Where does academic freedom end?
This story about the suspension of two QUT academics is very worrying. I haven’t got full details yet, but the story so far is that a graduate student in the QUT Creative Industries faculty* produced, as part of his PhD work, a film entitled Laughing at the Disabled which was supported by some groups advocating for disabled people and criticised others. The two academics. John Hookham and Gary McLennan criticised the film in a confirmation hearing, then in correspondence with the Vice-Chancellor and finally in an article in The Australian, which also made more general criticisms of postmodernism, relativism and so on, including specific criticism of the dominant views at QUT (it seems to be behind the paywall now).The only result was that the title of the film was changed to “Laughing with the Disabled” and the academics were charged with ethics violations, though details don’t appear to be public.
The two have now been suspended without pay for six months, which is virtually dismissal.
This case raises concerns both in relation to academic freedom and as regards the implications for whistleblowing more generally.
The ABC quotes QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake denying that these concerns are appropriate:
QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake says the suspension of the men had nothing to do with the debate about how disabled people are treated.
“This committee focused on some allegations of misconduct which had been brought to my attention regarding the behaviour of some individuals toward other people,” he said.
“That’s really the beginning and end of it. I mean, people can say its an attack on academic freedom, people can say it’s the university taking a side in the disability debate.
“Neither is reasonable, both are nonsense propositions.”
Dr Coaldrake says the men stepped over the line by threatening the academic freedom of the student involved and his supervisors.
“Academic freedom is a great privilege it is also a freedom which has to be exercised with care with regard to the views of others,” he said.
“It is not a license to ridicule or derogate others and of course if you did that you would be affecting other people’s academic freedom.”
but unless there is more to the case than has been revealed so far, it’s hard to accept this claim – obviously a central part of academic freedom is the freedom to criticise the work of others. There’s a general expectation of a civil tone in such criticism and the Oz article could be seen as violating this, but such a breach hardly justified suspension or dismissal in my view.
A somewhat comparable instance, closer to home for me (since my appointment is partly in the School of Political Science), is this article, also in the Oz, by UQ Pol Sci academics David Martin-Jones and Carl Ungerer, attacking work on terrorism by fellow-members of the School. This made for some tension at morning tea, and there was a fair bit of annoyance that the writers hadn’t sought to engage in debate within the school before going public, but that was about the end of it, as far as I know.
* with which I have some informal links