Jack Heinemann and Ursula Cheer introduce UniVoice.
Jack Heinemann and Ursula Cheer introduce UniVoice.
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.