Academic freedom is the right of academic staff and students to express unpopular or controversial ideas that society, or those with power, should hear. It is coupled with the legislated role of the university to be critic and conscience of society. I ask: while the academic community demographic mirrors social majorities, or power structures, can it ever truly be the critic and conscience of society?
“This here is the fundamental challenge to academic freedom being practiced in universities from the way it was perhaps conceived: can an already privileged cohort…be relied upon to use another privilege (academic freedom) to benefit the less privileged?” —Garrick Cooper
Below is my parody of events that transpired in the media in the last week or so. It is the demographic whose voice New Zealand universities are being taken to task for not defending with their academic freedom. It is a voice also within the academy.
It is easy for women, indigenous peoples and people of colour to get all wrapped up in their own problems and lose sight of what troubles the white man with a gun. This person more likely has property, and property of greater value than any of you. And he always has to be on guard defending that property. Therefore, he also has to be eternally vigilant to ensure that the bodies of looters fall forward through his double-glazed window. This is the burden of planning he alone bears just to avoid any questions about his use of lethal force against those that anyway should be committing suicide because they are demands on his largess.
How did he get that property? He worked for it. He had to buy it himself using only what was left to him after Government taxed his generally higher pay rate, or he had to use the intergenerational transfer of wealth from his father’s lifetime of work for generally higher pay. It could even be that he had to use his education to get that job, an education that he may have had to partially pay for by dipping into his own personal privilege.
With the few hours left in each of his grueling days devoted to bettering the human condition, he worries about how many stupid people there are, why disease and poverty are good for them, and how through his ingenuity we could have more stuff for less money.
Academic freedom may technically extend to such messages when they come from within the academy, but as I’ve argued before, unpopular or controversial opinions that align with majority interests or with power are not the kind that academic freedom was invented to amplify through protection.
Academics and students who express opinions harmonised with current power and privilege can do so by accessing free speech protections. Using the limited capacity of the academy for messages that serve the least vulnerable is to fail to use it fully on the messages that serve the most vulnerable.
Academic freedom is a privileged right. If you have the privilege of working or studying at a tertiary institution such as a university, then you have the right of academic freedom. If you have academic freedom, then you have a privileged platform dedicated to your use. Therefore, society also has a right to expect that it will be used, and used for social good.
Let me be absolutely clear: the social good is where an unpopular or controversial opinion preserves the dignity of those in society who are at risk from the opinions of those with differential access to privilege in Aotearoa, such as white men with, and without, guns.
It is widely agreed that academic freedom is essential for universities to fulfill one of their five defining mission purposes – to serve society as its critic and conscience. Parliament recognised the need for the country to have independent voices informed by deep scholarship and practice, on a wide range of issues (i.e. be influenced by the ‘universe of ideas’), to bring forth viewpoints that can make a majority uncomfortable.
Parliament wasn’t seeking a form of entertainment through gratuitous expressions of opinion by a favoured slice of society. It wanted more than just active and visible users of academic freedom – tanga tū, tangata ora – too, if this just means aligning views in existing power structures. Parliament codified academic freedom so that it could expect to hear what it can’t know. Because academic freedom is a right that confers privilege, it is also more important than ever that the university community has academic staff and students who have the ability to perceive arguments with which the majority are not automatically familiar.
For a university to be effective in its mission as critic and conscience of society, it cannot be content with only being a demographical mirror of society. The future of academic freedom arrives when the least empowered in society speak through it under the protection of the university as their employer. Universities will have to be enriched in number and perspective with those who are minorities, or those who disproportionately need the protection of the university to be heard.
Universities are torn between their obligations to be critic and conscience of society and their growing financial dependence on those who may be offended, or harmed, by the judicious practice of it. Governments use the autonomy of universities as evidence of democracy and a tolerant society, but conspicuously fail to resource it. While these things are threats to institutional autonomy, neutralising them would still not be enough. Now I am wondering whether universities ever could comply with their statutory obligations to bring forth unpopular and controversial ideas across a reasonable spectrum of society while at the same time not being composed of an internal community that massively overrepresents vulnerable and minority populations.
Challenging authority and perceived wisdom is a job that will forever make the academy prickly and a little unpleasant, both inside and out. When this is achieved by a university community that is the inverse of the demographics of society, the dividend is the greatest good for the greatest number.