The Fraser case and the question of expertise


A few weeks ago Andrew Fraser, an Associate Professor of Law from Macquarie University, had a letter published in a small suburban newspaper suggesting that Australia should opt out of international conventions on refugees to prevent non-white immigration to this country. He suggested that those of African background had lower levels of intelligence than white people, and were criminally inclined. The response of his employers, Macquarie University, was to remove him from teaching responsibilities and seek to pay out his contract of employment.

At the heart of debates about whether Fraser has the right to publicly express views about immigration, crime and the racial dimensions of intelligence is the whole question of what constitutes expertise. Fraser’s letter listed his professional position and affiliation. The university responded by saying that his misdemeanour was to express extramural views that the university did not wish to be associated with and that these comments were made outside his field of expertise.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at The Australian

The first point is that the antipathy of university bureaucrats to Fraser’s opinions or their conviction that those opinions are at odds with the principles of tolerance that the university stands for, is not sufficient justification for action to be taken against him. The principles of academic freedom confer upon all of us who teach and research in universities the right to say things which are controversial and with which university managers (as they are now called) might disagree.

The second question is more complex: what should be the boundaries of academic participation in public debate? Clearly it would be invidious if academic ‘freedom’ limited us to expressing opinions only in our field of expertise. Liberal democratic principles confer citizenship rights to speak on whatever we wish. But when making extramural statements, are we under a higher obligation than others in the community? Members of the police force jeopardise their employment if they are caught breaking the law. Should academics be subject to similar sanctions if they make ill-informed or irresponsible public statements?

There is support for this view from North American academics. The American Association for University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which continues to be endorsed by most academic professional associations, states:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution (click here for full text).

Further clarification of the original statement followed in 1970:

The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial.’ Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

But this conflicts with the recent tendency to question the concept of expertise, where the sanctity of disciplines and the integrity of their borders are challenged. Cultural theorists have questioned the claims and internal processes of validation of various intellectual fields. For example, the Enlightenment claims of scientists to have privileged access to the truths of the natural world have been challenged by those who argue that all scientific method and perspective is culturally loaded.

There are few fields that can now claim absolute immunity from external critique and the world is a better place as a consequence. It is a good thing that lay people can challenge the authority of experts, and that the walls erected to protect specialists and their fields have been breached. Ironically, Fraser’s own university has been at the forefront of critical legal scholarship, challenging the orthodoxy of black letter law and encouraging students to understand the social, cultural and political foundations of legal practice.

In view of this then, it is quite appropriate for Fraser to argue that he has a right to speak professionally on matters of race and ethnicity, that these are legitimate concerns of someone teaching law. As one who works in the humanities and social sciences (with three degrees in three different ‘disciplines’ and only one third of a law degree) I would not like to be excluded from making a professional intervention into legal debate. Nor from commenting on economic policy, even though I have no particular expertise in economics.

So, Andrew Fraser, with the usual Voltairian riders, I have no objection to you pouring forth your bilious and half-baked ideas, either as Associate Professor or private citizen. You don’t speak for me and I am glad you are the subject of a complaint to the Anti Discrimination Board for racial vilification. I suspect that what has motivated your employers to show you the door is less an abhorrence of your views and more that students from cultural minority backgrounds will be less inclined to apply to study in their institution. You might take comfort from the American Association of University Professors’ 1964 ‘Statement on Extramural Utterances’ that sought to safeguard the right of academics to speak as citizens:

The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position.

However, perhaps, Andrew Fraser, in your case they do. What concerns me about your statements is not that you have made them professionally and extramurally but whether someone who considers intelligence to be racially determined is fit to assess the work of students in a multicultural university in a multicultural society. That is another question completely.

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