Gagging academics - death of the university? An open letter to the Council of La Trobe University

This open letter was widely disseminated and published by The Australian Humanist (Summer, 1999, 11-12), Tirra Lirra (Spring, 4-5, 1999), on the Web by the Association for the Public University (APU) (1999) and by The Beacon (February, 2000).

In 1998 the administration of La Trobe University issued a 9 page Draft Code of Conduct that potentially constrained academic freedom in various ways and which was met with "deep alarm" from the core Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and deep concern from many other academics. It is extraordinary that despite considerable intramural and public concern, the Academic Board (a huge body substantially incorporating the professorial academic leadership of La Trobe University) failed to act on the matter, although negative responses were received from the Faculties. Recently the Council of La Trobe University approved a new 2 page Draft Code of Conduct that retains major potential constraints on academic freedom and have called for academic comments before final consideration in several weeks time.

The new proposed Code of Conduct is a potential constraint on academic inquiry and free speech in various ways:

1. by attempting to formally constrain academic public comment (and hence implicitly scholarly inquiry) to "areas of specialist knowledge and expertise";

2. by formally prohibiting public comment "which might prejudice consideration of organisational or institutional matters by appropriate bodies or officers of the University";

3. by inhibiting public comment in general if it could be "interpreted" to "represent" or "purport" to represent "official" views (whatever "official" might mean);

4. by not revealing the nature of the academic, or indeed non-academic, censors who will seek out, examine and punish forbidden comment or research;

5. by further inhibiting public comment that, by being potentially deemed to be a breach, potentially results in the act of public comment violating other major clauses of the Code of Conduct such as those relating to "personal and professional behaviour", "harassment and discrimination", "improper use of information", "use of resources", "conflict of interest", "gifts", "outside consultancy and employment", "private interests" and "harm to others in their place of work";

6. by setting up a punitive mechanism involving "counselling" in accordance with "usual performance management procedures" and thence a process whereby "significant breaches" will be treated as "misconduct or serious misconduct on the part of the individual member of staff";

7. and finally, and most seriously, by potentially compromising the fundamental essence of scholarly and academic collegiate life so important for our free society, namely untrammeled commitment to truth, reason and free speech in an unencumbered environment of courtesy, encouragement and facilitation.

A simple exercise of the imagination can provide you with any number of realistic scenarios relating to the above potential intrusions on our intellectual life.

Thus item (1) could conceivably prevent or inhibit exciting multidisciplinary initiatives or indeed the creation of new disciplines. Thus it could potentially prevent biological scientists from multidisciplinary research and public comment on the primary global problem of biological sustainability if this were deemed to be the province of political scientists, economists and sociologists.

Item (2) could prevent a scientist from making informed, socially responsible public comment on massive environmental violations if such comment could be deemed to conflict with a public (or indeed secret, commercial-in-confidence) corporate-university research or development agreement. 

The previous Draft Code of Conduct had key clauses relating to the need of staff to "maintain and enhance the reputation of the University" and not to do things which "bring the University into disrepute". To the extent that the previous Draft Code of Conduct was perceived to be potentially inhibiting traditionally unencumbered academic free speech, it could be also perceived as violating its own clauses relating to university reputation. The New Draft Code of Conduct can be analyzed in a similar way and shown to be potentially violating many of its own admonitions as well as potentially harming the reputation of the University.

In the opinion of many academics, any proposed or enacted punitive university rules that threaten or inhibit academic freedom of inquiry and free speech will prevent academics from doing their jobs properly, soil their lives, damage the reputation of the university and diminish a free society. Even our primordial forebears would have rejected a rule that prevented them from gathering berries in a new valley. These inexplicit, threatening rules will potentially turn La Trobe into its reverse, an "ebortal" institution - literally one in which the cutting edge has been blunted or ripped out. 

As public health services and schools are being progressively corporate-linked or privatised, health and education professionals are being prohibited from public comment and "commercial-in-confidence" corporate-public sector deals can even prevent Parliamentary scrutiny. The insistent pressure for constraints on academic freedom throughout Australia may not be unconnected with similar corporate-university trends and arrangements. 

Thus while the proposed Code of Conduct could prohibit or discourage me from socially responsible but multidisciplinary research and publication on the primary global problem of biological sustainability, a "no competition" clause in a current university-corporate agreement to which I am neither privy nor a signatory may conceivably constrain me from research and public comment within the narrowest confines of my scientific speciality. 

Recently the paucity of public comment by academics has prompted a concerned analysis by Barry Jones ("Exit the public intellectual", The Age, 25/5/99) and a climate of increasing attempted constraints on academic freedom has led to an exposé on academic freedom constraints by ABC Radio National Background Briefing (6/12/98), the formation of the Association for the Public University (Melbourne, June 1999) and incisive public comment by La Trobe’s Robert Manne ("The death of the uni", The Age, 21/6/99). The palpable reality in my perception is that academics (typically circumspect in the best of times for sensible professional reasons) are now already highly intimidated, a process exacerbated by a plethora of pliant academics described cogently by Professor Miles Lewis of Melbourne University as "spineless toadies" (The Age, January 1999). 

It is a major disgrace that academics, so well placed for informed, rational and disinterested public comment, are so effectively muzzled in an ostensibly free and "open" society. Indeed the situation in our universities in relation to effective academic freedom, research, equal opportunity, transparency and appropriate expenditure of huge public funds is so bad as to require a Royal Commission or a Senate Inquiry. 

Academics are so badly intimidated that further formal constraints are surely not needed - indeed the muzzling of Australian academics needs to be emphatically reversed. Any formal constraint on academic freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech must be resolutely opposed because it violates not only the basic scholarly ethos but also a fundamental human right and a socially highly constructive process. Such proposed potential constraints coming from universities surely give a counterproductive message to the large body of tertiary students from "human rights-challenged" societies to our north and to our "own" young people.

24 centuries ago, Socrates (circa 470 B.C - 399 B.C.) was compelled to drink hemlock for his expression of thoughts that have helped form a cornerstone for human civilization. Towards the end of this millennium La Trobe/Ebortal is contemplating disposal of half of its distinguished Philosophy Department and proposing radical, formal, potential constraints on academic inquiry and free speech.

Academics, and indeed people in general, who are committed to an ethos of free inquiry and free speech and yet are already highly constrained in this by the laws and practices of this ostensibly "free" society have to decide whether they are content, like the metaphorical frog, to be slowly brought to the boil or are prepared to vigorously and publicly resist any further constraints on this fundamental human right.

This submission is "open" in order to promote immediate debate in view of the very disappointing intramural and extramural discussion, the seriousness of the matter and the pending enactment of a Code of Conduct in a matter of weeks. This has been written in the public interest. 


Dr Gideon Polya, Reader/Associate Professor of Biochemistry, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria 3083 [tel: 03 9479 2157; fax: 03 9479 2467]


Home: 29 Dwyer Street, Macleod, Victoria 3085 [tel: 03 9459 3649]

19th August 1999

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