Dare to be Wise?
The importance of academic freedom
CONTROVERSY AT CANTERBURYIn 1993 Canterbury Master of Arts student Joel Hayward completed his thesis, entitled The Fate of Jews in German Hands: An Historical Enquiry into the Development and Significance of Holocaust Revisionism. Although the content is as controversial as its title suggests, his thesis was awarded an A+ and judged “the best history thesis of the year”, winning him the Sir James Hight Memorial Prize for Excellence.
In 1999, Hayward’s work was made publically available, and quickly sparked a media debate. The New Zealand Jewish Council accused him of Holocaust denial, and called on the University of Canterbury to revoke his first-class degree.
The University appointed an independent working party to investigate the claims, and the committee reported that Hayward’s research was faulty, lacking judgement, and of dubious methodology. However, their report did not recommend withdrawal of the thesis (it was not considered “dishonest” work), and they did not agree with allegations that Hayward’s argument was racist. Hayward went on to pursue a Ph.D., and later became a lecturer at Massey University.
In 2000, Hayward apologised for any harm or distress that he might have caused, and agreed to attach an appendix to his thesis, modifying his findings. The addendum admitted that the work “failed to place adequate analytical weight on the motivation of numerous authors on the Holocaust.” He stated that his research was “an honest attempt to make sense of events [he] wanted to understand better,” and that he “regret[s] working on such a complex topic without sufficient knowledge and preparation.”
Although Hayward recognised that his thesis was inappropriate, he defended his right to research Holocaust revisionism, stating that he “remain[s] convinced that any individual, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, and political persuasion, should be able to investigate any aspect of the past, and to form and express conclusions based upon his or her own understanding of the evidence, without fear of punishment or ridicule for deviating from accepted wisdom. To deny an individual this right is out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”
Such obstruction of academic pursuit is not only considered “out of keeping” with the cultural zeitgeist, it is illegal under the New Zealand Education Act 1989, which enshrines the right of academic freedom.
FREE THE ACADEMICS!Academic freedom credits freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members as essential to the role of tertiary institutions as the “critic and conscience of society.” It allows scholars the freedom to teach or to communicate unconventional or unpalatable ideas and facts without fear of repression, job loss, or imprisonment.
It is not, as some have argued since the Hayward case, an excuse for puffed-up professors to promote personal prejudice concealed beneath a veneer of academia.
Academic freedom means that as academic staff and students, we can legally “question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas, and state controversial or unpopular opinions.” It enables us to “engage in research [on a topic of our choice]” and allows the University to “teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning.” It encourages freedom of the institution through its “chief executive[’s ability] to appoint its own staff.”
The exercise of these freedoms, however, must comply with “the highest ethical standards.” This involves respect for the different cultural and religious beliefs and practices of others, and an obligation to be sensitive to what may be considered offensive to other members of society.
Professor Gareth Jones, Head of the University of Otago Bioethics Centre, has written about academic freedom for the New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit (NZUAAU). He says that academic freedom allows “academics, within their broad area of expertise (that’s important to note), to be testing conventional opinion, questioning, putting forward other viewpoints, simply because they have a right to do so. The Vice Chancellor isn’t going to come down and tell you to shut up! That’s basically what it comes down to.”
Essentially, academic freedom provides staff with a sort of enhanced version of “freedom of expression,” above and beyond one’s regular right to freedom of speech.
In Professor Jones’ opinion, this is something that many staff “take for granted.” Arguably, it’s also a concept unknown to most students, as is the University’s system for hiring and assessing the lecturers eligible for such freedom. So, what does it take to become a member of this prestigious community?
HR: HARD PLACE vs ROCKAccording to postgraduate student Matt (not his real name), the University of Otago teaching community is not only prestigious, but also political.
With a Bachelor of Science, a Postgraduate Diploma in Science, and a near-completed Masters, Matt reckons that his qualifications may hinder rather than help his applications for Teaching Fellow positions.
“It’s assumed that those jobs go to people with undergraduate qualifications. Basically, if they can hire someone that’s maybe a little less educated, but on a lower pay rate, then they’ll go for them. I know that quite a few people applied who were from similar [educational] positions as me, and none of them were hired, either.”
In Matt’s experience, there’s a surprising amount of involvement from other staff in hiring: “[My lecturer] said that they generally stick to hiring people from [their own department]. ‘To keep their own,’ he said!”
Human Resources rejected my interview request, so their position on the matter remains undefended (my journalistic ego is still smarting from this unexpected blow).
It remains unclear how anyone really gets hired. However, due to the Performance Based Research Fund (PBFR) tertiary education funding process, redundancies are on the rise.
INTERNAL BUSINESSBasically, PBRF ranks individual staff members, departments, and tertiary institutions according to their research performance. Tertiary Education Union branch co-president Dr Brent Lovelock explains how the model is affecting the roles of academic staff:
“The PBRF process has certainly changed the way we do things. I guess the University will argue that most of us were taken on as researchers, and we do put a lot of weight on research-informed teaching. We agree that that’s important, but the goal posts have shifted a little bit for some staff members, who were taken on because they might have some special skills in some areas; they may be amazing teachers, or highly qualified practitioners working in areas such as design, social work, or education. For those people, the goal posts shifted when PBRF came along and said, ‘Okay, you’ve all got to do research now, and if you don’t do research, well, there’s the door.’”
The impact of PBRF on teaching quality can be both “positive and negative,” according to Dr Lovelock: “Obviously we want teaching to be research-informed, so that students can share the cutting-edge knowledge that research provides. But PBRF puts pressure on staff to produce more and higher quality research, which compromises the 40/40/20 model.” That’s the University’s ideal distribution of a staff member’s time spent on research/teaching/community service, respectively.
A recent academic audit report conducted by the New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit (NZUAAU) criticised this workload model: “The audit panel does suggest that the principles underlying an institution-wide workload model need to be more detailed than simply a 40/40/20 allocation.”
Dr Lovelock adds, “PBRF means that staff are now much busier in terms of doing research, so whether they dedicate as much time to things like lecture planning, I don’t know. And community service? Pfft, it’s dropped off the edge somewhere!”
However, “management see [PBRF] in a wonderful, glowing light, because it’s a source of funding. Even though it’s not a huge source, it’s still substantial, and it’s a great tool as well, because suddenly every staff member is delegated a score.”
Supposedly, these scores are confidential, but Dr Lovelock suggests otherwise: “To say that the process is confidential is complete nonsense, but it was founded and sold to us on the basis of confidentiality – we were told that nobody would ever know, not even our Heads of Department would be privy to our personal PBRF scores. And that’s a load of crap.”
As far as hiring people goes, Dr Lovelock admits that “these scores are hugely influential on the type of people who will get employed by the University.”
But a good researcher isn’t always the best teacher, is he? “No,” Dr Lovelock asserts, “not at all. And a good teacher isn’t always the best researcher.”
FREEDOM FOR STUDENTS?Only time will tell whether PBRF pays off eventually, and not just in the literal sense. Meanwhile, the ever-increasing emphasis on research places academic freedom at the forefront of tertiary concerns.
You might be wondering how much academic freedom students enjoy. According to Professor Jones, the priority of students within a university is learning, but they’re increasingly involved in teaching, scholarship, research, and publication at higher levels. So it can be argued that students are entitled to their fair share of academic freedom in these areas.
Before any Politics students race off to change the world, however, let’s clarify the term “fair share.” Going back to Hayward’s Holocaust thesis, should such topics be available for students’ academic exploration?
Professor Jones thinks so, although “it’s one thing to examine a position like that, to critically analyse it, and it’s another thing to then say well this is the position that I’m putting forward. If you want to publish a political type of pamphlet, you’re free to do that. But with [an academic qualification], you have to analyse everything you say, and in turn, everything you say will be questioned. From an academic standpoint, whatever you say must be well argued, and it must be credible.”
One of the major limits of students’ academic freedom is our lack of expertise. Even staff, Professor Jones argues, shouldn’t speak out willy-nilly on issues beyond their academic area:
“Some academics think that they can talk, and be controversial, about absolutely everything. This becomes highly questionable. Once you get into controversial areas, you’ve got to be very careful about how things are phrased. With the ability [of academic freedom] comes, of course, responsibility. You have to be responsible in that what you are saying can be backed up, and that it’s a valid position, and not just something that can be used for expressing personal opinion for no good reason.”
CAUTION ADVISEDThe inclusion of academic freedom in New Zealand law demonstrates its importance in our country. Academic freedom allows our tertiary institutions to remain the untainted “critic and conscience” of society.
“You only have to look at other societies,” Professor Jones points out, “to see that this isn’t always the case. Some universities today have party officials as senior staff members, and clearly that’s going to have implications on what people can say. In that sort of society, academics would be more or less public servants who do as they’re told, whereas that’s not the case with us.”
Regardless of professional and legal protection, one can’t assume that the public will accept all academic pursuits without protest. Indeed, it would be rather concerning if they did. It’s important to recognise that not everything that can be freely expressed is worthy of expression. Isn’t it, Dr Hayward?