Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Laissez faire not fair for all

27 June 2001 | The Australian

In a spirited defence of sacked Wollongong University academic Ted Steele, Brian Martin (HES, April 18) posed the question: ‘Should academics be entitled to speak out publicly without penalty even if, in the eyes of nearly everyone else, they are wrong?’.

Martin believes the answer is yes, provided alternative views are also given a voice. He notes: ‘The response to false and damaging speech should be more speech, not an attempt to shut up the speaker’.  Martin seems to believe that his position is self-evident. That is, a laissez-faire attitude towards academic freedom (in which all sides are presented impartially) is best for society in general and for universities in particular.

'But the laissez-faire approach to academic freedom is neither logical nor practical'.

Moreover, it is morally pernicious because it requires universities to relinquish their most deeply held values.  Freedom of expression is the basic building block of political democracy. Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, John Milton and others have made this point better than we can. Yet, even in the world outside of universities, there are limits to what one can say.

In the US, where freedom of speech is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has ruled that citizens do not have the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. All democracies prohibit defamation and some also prohibit racial vilification. These prohibitions reflect society's hierarchy of values. Although freedom of expression is highly prized, it is less important than not harming another person physically, destroying someone's reputation or inciting racial hatred.

Academic freedom serves the same purpose in the university that freedom of speech plays in the larger society. To quote Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, speaking in 1869: ‘A university must above all be free; the winnowing breeze of freedom must blow through all its chambers.’

'Still, like freedom of speech, academic freedom has its limits'.

The first is the requirement for professional competence. University mottos extol scholarship, wisdom, truth and civility. To be true to such values, it follows that a person who teaches that the world is flat should not occupy the chair of geography, even if (as Martin would have it) there is another professor on staff who claims that the world is round. Not all ideas are equally valid, and by claiming they are the laissez-faire approach to academic freedom forces universities to abandon their most cherished values: scholarship, wisdom and truth.

Academic freedom is also limited when its practitioners violate other university values such as inclusiveness and respect for others.

Suppose a professor decided to teach students that some races are inferior and genocide will improve human genetics. Is it really sufficient for the university to employ another professor to put forward the opposite view? Don't universities exist for the explicit purpose of wiping out the ignorance that leads to such hateful ideas? The laissez-faire approach to academic freedom requires that anyone's point of view, no matter how ignorant or destructive, be treated as equal to any other view and that all views should be given a forum in universities.

This is not to argue that university administrators should indiscriminately gag academics.

Academic freedom has served us well. It has replaced superstition with science and privilege with inclusiveness.  But universities would go too far if they employed alchemists or gave tenure to those who argue for racial genocide.  Just as there are limits to free speech in a political democracy, there are also limits to academic freedom when it violates professional competence or strongly held university values.

'It was once taken for granted that the whole purpose of a university was to build character and to search for truth'.

Only the most senior academics were trusted to teach moral philosophy, the capstone of university education.

Such a course is no longer part of any Australian university's curriculum.  Instead, moral relativism holds sway.  Many Australian universities claim, in their mission statements, to be producing ethical graduates, but they neither explain how they do this nor provide evidence of their success. Professional ethics are about as far as most universities go.  Abandoning ethical purposes has led universities and their students to emphasise university education as purely utilitarian, leading to better jobs or higher earnings.  Consider, for example, the following incident.

Ms B receives a failing mark because the instructor recognises that her paper is identical to one submitted by another student. Ms B appeals to a higher authority. She does not deny that she copied the paper: her defence is that in three years of university, she was never told that plagiarism was wrong.

Ms B's legal representative pushes home the point, asking the professor who failed her client's paper: ‘Did you ever tell your class that they could not copy previous assignments?’.  ‘No,’ answers the professor. ‘But I also failed to caution them against rape and murder.  There are some things you just take for granted.’
It would have been more accurate to say that there were once things you could take for granted. Ms B's case is an example of what former US senator Daniel Moynihan described as ‘defining deviancy down’. In our universities, we accept behaviour that was once unacceptable. We seem, in the phrase of American ethicist William Bennet, to be ‘getting used to decadence’.

For fear of giving offence, universities avoid making judgments about academic freedom.

Hence, Martin's view — just let everyone have their say no matter if what they say is false or damaging. But society needs graduates who can recognise an ethical issue when they see one and can reason about such issues in a logical and sensible way.

'How can universities achieve this? How can we equip our students to deal with ethical issues?'

There are two answers. The first is by making universities into ethical communities. To accomplish this, we must ensure that our universities provide good models for our students. Academics are given great latitude by our society, but their freedom carries grave responsibilities. There are some basic tenets to which every academic should adhere — meeting classes on time, keeping appointments and fair marking.

They must keep active in their field and keep a high standard of research. Their teaching methods must be up to the task, exposing students to ethical issues during their courses. And, of course, academics must eschew bogus research, sloth, racial intolerance and sexual exploitation. Ethical behaviour is of paramount importance because it teaches students by example.

The second way to help students think ethically is by teaching them ethics. This is not a popular idea among those who take the laissez-faire view. But what we have in mind is not the indoctrination of a set of values but giving graduates the intellectual tools they require to recognise the ethical issues confronting Australian society and to analyse them in a considered way.

The neglect of ethics in the university environment and curriculum will breed cynicism about higher education in students and the general public. If the laissez-faire attitude persists, a university degree will just be a hurdle to be jumped on the way to employment. Conversely, if we wish education to mean more than this, we must have academic freedom, but this freedom must be balanced by responsibility. This is why there are limits to all our freedoms, including academic freedom. 

About the Author:
Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Murdoch University and Gregory Schwartz is a writer. This essay is part of a project on the future of higher education conducted by The Centre for Independent Studies.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email