University defends academic freedom

10 January 2014

Several University of Sydney academics have attracted criticism in recent months for views they hold with respect to the political situation in the Middle East. Associate Professor Jake Lynch and others at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies have actively promoted a boycott of academics in Israeli universities (under the banner of the BDS - Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions - movement), while Dr Tim Anderson has defended the Assad regime in Syria.

Some have argued that the University's failure to discipline these academics undermines the reputation of the University and even threatens the reputation of Australian higher education more generally. Such criticisms fail to understand the nature of universities, or the fact that the recommended punishment would do far more damage to Australia's reputation as a robust and open democracy than anything uttered by Associate Professor Lynch or Dr Anderson.

First, let us be very clear. The University of Sydney does not endorse the views of either Associate Professor Lynch or Dr Anderson. Individual academics at this and other universities may agree with them but many other academics do not. Moreover, the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, has explicitly dissociated the University from the BDS movement. The Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Duncan Ivison, likewise took issue with the stance of Associate Professor Lynch, and other academics in that faculty have happily invited the Israeli academic snubbed by Associate Professor Lynch to visit the University. The University has also recently signed a research collaboration agreement with Technion University in Israel, much to the consternation of Associate Professor Lynch and other members of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Similarly the University does not endorse the views of Dr Anderson. He received no funds from the University for his visit, nor did the University approve leave for him to meet with Assad. He funded his visit through other means and the meeting was conducted during a period of annual leave, and as a consequence he was not required to seek approval for his visit. Australians on holiday can go anywhere they wish.

It is vital to state here that universities do not and should not "endorse" the views of any particular academic. The mandate of universities in modern democracies is to provide an environment for the development of ideas, rigorous experimentation, the testing of hypotheses, and critical analysis of existing knowledge. Universities are here to encourage open and rigorous discussions designed to advance knowledge - not rubber stamp some ideas as good and others as bad based on the personal views we may hold.

This is not the first time, nor probably the last, when academics at the University of Sydney have expressed unpopular opinions. In 1899 George Arnold Wood was roundly condemned in Parliament and the press for his public opposition to the Boer War, which he deemed "morally wrong". Under pressure, the University Senate debated whether to stop Wood from speaking. In the end Wood survived. Australia's future (and first) Prime Minister Edmund Barton was an active participant in this debate and his opinion is still relevant today. Barton argued that while he "positively detests Mr Wood's opinions…has he not also the right of free speech?" There are many in the University who will find the views of Associate Professor Lynch and Dr Anderson naïve, even wrong-headed, but free and open debate demands that we defend their right to hold such views. Australia is a vibrant democracy, a value that we cherish and should defend, no matter how strenuous the challenge to our levels of tolerance. If we did not, then students and academics in Australia and around the world would rightly shun our University because it would clearly not be committed to the cardinal principle of free and open enquiry.

Professor Stephen Garton is Provost and Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

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