Let’s recreate a campus culture that enables vigorous academic debate

The behaviour of some has effectively served to chill the views of others. But this flies in the face of universities’ core role, says Dawn Freshwater

February 20, 2024
Illustration: Two people debate at lecterns
Source: iStock/uniquepixel

Controversy over the limits of freedom of expression has vexed universities for many years, but were brought to centre stage by the Covid-19 pandemic. Debate has further intensified with the October 2023 Hamas attack on Israel and subsequent retaliatory action in Gaza, followed by pro-Palestinian protests and a rise in antisemitic incidents.

Yet when university leaders take positions and guide actions on prominent public issues, their interpretation and application of these rights of expression come under extreme scrutiny. The hostile interrogation of the heads of three leading US universities by a congressional committee in December, followed by public condemnation, demonstrated how much the actions of academics on campus have come under a challenging spotlight.

For decades, academic freedom and freedom of expression were seen as fundamental rights. But the tensions observed recently indicate that these matters are not simple, given the fragile relationships between universities, funders and their communities.

Free speech is a right in many countries. It is regulated, and it is not specific to universities. Academic freedom is often considered a subset of free speech, a distinct principle that is important to the entire enterprise of universities: the production, interrogation and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom permits and encourages critical thinking and dialogue, which is the core of what universities are about. 

University leaders recognise that conflict is likely across our campuses when people seek to freely express points of view that conflict with one another. Nevertheless, we encourage students, staff, the university communities and guests to engage in the free, respectful and civil expression and debate of ideas. Equally, we permit people to object to the views of others, sometimes loudly. As long as that person is permitted to speak, such opposition does not amount to a suppression of free speech or academic freedom.

But while free speech is a fundamental right that we must protect, we must also acknowledge that universities are not a “public” space in the same way that a town hall or city square is. Universities can weigh up wider issues when they consider whom they permit to speak on campus.

Different universities interpret and apply the principle of academic freedom in slightly different ways. At Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland, we support the engagement of our employees in public debate and dialogue on matters relevant to their professional expertise and experience. We also offer an extensive range of support for those academics who find themselves the targets of abuse and harassment.

But while academics have a right to freely express their views in the public domain, they must operate within the law and institutional policies. Australian High Court Judge Robert French describes academic freedom in his 2019 model code as being “subject only to prohibitions, restrictions or conditions”, such as those imposed by law; by the “reasonable and proportionate regulation necessary” to discharge teaching and research activities, foster the well-being of students and staff, and give effect to universities’ legal duties.

Examples of “reasonable and proportionate” restrictions include university and staff obligations under health and safety laws and codes of conduct. Hence, academic freedom is not an unfettered right; universities constantly navigate and balance all of these competing rights and duties as good-faith employers. So academics might need to take steps to ensure they do not put their private lives in the public domain or, from time to time, moderate what they say publicly, particularly on social media.

While politicians, officials and the public examine the application of freedom of expression and academic freedom, I am concerned about its impact within our higher education institutions. Increasingly, academics complain of an inability to be truly free to advance and challenge controversial ideas without fear of being publicly attacked or silenced by their peers.

This is thanks to the behaviour of some, which has effectively served to chill the views of others. A core university role is to provide a safe forum for an open exchange of views, and we must be vigilant in exercising it. It is incumbent on the academy to support and enable vigorous academic debate and, in so doing, enhance academic freedom. 

This is about creating a culture on campus for this to occur. No single person, academic or higher education leader can do this. It is the responsibility of us all, one that has been passed to us from past generations and one we must secure for future generations.

Dawn Freshwater is vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland.

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Reader's comments (4)

Yes indeed - academics must learn not to trespass beyond the professional and scholarly bounds of the privilege of academic freedom by engaging in social media ‘mobbing’ and ‘pile-ons’ that are often mere ill-informed rants and sometimes viciously bullying groupthink.
"Recreate"? from where, what, when? No more empty, a historical slogans, please
"hostile interrogation"? Really? They were asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews contravened their bullying and harassment policies (this happened on US campuses in the wake of October 7th). For context, misgendering someone contravenes their bullying and harassment policies. So, the outcry was around consistency of applying their policies. Misgendering someone? = bad. Calling for the genocide of Jews? = Free speech. If you think that adds up, then you probably need to think a bit harder.
I totally agree with the author of post #3. That really was the lowest point academia has reached in a very long time. While Jewish staff and students continue to be harassed and bullied on UK, and other Western campuses, I am reminded that in May 1933 it was uni students across Germany throwing books onto bonfires. VC's have no done enough to get on top of this grim situation, but then, for many academics sadly, 'misgendering' is indeed the greater harm.