Intellectual Freedom Under Threat At Sydney


The University of Sydney’s cancelation of a June talk by the Dalai Lama, revealed last night by the ABC, is the latest in a series of failures of Sydney’s management to uphold the university’s elementary intellectual and social responsibilities.

China forms a key international student market for Sydney and funds various university activities. Sydney’s decision was no doubt made with an eye to UTS’ 2005 run-in with the Chinese state: In response to that institution’s connections with members of the proscribed Falun Gong organisation, Chinese authorities blocked its website. Chinese enrolment enquiries to UTS collapsed as a result.

The ban on the Dalai Lama’s visit comes in the wake of Sydney management’s attempt to remove an explicit commitment to intellectual freedom – the right of university members to engage freely in the exchange of ideas – from its Enterprise Agreement, currently the subject of the strongest industrial action seen at an Australian university for many years.

Following an outcry, management restored intellectual freedom to the Agreement, along with another clause committing it to antidiscriminatory employment practices.

The refusal to provide a forum for the Dalai Lama shows that, whatever senior managers might say, their support for free and open debate is highly circumscribed.

There are few reasons to be surprised at this state of affairs. Universities’ political and economic circumstances encourage them to pipe to their funders’ tunes, whether these be governments or corporations.

What is, however, becoming increasingly hard to believe is the extent to which Sydney managers still feel entitled to publicly profess the traditional liberal-humanist values they subvert with such doggedness.

The senior academics running the university – along with those mid-level ones who support them – often present themselves as the champions of high-minded intellectual agendas anchored in the progressive consensus of contemporary liberalism.

Some academic managers also explicitly associate themselves with the avowedly leftist ideology of 1960s France, appealing to the revisionism and contestation of intellectuals like Foucault and Derrida in their critique of the repressive operations of power latent in social life. As the university’s habit of accommodation to political and economic authority shows, these progressive commitments do not extend beyond the seminar room or marketing website.

In its determination to degrade staff conditions in the Enterprise Agreement, Sydney has expressed its support for repressive operations of power in the workplace and signalled its intention to create an even more compliant and subservient workforce which will work far more than it is paid for, tolerate increasing employment insecurity, and acquiesce to escalating regimes of bureaucratic control.

In its denial of a forum to the Dalai Lama it has, quite simply, made itself complicit with China’s relentless efforts to suppress Tibetan culture.

The legacy of Enlightenment and modern progressivism has created an imperative for academic work to be presented as contributing to an essentially liberal and emancipatory political project. But everything in the structural conditions of universities encourages the instrumentalisation of intellectual values for ends which are typically quite incompatible with that orientation.

It is instructive to review two recent examples.

Last year, the Vice-Chancellor tried to undermine the decision by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies to participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.  

Whatever one thinks of BDS, the issue was a textbook case of the need for academic institutions not to interfere in the intellectual autonomy of their staff.

In 2010, Sydney’s online alumni publication, eSydney bragged about researchers who had been awarded a $57 million US military contract to develop robots for use in the training of Marine snipers.

At the same time as it was publicising its role in improving the deadliness of US marksmanship – responsible for numerous well-documented deaths around the world – the University was describing itself as continually on the lookout "to find new ways to be accountable to the public good – to produce ideas and people that lead to smarter solutions and richer lives".

These declarations of principle notwithstanding, the university may as well have had its newly redesigned crest stamped directly into the snipers’ bullets.

Examples could easily be multiplied. As last year’s job-cuts campaign demonstrated, despite universities’ lip-service to the values of critique, equity, and robust democratic exchange, these values are invariably subordinated to managerial imperatives and their supposed economic rationales.

The gap between university managers’ professed intellectual commitments and their actual pursuit of an authoritarian institutional agenda follows a familiar pattern: Universities’ beholdenness to the ideologies of dominant political power has been an abiding feature of their history.

The very emergence of universities in Western Europe in the 12th century strikingly illustrates this. Universities’ nominal intellectual freedom from clerical oversight was only granted on condition that they guarantee a deeper subservience to the agenda of the Church.

In the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse diagnosed a general tendency for Western intellectual life from the 17th century onwards to combine "extreme critical radicalism in scientific and philosophical method on the one hand, and an uncritical quietism in the attitude toward established and functioning social institutions".

This observation accurately characterises the gap we can observe in universities today between the intellectual postures of university leaders and their actual policies.

For all their embeddedness in the neoliberal economy and its derivative ideologies, universities can also be reservoirs of dissent.

As the very robust industrial action and a string of unprecedented open letters from staff to Michael Spence show, increasing numbers of the university’s staff now appreciate that the managerialism of the Sydney leadership will lead to the ruination of the university, and – like many students – are prepared to say so.

For academic managers, however, dangers to the university invariably come from elsewhere – from altered funding arrangements, from weakening enrolment prospects or, especially, from staff underperformance.

The existence of a grave threat to the bodies over which they preside is a doxa beloved of technocracies everywhere, whether they be governments or university administrations.  Forecasts of impending doom allow leaders to consolidate their hold over their increasingly anxious subordinates.

Academic managers’ warnings of the calamity to come are, not surprisingly, confirmed in a 2012 Ernst and Young report, University of the Future, a product of E&Y’s Higher Education team. The report predicts that broad-based teaching and research universities “will prove unviable in all but a few cases over the next 10-15 years” and recommends that universities “incorporat[e]stakeholder expectations for increased impact.” By cancelling the Dalai Lama’s appearance, Sydney has done just that.

Sydney’s administrators have been strikingly absent from the chorus of university leaders condemning the weekend’s deplorable federal funding cuts to universities. This provides a telling clue about the institution’s underlying logic.

In the short-term, federal cuts will be useful to Sydney’s leaders, since they can be enlisted to justify the measures it wants to inflict, in its Enterprise Agreement and more generally, on the institution. The long-term effects on the university will only manifest when the current leadership has moved on.

Yesterday’s revelation about the Dalai Lama is just the latest instance of Sydney’s management’s corruption of principles that must be upheld if the university is to function properly. It is hard to imagine a more convincing demonstration of the university’s leaders’ unworthiness of their positions.

Nick Riemer is a member of the NTEU. These are his personal views.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.