in society. Our public universities do not need to provide free advertising. Our collective responsibility to autonomy is, in the words of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, to “contribute to the public accountability of higher education institutions without…forfeiting the degree of institutional autonomy necessary for their work, for their professional freedom and for the advancement of knowledge.” 2 In other words, our exercise of academic freedom should not threaten academic freedom itself.
2 “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel” UNESCO 1997. http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13144&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html