The decision means the University’s current Charter of Academic Freedom will be amended and renamed the Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, with a set of Principles for the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom attached to the revised Charter, from January 2020.
Over time, relevant University policies will also be reviewed and amended to ensure consistency with the terms of the amended Charter and the Principles as adopted.
Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence welcomed the Senate’s decision, saying it represented a major achievement for the University.
“My hope is that this Charter will provide excellent guidance for the University community and decision-makers for decades to come and will serve us well as we continue to deliver on our public-good mission for the benefit of the people of NSW and beyond,” Dr Spence said.
It explicitly recognises the right to protest and the right of all staff – not just academic staff – to criticise the University within the limits of the enterprise bargaining agreement and employment contracts. It also includes an acknowledgement of the ancient learning cultures and traditions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on whose ancestral lands the University sits.
The recommendations and revised Charter were developed in response to an independent review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers, commissioned by the federal government and conducted by former High Court Chief Justice the Hon Robert French AC.
A key recommendation of Mr French’s report was that all registered Australian higher education providers should voluntarily adopt a Model Code for the Protection of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in Australian Higher Education Providers developed as part of the report.
Dr Spence welcomed the French review and established a University French Review Model Code Implementation Group to prepare recommendations on how to implement the Code most effectively to further strengthen the University’s already robust framework promoting and protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom on its campuses and facilities.
The Implementation Group’s report and recommendations were released to the University community in October. They have since been endorsed by the executive and key governance committees, including the Academic Board last month with just minor amendments, and by the Senate yesterday afternoon.
Dr Spence explained that one of the amendments made by the Academic Board was to include the word ‘courage’ in the Charter.
“This change recognises that as an institution and a community we greatly value courage, civility and respect and seek to promote a climate where people disagree well,” Dr Spence said.
“The term ‘disagreeing well’ was also added to the 2008 Charter on recommendation of the Implementation Group.
These four principles – courage, civility, respect and disagreeing well – I think go to the essence of what the University of Sydney should stand, and stand up, for.
Mr French described the University of Sydney’s efforts as “careful, thoughtful and thorough”, representing “one useful model that may assist other universities and the result is entirely consistent with my hope that the Code would provide a non-prescriptive basis for reform in this difficult area”.
Dr Spence again thanked Mr French for the considered way he approached his task, “and for his support of our efforts to engage with the proposed Model Code”.
“I also thank the University community – in particular the members of the Implementation Group – for their considered work and this successful outcome that reaffirms our role as a place of debate and discussion, and in the art of disagreeing well,” Dr Spence said.