Jack Heinemann and Ursula Cheer introduce UniVoice.
Jack Heinemann and Ursula Cheer introduce UniVoice.
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.
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.
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
It sometimes seems strange to be part of a university that proudly proclaims its mantra of “people prepared to make a difference’ when, if academic staff seek to make a difference they are so often rebuffed, discounted, and sidelined.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the ending of faculties with decision-making powers, replaced by college meetings, which have at best an advisory role for management. Too often discussions at such meetings are already framed by decisions made prior to the meeting, making them at best, a ritual for signalling participation and endorsement, and at worst mere charade.
This is not to say that faculties were perfect; in many ways they were increasingly hamstrung by the overarching College structure whereby any difference academics sought to make had to be within overarching College expectations, demands, and management.
Likewise, we often hear calls for a different way of operating, calls for a more multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach; yet the division of our university into competing departments, schools, and colleges all jealously seeking to both retain and gain student numbers (EFTS) means that ‘being prepared to make a difference’ meets the inertia and self-interest of siloization.
Yet I believe that not only do most academic staff want to make a difference, but that many in management would like to facilitate the making of a difference. The trouble is that our structures create a system for the maintenance of the status quo.
In may ways it is like something I teach on, the issue of societal inequality. We know there is structural inequality, we know that different possibilities could be undertaken but these require structural change and so we resort to the maintenance of the status quo. This means the difference thought, the difference undertaken, the difference deemed permissible, are framed by the structures we seek to maintain, explicitly and implicitly, either by direct action or by inertia and apathy.
To make a difference, I think we have to be open to rethinking our university, our management, our academic departments, our colleges, our participation, and our responsibilities. What we do not want is a post-quake university that increasingly resembles post-quake Christchurch (something else I teach on). Christchurch is basically rebuilding a 20th century city in the second decade of the 21st century. Our university is in danger of doing the same thing in university terms.
Christchurch was, post-quake, briefly on the Magnet Cities list of progressive, forward thinking, socially and economically successful cities. But it was soon taken off the list due to the failure to enact real change, to facilitate the innovative 21st century urban living we need. In short, being prepared to make a difference to how urban life can be thought and lived was an opportunity squandered.
My fear is that UC too often and too easily replicates the structures, the siloed units, the thinking, and the ‘achievable’ managed expectations that have made Christchurch a national and international symbol of how not to rebuild a city.
Or perhaps, that is actually the problem, because ’to make difference’ involves transformation rather than rebuilding. Sadly, Christchurch has been rebuilt to replicate the status quo of a divided city riven by structural inequalities. It is a city that offers few meaningful, well-paid jobs for most of our graduates. A situation that means, as a university, we hopefully ‘add value for export’ to cities elsewhere.
Yet I believe a difference can be made and Uni-Voice is central to this possibility. UC still has the chance to be all that Christchurch has failed to be: a symbol of new thinking, new participation, and new possibilities. UC should be prepared to make a difference to the ways universities operate, to be a 21st century leader, not a passé 2Oth century byword for the status quo.
Fossil Free UC was a single-campaign club calling on the University of Canterbury to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
We were part of a global ‘Fossil Free’ movement of university students, faith groups, and businesses with a simple premise: since it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is also wrong to profit from that wreckage. Fossil fuel companies’ ties with respected institutions like universities are what give them the social licence to continue business as usual – a business that is destroying the planet, and the futures of the very students UC seeks to educate!
By divesting from fossil fuels, UC could help revoke that social licence, no longer legitimising the destructive business of the fossil fuel industry, and instead prioritise the interests and wellbeing of its students, its staff, and the wider society it serves.
We started a petition urging UC to divest in 2015. Through posters, movie nights, campus stunts, and other events, we raised awareness on campus about the harmful effects of fossil fuels. We found that many students were concerned about climate change, but didn’t necessarily know how they could engage with the issues. Our grassroots action gave students a way to make a difference on campus and beyond.
We delivered our petition to the Chancellor in September 2016, by which time it had gathered nearly 2,000 signatures from students, staff, alumni, and concerned community members.
However, it took another six months of campaigning and raising awareness before we could declare victory. On 29 March 2017, the University Council resolved to have no direct investments in fossil fuels and to reduce indirect investment in fossil fuels to less than 1%.
Our campaign took two years, the dedication of a handful of core members, and the support of thousands of students, staff, alumni, and community members who signed the petition, came to events, and spoke up on behalf of our collective future. Together, we sent a powerful message to the fossil fuel industry: their destruction of our future will not be tolerated at UC. Sadly, the university demonstrated little interest in championing its students prepared to make a difference, or its decisive action in response to their efforts, barely communicating this success to staff, students, and civil society.
Mah Mah (Tohoa) Tetini, UC Fossil Free, PhD student in Anthropology
I think our institution has a vital function to play in the 21st century. This is a time that presents complex challenges that exceed the expertise of any one disciplinary domain. The existential threat of climate change is one urgent example, forcing us to understand what is happening as a result of our industrial civilization, and what we can do about it. Multi-faceted problems require multiple tools, utilised in a coordinated way. In the university, this translates as conversation between and collaboration across disciplines.
Historically, I don’t think we have been very good at this at UC. However, I am hopeful that we may now be ready to respond to the interdisciplinary imperative our troubled times present. Let me demonstrate with a story of an opportunity squandered and a story of an opportunity we may yet sieze.
The earthquakes presented UC with immense fiscal and logistical challenges, yet even as we struggled on with our disrupted lives and our disrupted campus, our predicament stimulated exciting opportunities. Our Vice Chancellor gave the green-light to various initiatives from different parts of the university. Support was given to strengthen earthquake engineering and to establish the digital humanities earthquake archive CEISMIC- all good things that could make us proud of a university not only recovering from the earthquakes but also responding productively to them. Something else was instituted though, which you may not remember- the Centre for Risk, Renewal, and Resilience.
I first heard about this while on a cross-college working group of academics considering an endorsement in resilience and sustainability for the Bachelor of Science degree. Many of us were either teaching about resilience to disaster or had begun to do so. However, upon hearing about this new centre, we all wondered why it seemed to be none of our business. It sounded like it could be a space for interdisciplinary activity, a space where we could put perspectives from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences into conversation. I was immediately put in mind of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which seeks to address the ecological challenges of our global civilization by facilitating collaboration across disciplines and with society at large. Perhaps something similar was intended, focussing on the challenge of remaking Christchurch. Sadly, it seemed there was no such vision, just a cynical, short-term aspiration to sell courses to the engineers that some thought would be flocking to Christchurch for the rebuild.
This was a chance to create an interactive space beyond the silo-ed units of the university, free of the zero-sum game that pits them against each other in a futile competition that produces structural disincentives for cross-college cooperation. It was a chance to promote joined-up thinking on the multi-faceted problem of disaster recovery by drawing on the diversity of expertise here at UC. It could have helped us develop a global reputation for an integrated approach to disaster recovery (not just scattered expertise in its particular aspects). But it was not to be.
However, with the recent announcement of the Kia Topu initiative; a concerted focus on food, sustainability, and the future, it seems like we have been gifted a new opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration- for different kinds of scholars and scientists to learn from and work with each other. What we make of it remains to be seen, but I surely hope the university realizes that the question of meeting our needs in a world beset by increasing social and ecological disruption will require collaboration across the disciplinary divides that our current institutional structures entrench.