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Academic martyrdom highlights university brain drain

By James McConvill - posted Wednesday, 27 July 2005

It has been reported that Sydney’s Macquarie University is attempting to buy out embattled academic, associate professor Andrew Fraser, from his fixed-term contract, as a result of controversial statements made by Fraser.

Over the last couple of weeks, Fraser has made a number of statements which have been described as “racist” and “inflammatory”. Among these statements are that sub-Saharan Africans living in Australia are a crime risk as they have much lower IQ’s and “significantly more testosterone” than whites; that Australia is creating an Asian managerial-professional “ruling class”, and that the abolition of slavery in the US can be used as example to demonstrate a link between an expanding black population and increases in crime.

In an opinion piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald on June 15 this year (“Ideas Need an Airing in Halls of Learning”), I argued that Australian universities are at risk of losing their intellectuals due to a culture of mediocrity. The Fraser imbroglio only acts to prove my point. This is not because of the statements of Fraser, however, but rather the attempt by Macquarie University to silence him.


Universities are meant to be places where academics can raise ideas freely as a means of fostering discourse, engendering debate and enriching the community. But in Australia, many of our universities are full of academics that lack intellectual rigour and creativity, which is why most Australian universities barely come onto the radar screen in terms of international impact.

In a piece published in the Canberra Times on June 29 this year (“It's academic, really first, clean out the ordure”), I commented that it is wrong to accept this culture of mediocrity in some universities as being the result of cute eccentricity among academics. I argued that:

A number of academics are not eccentrics but rather bullshitters. Now, I am not getting crass on you - the study of bullshit has emerged as part of mainstream philosophy and should be taken seriously. Just recently, Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt released a small book titled, 'On Bullshit' (2005, Princeton University Press), which has sold truckloads of copies worldwide.

According to Frankfurt, the difference between a bullshitter and a liar is that the bullshitter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all". Frankfurt argues that because of this "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are".

Due to the way in which many universities have traditionally operated, bullshit is rife. A number of academics do not operate in the "reality-based community" because at many universities there is little in the way of meaningful monitoring of how they spend their time. As time goes by once smart, capable intellectuals sadly become bullshitters. This is an issue, as not only is bullshit useless, but it spreads - capturing in its wake generation after generation of young up-and-comers.

The solution, in my view, is a colonic irrigation of our universities. The bullshit must be flushed out, enabling universities to function properly by providing the higher education "true believers" with a clear opportunity to do their job.


In relation to the public debate concerning Fraser’s statements, Macquarie University issued a press release on July 21 proclaiming that academic freedom is an important right, but that academics should ensure their comments relate to their “individual expertise and the specialised area of their appointment”. In the same press release, it was also noted that “any form of discrimination, harassment, or victimisation is totally unacceptable and has no place in our society”. What can be implied from this is that Fraser’s statements took on these characteristics, and related to matters outside his own expertise.

The condemnation of Fraser’s comments by Macquarie simply because they are not politically correct is a serious problem. Did the doyens at Macquarie University actually take the time to consider whether Fraser might be right? Did they test samples of sub-Saharan African testosterone, carry out IQ tests, or consult experts in the United States on that country’s history, before issuing the July 21 press release, or before deciding to buy out Fraser’s contact?

Is a university actually in a position to say that Australia will not experience an Asian managerial-professional ruling class, and what are the implications of this? All the press release can confirm is that in 2004, 31 per cent of Macquarie University students were international students. I praise my lucky stars that I work at a progressive and enlightened institution like Deakin University (where, as Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Walker confirmed in a media release on May 18 this year, there is a “commitment to … academic freedom”, in order to provide “leadership to the wider community … encouraging rather than fearing debate”), which has in terms of research output and impact - probably the most productive and influential law school in Australia.

While I wish to make clear that I do not agree with Fraser’s comments, he has the right to express these views, enabling others to determine their accuracy. That is, there should be an informed debate about what Fraser has put forward, rather than immediate condemnation of his views. Macquarie University in its press release provided no assistance in this respect. To repeat what I said in my earlier opinion piece, “We should take the time to truly understand [what intellectuals] put forward, rather than resort to immediate condemnation. Once we understand their views, we are, of course, free to disagree”. Fraser’s comments may lead to him being ridiculed, and that should be the sanction for his views, rather than censorship of them.

The whole Fraser imbroglio, overall, highlights one thing, that commentators are right in saying that in many universities today the promotion of ideas is playing “second fiddle” to the provision of services. Only at Macquarie University, they are also in the business of creating martyrs.

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The views expressed in this article are his personal views, and do not represent the views of Deakin University.

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About the Author

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

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On Line Opinion - The role of academics in a time of troubles

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