Brash is not a victim but thinking so could harm academic freedom

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.

Jack Heinemann

https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/366834/don-brash-cancellation-censure-motions-against-vice-chancellor

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

2 thoughts on “Brash is not a victim but thinking so could harm academic freedom

  1. Hiya Jack. I think you are dead right here on most counts. Noone has a right to a venue. Brash’s speech is as free as it ever was (and as batty, and sadly as omnipresent.) I woulldnt say the academic freedom of the students was seriously damaged either, tho noone woukd want to deny the power of a good speaker or the value of an experienced voice.
    But I still feel very uneasy about this. I think it comes down to: who decides what speech will – or won’t – be heard on campus. Ceding this decision entirely to univesity management is no way forward. Students should also have some say. The university community isnt necessarily well represented by its managers. And the university community as a whole owes rights and respect to its minority groups. Good debate to have!

  2. Thanks for this comment Rob. I think the nail is firmly hit on its head with this question “who decides what speech will – or won’t – be heard on campus?” My answer is, no one. The issue is who is guaranteed a podium on campus, not who decides who has the podium. It is not within the discretion of management to interfere with academic freedom. So provided that staff and students are using that, there is no binding constraint other than that we must act ‘within the law’.
    That power of management to ensure the safe expression of controversial or unpopular opinions by staff and students is provided by institutional autonomy. We should not, in a generic defence of free speech, undermine the specific, legislative obligation of the University to protect the right of academic freedom.

Contribute to the discussion: