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The role of academics in a time of troubles

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 27 July 2005


A Macquarie University academic has been gaining publicity for some outspoken comments about racial groups in Australia (see On Line Opinion article).

Macquarie has invited the academic to bring forward his retirement. He has not been sacked, as earlier reported. This issue raises some powerful and important issues.

Universities have a range of tasks to do. These include getting people of various ages ready for various professions - medicine, teaching, dentistry and so on. The university's task is also to do research, to subject it to scrutiny, and to disseminate it. The typical university in 2005 brings in students from many countries and in the process blends many different cultures, languages and customs. Macquarie says that 31 per cent of its students are international students, coming from 71 different countries. Like all universities, it must jealously guard its reputation in these countries. These students bring ideas and money with them and they are learning about us in the process. We hope they are telling their families back home that we are a relatively enlightened society.

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Universities often resist government policies. But  they rely on governments in various ways for funding. In the times we are in, Australian governments are concerned about security and public harmony. Governments would not be happy to have academics making statements likely to foment racial tension and public disorder.

One aspect of most universities in the Western world has traditionally been that academics are allowed freedom to comment on a variety of matters. Academic freedom is not much discussed these days until a problem arises. Most university academics would strongly defend the right of fellow academics to speak out - to criticise governments and to offer an informed opinion on matters of public concern. Academics normally disagree with each other, with Departments of Education, and with those working in the media.

Macquarie's acting vice chancellor, Professor John Loxton, issued a statement last week carefully acknowledging academic freedom. But he emphasised that it carried a responsibility to comment informatively. He added, "It is a serious matter for staff to make public comments which are intentionally designed to bring the university into disrepute".

As we all know, our reputations are important. Nobody wants to be known as racist: it is one of the biggest fears that our students have today, and quite reasonably. For an academic to espouse - and I emphasise, in a reckless or adventurous way - ideas which raise up one racial group over others, might well damage a university's reputation. Students could quite reasonably complain that if university employees were issuing reckless comments, they could encourage elements in the community to commit acts of violence. It is a university’s moral and legal duty to protect its students from harassment and violence.

There are always tensions among different groups at a university, sometimes in student newspapers, sometimes on toilet walls! It is always a vexing question as to what level of toleration is appropriate to allow free expression without making vulnerable people feel at risk. Expressing racist comments may push disturbed people over the edge into violence. I understand that in the last week there have been threats made against black people, possibly because of some groups in south-eastern Queensland who might loosely be termed white racists. This may well be a white "old Australian" reaction to multiculturalism, similar to Hansonism.

Therein lies the problem. As Bob Carr said this week, we may have to balance the right of people to privacy with the need to search bags in order to preserve people's safety. With a lot of angry debate in the media about terrorists, it is not helpful for university academics to encourage public hostility towards any group. We expect our teachers in schools and universities to try hard to encourage understanding, to stand for tolerance, even under duress. The huge majority of us do try to teach and practise tolerance, even if sometimes we may mutter things to a colleague. That is our right.

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Making public comments means that we must be much more careful. Macquarie, like all universities, has a duty to protect its students - not make them more liable to attack. It has a duty to encourage the formation of a more harmonious society, not a more violent one. Adding the name of Macquarie University to comments encouraging hatred of black people gives these comments a weight they should not have. Macquarie University’s Vice Chancellor and President, Di Yerbury, pointed this out in a statement issued late yesterday.

This week I played my students a song from Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. As I recall, it goes a little like this:

You've got to be taught
Before it's too late
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate
Before you are six
Or seven or eight
You've got to be carefully taught.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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