Uni Gets A Lesson On Vested Interests


In the same week that the ABC broke the story of the University of Sydney’s perverse handling of a visit by the Dalai Lama, the man himself was being welcomed by Cambridge University’s Global Scholars Symposium. The world-leading university said it hoped the Dalai Lama’s talk would “motivate scholars to use their careers to help reduce violence and promote peace”.

In under a week, 15,000 individuals signed a petition urging the University of Sydney to preserve its integrity by reversing its decision to quietly distance itself from the Dalai Lama. Yesterday the University quietly backpedalled. While details are still scant, in June the Dalai Lama will be welcomed on campus to give a talk to students, organised by the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights under the theme “Education Matters”.

The University has made a wise choice. And while it is regrettable that the right decision was not made out the outset, the public outcry that ensued sends a very strong message to any other university or institution that may face such choices in future.

So what was it about the university’s recent behaviour that had people particularly riled up? And not just Tibetans? After all, we have become used to Australian politicians and business leaders kowtowing over Tibet. We don’t like it but it no longer shocks us, no longer provokes the public outrage it once did. But for one of our most prestigious universities to have made such a decision struck an altogether different chord. One that cuts to the very heart of a fear shared among Tibetans and a wider cohort of Buddhists, democrats and academics.

For Tibetan Buddhists, like scientists and scholars, there is nothing more sacrosanct than free enquiry, unimpeded by ulterior interests. It is a core value, explicitly recognised as a precondition to a healthy society. We find exactly the same understanding in the opening lines of the University of Sydney’s own “Charter of Academic Freedom”.

It is through free and clear-minded investigation that we overcome our collective hubris and ignorance and learn to build a compassionate and sustainable global community. Allowing interference in this basic pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, whether through commercial interests or a political agenda, has consequences not only for vulnerable cultures and nations such as Tibet, but ultimately for us all.

Distress over the University withdrawing its support for the planned event with the Dalai Lama was compounded by the fact the University’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights appeared complicit in negotiations, eventually making a compromise with the Vice Chancellor.

Three years ago the University received a substantial grant from the EU for advancing education in democracy and human rights in the Asia Pacific region. As any student of peace and conflict will attest, the whole point of human rights is that they are inviolable. They form an essential safeguard. They are there to protect the fundamental interests of individuals and of society as a whole whenever these interests come under threat from the misguided pursuit of a “greater good”. A university that has positioned itself as a regional leader in the promotion of democracy and human rights must be willing to uphold this principle.

Uniquely, the Dalai Lama has devolved his own political power in order to encourage democracy among exiled Tibetans. He has never wavered from a commitment to non-violence and has spent decades travelling the world to promote education, universal responsibility, and interreligious understanding.

These views have brought the Dalai Lama under heavy attack from vested interests. He is, in short, precisely the kind of voice that any institution dedicated to free enquiry needs to champion. The world’s leading universities, from Harvard and MIT to Oxford and Cambridge, have all understood this. The University of Sydney is still learning,

It’s no secret that universities, both here and overseas, face both direct and indirect pressure to distance themselves from the Dalai Lama and any issues relating to Tibet. In 2011 Stanford University sensibly turned down $4m from the Chinese Government to establish a China studies centre and professorship. Why? The funding was conditional on the centre not discussing Tibet and other matters that might embarrass the Chinese Government.

But while it’s easy to sympathise with the pressure that many university staff would have found themselves under in relation the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit, complying with the short-sighted rationale that it was “in the interests of researchers” to disassociate the University from the Dalai Lama was a serious error of judgement.

Our cherished universities were founded on precisely the values of education, unimpeded enquiry, honesty and integrity so eloquently and steadfastly championed by the Dalai Lama. Criticism of Chinese investment in overseas universities has often centred on the scores of state-funded “Confucius Institutes” that have been popping up like mushrooms on campuses since the mid 2000s. We may value the language education and other services provided by such programs but must acknowledge that their function is fundamentally different from what we traditionally associate with our universities. Put simply, when Party-run institutions partner with our universities, it is not in the spirit of academic discovery but primarily for advancing the agenda of the Chinese state. Just as China’s state media and judiciary exists primarily for the enforcement of Party policy rather than the protection of truth and justice. This is not a value judgement on either of our cultures, but simply recognising a spade as a spade.

Ultimately, if we believe that independent enquiry, democracy, human rights, and a willingness to weigh long-term consequences over short-term gains are all fundamental to a peaceful and sustainable future, then we will naturally have felt that the University of Sydney made a serious error in trying distance itself from the Dalai Lama. The consequences of which would have been felt long into the future.

Furthermore, if we wish, as laid out in the Government’s White Paper on the Asian Century, for ten Australian universities to be among the world’s top 100 by 2025, and for institutions like the University of Sydney to sit proudly alongside the world’s best, then we had better start by taking heed of this lesson.

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.