New Zealand academics fear freedom of speech is in peril

Dr Melissa Derby

Dr Melissa Derby

Wellington, May 26, 2023

The Second Academic Freedom Report released by the Free Speech Union is a chilling read for those of us who work in universities. 

It uses a phrase we hear often: Universities are the “critics and conscience of society.”

In New Zealand, that (dare I say it) privilege is enshrined in section 161(2) of our Education Act.

We are told that academic staff and students have the right “to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.”

We also often hear that with rights come responsibilities. Universities, it is argued, have a responsibility to society to inquire and explore and question and challenge perceived orthodoxies with a view to bettering society.

Freedom to Judge

This is true, even if it means passing judgment on society. Indeed, it simply has to mean the freedom to pass judgment on society. What is to become of universities, then, if one of their core functions, even the very reason for their existence, is dying a slow but alarmingly real death right before our eyes?

Does it matter that academic freedom, a special type of free speech that allows universities to operate in the way they need to, is no longer free, or for some, comes at such a high price? Should we care about the increasing and often brutal pressure to toe ‘the party line’ when it comes to a growing number of topics (and we all know what those topics are – cue a wary glance over the shoulder at the mere mention of them)?

I imagine that many view universities as ivory towers where a bunch of over-privileged, somewhat eccentric, tweed jacketed with elbow patch-wearing, mug-clutching, champagne socialist-type lefties pontificate amongst themselves about Rousseau and decolonisation; each trying to outdo the others with the number of ology words with which they can infuse their water cooler lectures.

Impacting the world

In other words, universities have no real connection whatsoever to the real world, right? Wrong. What happens in universities does not stay in universities.

Rather, research conducted at universities seeps out into the real world, influencing policies and practices in a range of areas that impact every one of us, like education, health, justice, and the economy to name but a few.

If the research academics are inflicting on society has not been conducted in an environment built on academic freedom, the claims made in the research could have a disastrous effect on society.

That is why the Free Speech Union’s work on academic freedom is so important and why the results of their survey are so troubling.

With the flow-on effects across society, academics simply have to be free to inquire, explore, question and challenge in all areas of teaching and research.

This is the only way that what is put forward as truth has at least been through some sort of pre-release check. For this to happen, facts have to take precedence over feelings once again, and academics have to be comfortable with confronting uncomfortable truths.

In addition, the focus of academics needs to be on the pursuit of truth through research that allows orthodoxies to be challenged, not on how many pre-approved minority groups are in a research team.

I, for one, could not care less what skin colour or sexual orientation the person who discovers a cure for cancer is – I just want it discovered!

And for this to happen, the almost singular obsession with diversity quotas (something that is surely akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic) needs to stop and engaging our best and brightest, whomever they may be, ought to be the top priority.

The spirit of inquiry inherent in universities has led to some of the most monumental discoveries in human history – discoveries that have brought about a civilisation that the gods of Olympus could only dream of. We are putting all of it in jeopardy by curbing academic freedom. And this is something we should all care about.

Dr Melissa Derby is a Member of the Wellington-based Free Speech Union Council. She works as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato.

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