Academic freedom is defined in s161 of the Education Act as “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. Without an unwavering commitment to this principle, universities are unable to perform their role as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society, which the Act also requires of them. But in recent years we have seen attempts by university administrators to limit this cardinal rule in response to the purported need to protect students from ideas that risk causing ‘harm’; an undefined, ambiguous notion that may often be reduced to fear of having one’s worldview challenged.
This limitation on academic freedom is informed by the notion that universities should be a ‘safe space’ for students, particularly those hailing from marginalised communities. But trying to create a safe space for feelings inevitably costs the ability of universities to play host to a safe space for ideas.
Massey University's academic freedom policy, for example, revised after the Brash affair in 2018, pays lip service to the sanctity of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Yet it claims that these freedoms might properly be restricted by the University in order to “safeguard the safety, health and welfare of its students”. Previously, attempts to suppress the exercise of fundamental freedoms required more than vague pronouncements that a person is made unsafe, or has their well-being threatened, by the fact that somebody is discussing ideas they don’t like (perish the thought).
As public institutions, universities have an obligation to uphold freedom of expression with the usual justified limits imposed by s5 of the Bill of Rights Act. Indeed, the only constraint envisioned by the legislation is that academic freedom must be exercised within the ‘bounds of the law’. But according to Massey’s proctor Giselle Byrnes, Massey’s ‘policy supports and validates academic freedom while emphasising that with this freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that others are neither harmed nor hurt in the exercise of this privilege.”
This is not some difficult balancing act. It is an irreconcilable contradiction — either academic freedom is a right to be exercised within the bounds of the law, or it is a privilege to be exercised with regard to the feelings of others — it cannot be both. And if it is the latter, it is difficult to see how our public institutions of higher learning can function if anyone who may find the confrontation of a debate stressful holds a veto power over them taking place.
It is a fact of life that asking questions runs the serious risk of offending others, and it is absolutely advisable that academics exercise their freedoms in accordance with the highest standards of not only ethics and professionalism, but simply manners and decency. But, to cite Professor Clark Kerr of the University of California, “The purpose of the university is to make students safe for ideas – not ideas safe for students”. While universities must be cognisant of their pastoral duties, they must also remain places where the space to think freely, to state controversial ideas, and to challenge orthodoxies is vigorously protected.
What might be deduced from Massey’s policy specifically, and the troubling culture embraced in each of our universities generally, is that pastoral care has taken over from the academic and discursive role of universities. To place the potential for hurt feelings over academic freedom flies in the face of the whole purpose of a university; not for fragile minds to be coddled, but for robust thinking to be tested. In light of that, are universities now more akin to young-adult daycare centres than training institutions for tomorrow’s innovators and leaders? For surely it is only children who would need such patronising ‘protection’.