Should Universities be Supporting the Voice to Parliament?

The answer is, it seems to me, that they should not.

I support the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Voice to Parliament. Not strongly, not from having thought much about it, and not without a couple of niggles. But I support it. Why? The short answer is, Noel Pearson.

Noel Pearson passionately supports the Voice, and I trust Noel Pearson, generally, and I trust that Pearson has thought hard about the Voice. That trust is not unchallengeable, but the burden of proof is on the challengers, on those arguing for a “no” vote. And, the No campaigners have so far failed dismally in this, have provided no significant arguments whatsoever. Moreover, the prominent No guys, many of whom have a proud history of being arrogant and divisive and wrong, have been, on the Voice, nasty and vacuous and deceitful and whiny. When Chris Kenny calls out your sleazy, conservative victimhooding, you’re pretty much cooked.

But the question is not whether I support the Voice, or what others should make of the arguments, or of the people making these arguments. The question is what stance universities should take? It is pretty clear, at least to me, that a university, including also its individual leaders, should take no stance whatsoever, that they have a professional and ethical obligation to stay out of it.

In America, which has become increasingly polarised and increasingly censorious, the role of universities has been a subject of significant debate, some of which has focussed on the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report (embedded, below). Written in 1967, amidst the turmoil of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, and with memories of McCarthy era loyalty oaths still vivid, the Report was, and still is, intended to clarify “the University’s Role in Political and Social Action”. The committee that issued the Report was chaired by Harry Kalven Jr., a celebrated First Amendment scholar, and successful defender of Lenny Bruce.

The Kalven Report makes it clear that a properly functioning university should be a source of annoyance:

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. … By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

The Report then makes clear, however, that it is the individual academics and students who should be issuing these challenges to society, not the university as a whole:

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. 

For the university to act as the critic would be to stifle the very academic criticism that it is obligated to encourage:

There is no mechanism by which [the university] can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. 

The Report is, for me and others, compelling. Not everyone agrees, of course, but the critiques I’ve read seem to me self-evidently weak, simply ignoring the point. Other discussions of the Kalven Report are more thoughtful, considering tricky questions of how the principle outlined in the Report might be implemented in practice. The Report itself notes that political and social issues can arise that “threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry”, in which case it is “the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values”. It is clear, however, that the Report regards it as a high bar for a university to be permitted and obligated to act in such a manner. 

If such principles have been given any proper weight in Australia, I have not witnessed it. In particular, and to return the central topic of this post, a number of universities have seen fit to endorse the Voice to Parliament. True, other universities have refrained, but not, seemingly, on the basis of a clear statement of principle.

Monash University has issued a somewhat muddy declaration of support for the Voice. This was significantly unmuddied by a recent forum in the Monash Speaker Series: the forum, which ostensibly was to “consider responses to the referendum question”, featured four invited participants, all of whom appear to be strongly supportive of the Voice.

The University of Melbourne has acted similarly, but a little better and significantly worse. The University Council and Executive has issued a clear statement of support for the Voice. Interestingly, however, the statement includes explicit support for free debate on the matter:

Freedom of enquiry and the free expression of ideas are fundamental to the mission of the University of Melbourne. All members of our community are entitled to engage in robust, evidence-based and respectful expression of their views and the University provides a safe place for expressing differing opinions. The University will continue to contribute to the referendum process by actively facilitating informed public debate. Not everyone will vote ‘yes’ and we fully respect that.

This declaration of respect may be sincere, but does it suffice? Probably not anyway, and probably not given that the “Freedom of enquiry” paragraph is immediately followed by a “Notwithstanding this” affirmation of Council support for the voice. Moreover, the free enquiry message is somewhat undermined by the University’s repeated willingness to throw its academics under a bus.

The University of Melbourne’s free enquiry message was further undermined by the University’s Academic Board, which issued its own statement of support for the Voice. In doing so, the Board declared,

The membership of the Board is designed to reflect the voice of the University’s scholarly community …

Maybe the Board is so designed, but the idea that the Board could affirm the Voice to Parliament as “the voice of the University’s scholarly community” is astonishingly arrogant, self-evidently absurd, and not a little ironic. The Board’s action has made crystal clear the purpose and importance of the Kalven Report.

The Kalven Report states explicitly that a university’s role is “for the long term”, and the Report closes with a call, a plea, for a university to not sell itself cheap:

Our basic conviction is that a great university can perform greatly for the betterment of society. It should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a secondrate political force or influence.

No one in Australian academic leadership appears to have heard the call.


2 Replies to “Should Universities be Supporting the Voice to Parliament?”

  1. The Kalvern Report! Something like it should tightly bind universities in my view.

    I can hear management’s answer now: But how much money will we make right now from “academic freedom” and “free inquiry”?!?

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