Academic freedom

I’ve finally got around to resuming the debate with Andrew Norton over my claim that neoliberals (or, if you prefer, contemporary classical liberals) are not particularly supportive of freedom of speech. Norton argues that the absence of discussion of freedom of speech reflects the fact that, with minor exceptions, freedom of speech is not threatened.

But at least one form of freedom of speech, academic freedom, is coming under sustained attack. Academics are regularly being subject to attacks from university managers either for criticising the commercial operations of the university or for political speech. The most notable recent example was the Steele case, but it is by no means unique.

The Centre for Independent Studies has been active participant in this debate, and has presented the viewpoints of university managers concerned to manage or suppress academic freedom. The most striking instance is a piece by Steven & Gregory Schwartz (Steven Schwartz was formerly vice-chancellor of Murdoch university. The breakout quotes chosen by the CIS in republishing the piece give the basic line

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

like freedom of speech, academic freedom has its limits

Lauchlan Chipman is more reasonable, but still seeks to invent precedents for the restrictions on academic speech managers are now trying to impose.

Australian universities have always insisted that academics have no right to comment publicly, except as ordinary citizens, on any matters outside their area of academic expertise. Whether written or unwritten, such policies have always denied academics the right to use their university rank, occupational position, or address in external communications on other than their area of academic expertise

I can say from personal experience that this is untrue. Precisely this issue was vigorously debated when I was at James Cook University, where the management was trying to suppress an environmental law lecturer who was criticising an influential local property magnate. You can read a bit about the case here (search for David Haigh). At the time, the Academic Board had sufficient power to resist this move, but as Chipman indicates, it’s a standard item in the managerialist log of claims. And of course it’s managers who decide what is relevant.

The concept of academic freedom raises a lot of complex issues, including the general ‘whistleblower’ problem, the relative weight placed on freedom of contract and freedom of speech and the nature of universities. But it’s easy to see who is in favour of free speech and who is against it.

11 thoughts on “Academic freedom

  1. I’m not so sure the Steele case was about freedom of speech as failures to follow due process, first by the Steele (in a thesis examination process) and then by the university (in a dismissal process). The first is from memory of the Ombudsman’s original report, but I may be wrong.

    In any event, I find it acutely ironic that the CIS is taking up the running for the speech-controlling managerialists, given that it is so pugnacious (if opaque) about the ‘independence’ of its own work. Independence is the crucial academic value, I think … independence from political and commercial interests.

  2. One of the debates within liberalism is to what extent liberalism is an “all the way down” philosophy – that is, should the general principles of liberalism structure all organisations and associations, or is it principally about the public realm. I’m inclined to the latter view. This does not mean I advocate illiberal practices within non-state institutions; rather it is that I believe the state should do nothing about it.

    This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think restrictions on what academics can say constitutes a breach of ‘freedom of speech’ in the broader political sense.

    The Schwartz article was merely making the point that universities have values other than (and in addition to) academic freedom of speech – the pursuit of truth, professional competence and respect for others being three that Schwartz nominates. Where these come into conflict, trade-offs need to be made, and Schwartz believes that academic freedom of speech need not always come out trumps.

    The devil is going to be in the detail of individual cases, but as a general principle I don’t think this is an unreasonable stance. It poses no threat to most academics, or to freedom of speech generally.

    I think the weakness of this example – which John himself admits raises complex issues – shows that there is little behind his accusation.

    And it is worth keeping in mind that neither university he accuses of interfering or trying to interfere with academic freedom – Wollongong and
    James Cook – are run by ‘neoliberals’. Wollongong is run by a social democrat, and so far as I can tell James Cook is run by old-fashioned Queensland rent-seekers.

  3. Andrew says, “This does not mean I advocate illiberal practices within non-state institutions; rather it is that I believe the state should do nothing about it.”

    All sorts of illiberal practices occur in private corporations; one that springs readily to mind is hard-edged managerial cost-cutting (in pursuit only of shareholder value, of course) that drives down remuneration levels and in some cases seriously undervalues the contribution of staff; to the point of exploitation.

    I am constantly surprised by the quantity and intensity of arrogance and other abuses of power that ordinary people will endure from other human beings, while holding out a naive hope that the better nature of their oppressors will manifest.

    The natural response over time, though, is for the exploited to unite in resistance against such behaviour so as to improve their relative lot: ie, the early stages of unionism eventually appear. This is not a pathological, but a perfectly normal process. If left unchecked, the forces released can develop into particularly unsavoury forms of unionism, including outright criminality.

    On the grounds of 1) fundamental humanitiarianism and 2) the idea that a principal role of properly-functioning democratic government is to use its powers to develop the quality of civilization practised by the democracy as a society, it seems clear that a liberalism which contends that government allow such Darwinistic processes to operate unguided, unchecked or unmodified, is very flawed.

  4. Greg – I can’t see that cost cutting is inherently illiberal; scarcity is part of the human condition (though at its least serious in capitalist societies) and therefore economies will be made or forced in any society.

    Though of course it may partly be due to the government control of workplaces that exists now, the overall evidence is hardly consistent with the scenario you present. Real wages have been rising for quite some time now, and job satisfaction is high – between 7.5 and 7.8 on a 0-10 scale in the HILDA survey, depending on employment type. In Pusey’s Middle Australia survey dissatisfaction with management was higher in the public than the private sector.

    This is not to say that there are not bad managers – of course there are. Unions are one response, with which I have no in-principle problem (though some unions, like some managers, are bad), getting a different job is another.

  5. I think Andrew’s response proves my main point, namely that in neoliberal thinking, unlike classical liberalism as represented by, say, JS Mill, property rights and freedom of contract trump freedom of speech. Neoliberals are opposed to government restrictions on freedom of speech, but not to employers, landlords, landowners etc imposing restrictions on employees, tenants, people in privately owned public spaces etc etc.

  6. Allocative cost minimization (returns to factors based on marginal product, etc.) is of course always a desirable goal, Andrew. You quote some recent surveys, the results of which come as something as a surprise as my impression was that the recent studies showed labour force dynamics to comprise an increasing casual periphery, that appeared on the way to creation of a USA-style ‘underclass of working poor’, with a core that works harder and longer for their 40 hours’ pay in a heightened atmosphere of employment uncertainty. I couldn’t name any particular studies, but in any event this approach probably isn’t all that relevant to my substantial point.

    ‘Hard-edged’ (sorry, wrong word – I meant ‘excessive’) cost-cutting goes beyond the allocative and impinges on the distributive, so I’d propose that the studies to be looking at are Australian income and wealth distribution movements over the last two decades. I haven’t seen any, but my understanding is that they are pretty regressive.

    If so, then I would suggest this as at least tentative evidence of excessive cost-cutting as I have just defined it.

  7. Well, yes John the main issue is government restrictions on freedom of speech and yes, as a general rule property rights and contract can trump the ability of people to do something on another person’s property that they do not want done. It is misleading to say that this proves that neoliberals value freedom of speech less. There are lots of things that fall under this category e.g. defecating on someone’s property, going nude on someone’s property (aren’t property owners entitled to impose a dress code?), not carrying a gun into someone’s property. Why don’t you also say that neoliberals are against freedom of defecation, freedom to go nude, etc? Free speech as such isn’t the issue in this case. And what about comments? Aren’t you entitled to manage your comments box? Will you now renounce your ability to edit comments?

  8. I’d like to apologize for being part of diluting the strand a bit; censorship of the comments box would have been perfectly justified. I am inspired to make some feeble attempt at reparation.

    Two questions occur in relation to the points you make, Jason.

    1) The system we have in the robust democracies of media freedom of speech to criticize government and protect its sources, though it has major flaws, is probably as strong as it is thanks to the efforts of neoliberals, among others. The optimistic view is that if we continue paying attention to this issue we’ll eventually iron out all the flaws and get the system right. But, precisely because it has received so much attention, and intermittently continues to receive plenty of oxygen (whenever government media policy is revisited, for example), can it not now be regarded as less of an issue than that of freedom of speech in the non-government sphere?

    2) Your examples of the application of property rights, freedom of contract and freedom of speech in co-relation to foundation law-and-order examples not only are humorous, but also are perfectly valid. Don’t you have anything with which to buttress Andrew’s remarks in relation to the larger sphere of civil liberties, however?

    For example, as I understand it from Andrew’s remarks above (August 29, 2003 10:28 AM), neoliberals think that the occasional self-indulgent departure from the ‘pursuit of truth’ or display of ‘disrespect for others’ DO NOT represent a small price to pay for the overwhelming advantages of academic (and, for that matter, private-sector-employee) freedom of speech, given the positive good will, good faith and desire to contribute of the overwhelming majority of people?

    Come to think of it, freedom of speech is, no doubt, self-stabilizing as any perceived misuse of it can attract devastating retaliatory use.

    Also, it puzzles me how the particular goal of ‘pursuit of truth’ can be regarded as coming into conflict with freedom of speech in any significant way. This is illustrated by reference to the opposite case: How could an institution credibly protest a goal of pursuit of truth if it was well-known to have a policy of speech censorship? For example, the capital-city commercial TV stations.

  9. While Mill made arguments for freedom of speech that have obvious relevance to the private sphere (such as finding the truth) I’m not sure that he would want that freedom enforced in private life – such as by preventing associations from excluding dissenters. If anyone has textual evidence to the contrary, please post it.

    And if we are talking classical liberalism, earlier liberals like Locke, who made toleration a major feature of his philosophy, certainly would not have subscribed to this view. Toleration involves letting people who don’t make freedom of speech a primary value restrict it in their private sphere.

    The view that freedom of speech must always come up trumps is an example of academics (or journalists, the other source of this belief) trying to impose values that are important to them on others.

    In practice, my views on academic freedom of speech probably differ little from Quiggin’s, because that freedom is functional for universities; it generally fits with what they are trying to do. The main remedy for academic foolishness is criticism – I have often criticised academics for that, but never, so far as I can recall, have I advocated an academic be sacked for having dumb opinions.

    However, if (to use one of Schwartz’s examples) a geographer started telling his classes the earth was flat then I think there is case for the university acting against him, and possibly sacking him, because teaching outright falsehoods conflicts with other goals and values of the university.

  10. Greg – While we are straying far from the original topic, the perceptions you have about the labour market are common and to some extent wide of the mark. There is no evidence of any systematic increase in job insecurity – neither asking people about their own perceptions or actual retrenchment rates show it. They flucuate with the economic cycle, as they always have. Casuals are in principle more easily sackable, but in the HILDA survey they still rated their job security at 7.1 on a 0-10 scale. Many casuals are de facto permanent staff but with flexible hours.

    Income inequality has increased over the last two decades, though driven by faster growth at the top, not declines at the bottom. This is what you would expect with a more educated workforce. After adjusting for tax, family size, and receipt of government services final inequality increases have not been that large.

    There are two caveats that need to be added:

    * consumption figures are always very different to income, ie the poor spend much more than they earn.
    * people move around the income categories, so it is not the same people who are poor or rich in each survey

    Lifetime inequality of consumption is much lower than the inequality of income that shows in any given survey.

  11. Andrew, once again with apologies to our indulgent host, distribution studies standardize the size of the cake, so that changes revealed by any well-done study will reflect changes in the relative bargaining power of the gainers and the losers. Hence, even though the inequality increases have not been very large, if statistically significant then they have been excessive. If you make the point that we may well have moved towards, rather than away from, a more optimal distribution then I couldn’t argue with you as I don’t know for what period Australian income and wealth distribution best correlates with our overall prosperity measures. At this point, I’d like to thank you for indulging me on the data; I hope to improve my familiarity with it.

    An increasingly educated workforce should, over time, increase the size of the cake and thereby the quantum of returns to marginal product of all factors.

    As an example from the level of the firm: Assume a new business plan implemented by a talented CEO or a new product invented and developed by one of its talented engineers, successfully produced and then well-marketed by those consummate masters of spin, the Marketing Department, lead to an increase in the firm’s profitability.

    The whole firm has become more productive as a result of the efforts or talent of one or a few members of the labour (/entrepreneurial). Neoclassical economic efficiency principles prescribe that all the firm’s factors – labour, capital (and, if admitted as a factor, entrepreneurship) – be allocated an increase commensurate with the increase in the marginal product of each factor.

    There may well be plenty of profitability-related bonus systems in place in Australian workplaces. It’s clear, however, that the lower-status members of the increasingly frequently so-called ‘team’ are getting rewarded only by promotion based solely on discretionary managerial approval of their ‘efforts’ – the ‘distributive’ reward criterion. The correct neoclassical remunerative formula, of course, is this criterion TOGETHER WITH sound economic efficiency principles based on the firm’s profitability.

    This formula, applied with integrity, undoubtedly produces outstanding success, since it co-incides well with nascent evolutionary psychological motivational principles (taking the firm as a proxy for the hunter-gatherer group).

    Further, there is a ratchet effect in that when profitability is threatened or falls, retrenchments and pay cuts for the lower-status labour units are ranked high in the strategy proposals. This is not absolutely OK; it’s only acceptable GIVEN proper returns to factors during the good times. The unions’ power decline in this situation has unfortunately not been replaced with the full neoclassical formula.

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