Universities are publicly funded social institutions and it is important that academics contribute to significant public debates. But the higher education sector cannot expect academic public commentary to be the intellectual-but-innocuous wing of their public relations campaigns. Speaking beyond disciplinary peers to broader publics is a necessary - and necessarily risky - business.
Academics are actively encouraged by their employers to “get out there” in the public domain - disseminate research, engage their communities, and influence policy formation and public debates. Managing associations between the university and its various publics is imperative, including attending to financially favourable relationships with private companies and government organisations.
Media exposure makes good business sense, as well as being broadly compatible with the newer forms of academic outreach calling for greater community engagement. But it is also an unpredictable process, with outcomes very difficult to script.
Academics as public commentators might challenge orthodoxies, court controversy, and offend certain sensibilities.
Some academics find themselves misrepresented, misquoted or induced to say inflammatory things. Even those who are more media savvy and aware of the traps in going public can still become embroiled in media scandals demanding institutional damage limitation.
Universities - and not only in Australia given the global market for higher education - are highly responsive to “brand damage”, and its dire consequences for international esteem and market position.
Governing what academics say outside the academy has emerged as a key area of risk management. Accordingly, Australian universities have adopted increasingly prescriptive policies on academic public comment over the last few years.
The convention that academics should only speak in their area of scholarly specialisation, or on behalf of the university when explicitly licensed to do so, is well established.
But greater concern about corporate profile has meant that universities are now acutely sensitive to the association between the organisation itself and the public comments of its academics.
Since 2002, many Australian universities have introduced or updated policies and procedures for managing academic-media engagement. We found, after conducting an extensive survey, that 10 out of 38 universities currently employ robust media policies. A majority has bolstered their public comment and/or academic freedom provisions with a view to placing boundaries around the subjects that academics are allowed to discuss in public.
Keen to manage their media profile, many universities prohibit any activity or commentary that, in the terminology of their media policies, “de-position” them - that is, threaten to reduce their standing in the formal and informal rankings that obsess the producers and consumers of 21st century education.
Academics, like sportspeople, can also be charged with bringing the game (education) and club (university) into “disrepute” with key constituencies, including joint-venture partners and local politicians.
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About the Authors
Dr David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA is Emeritus Professor of Cultural
Research, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, University of
Bath; and Research Associate, SOAS University of London.
Kylie Brass is a research officer currently working on a project with Professor David Rowe examining strategies adopted by universities to manage public academic interventions. She completed her PhD, Going Public: Pedagogy Beyond the Academy, in the School of English, Art History, Film and Media at the University of Sydney in 2006. Her research interests include academic culture, public intellectualism, pedagogy, media policy, and contemporary American literary culture. She co-edited the book Anatomies of Violence (RIHSS: The University of Sydney, 2000).