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.

update There’s lots of comment on this story all around Ozplogistan, including Andrew Bartlett and Kim at LP. Peter Black gives an excellent summary

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

11 thoughts on “Where does academic freedom end?

  1. Hasn’t QUT just ridden itself of its liberal arts faculty? Wouldn’t you have to see this action as at least consistent with this abolition?

    Isn’t vigorous criticism of views supposed to be what universities are about? If these two faculty did something really terrible to the student concerned this should be pointed out – not just indirectly alluded to.

    The decision to suspend them should be undertaken only in the most grave circumstances and these should be spelt out.

    In the absence of this I think academics around Australia should call for the QUT VC to resign and for these staff to be reinstated pending a full independent inquiry.

    A while back we had Peter Abelson pushed out of Macquarie.

    Things in the universities look sick to me and academics should show solidarity with their colleagues.

  2. if facts are alluded to, but not made explicit, how can any opinion be formed on the particular subject?

    one can form an opinion on the customs of the university- i assume that something kept secret is discrediting to the person/s keeping the secret.

  3. The case is analagous the way Drew Fraser was hounded from his job by the political correctness police at Deakin. But in that case most academics remained silent*, perhaps out of political expediency…?

    First they came for the Jews…

    * Pr Q, as I recall at the time, gave grudging support for Fraser’s right to freely speak without chilling restrictions.

  4. Maybe this is a good place to notice a US instance – from The Independent 12/6/07:

    ” By Leonard Doyle in Washington
    Published: 12 June 2007

    A top American university has denied tenure to a prominent academic amid allegations of anti-Semitism and his defence of the Palestinian cause.

    Norman Finkelstein, a frequent critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, said he had been “blacklisted” by the university and would now have to leave teaching. He had been offered lifelong tenure by the political science department of the Catholic DePaul University in Chicago, but faced with a bitter campaign against him, the university denied him the post.

    Mr Finkelstein, whose family survived the Holocaust, has been public enemy number one of the Israel lobby in the US for a number of years. He has frequently accused American Jews of exploiting the Holocaust for financial gain and is a regular critic of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. He described DePaul’s move as an “egregious violation” of academic freedom.

    One of his main critics, Alan Dershowitz, an attorney and Harvard law professor, said: “It was plainly the right decision.”

  5. Wikipedia confirms my point:

    Macquarie University Vice Chancellor Dianne Yerbury on July 29, 2005 decided to suspend Fraser from teaching.

    So Fraser was suspended from teaching because he had political views disagreeable to authority. Just as in the QUT case.

    But virtually no-one has leapt to Fraser’s defence. You know, “Freedom is indivisible”, “I disagree with you but “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend…”, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion…”.

    So it seems the liberal-Left is guilty of “shmibertarianism” as well.

  6. Fraser was suspended on full pay, which makes a substantial difference. Reading the article (including Fraser’s false denial of membership of a racist group) and recalling the case, there were reasonable grounds to doubt his capacity to keep his views and his teaching role separate. Whether or not Macquarie made the right call here, the two cases aren’t comparable.

    Fraser’s basic right to free speech was defended, with the obligatory references to Voltaire. He doesn’t deserve any more than that.

  7. The Fraser case was about using his Macquarie position to air racist views on TV that were nothing to do with either his teaching or research expertise. He was asked to stop teaching, on full pay, which lasted for about 6 months IIRC until he retired as already scheduled.

    hc, I’m interested to hear you say that Abelson was pushed. If he was, I’m sure it had nothing to do with academic freedom. My understanding is that it was over outside employment.

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