Praise the brand and pass the gag

David Rowe and Kylie Brass

Published in The Australian, 18 June 2008 , p. 28

UNIVERSITIES are publicly funded social institutions and it is important that academics contribute to significant public debates. But the higher education sector cannot expect academic public commentary to be the intellectual but innocuous wing of their public relations campaigns.

Speaking beyond disciplinary peers to broader publics is a necessary -- and necessarily risky -- business. Academics are actively encouraged by their employers to "get out there" in the public domain, disseminate research, engage their communities, and influence policy formation and public debates.

Media exposure makes good business sense, as well as being broadly compatible with the newer forms of academic outreach calling for greater community engagement. But it is also an unpredictable process, with outcomes very difficult to script.

Academics as public commentators might challenge orthodoxies, court controversy and offend certain sensibilities.

Some academics find themselves misrepresented, misquoted or induced to say inflammatory things.

Even those who are more media savvy and aware of the traps in going public can still become embroiled in media scandals demanding institutional damage limitation.

Universities, and not only in Australia -- given the global market for higher education -- are highly responsive to "brand damage" and its dire consequences for international esteem and market position.

Accordingly, Australian universities have adopted increasingly prescriptive policies on academic public comment during the past few years. The convention that academics should speak only in their area of scholarly specialisation, or on behalf of the university when explicitly licensed to do so, is well established.

But greater concern about corporate profile has meant that universities are acutely sensitive to the association between the organisation itself and the public comments of its academics.

Since 2002, many Australian universities have introduced or updated policies and procedures for managing academic-media engagement.

We found, after conducting an extensive survey, that 10 out of 38 universities at present employ robust media policies.

A majority has bolstered their public comment and-or academic freedom provisions with a view to placing boundaries around the subjects that academics are allowed to discuss in public.

Keen to manage their media profile, many universities prohibit any activity or commentary that, in the terminology of their media policies, "de-position" them; that is, threaten to reduce their standing in the formal and informal rankings that obsess the producers and consumers of 21st century education.

Academics, like sportspeople, can also be charged with bringing the game (education) and club (university) into disrepute with key constituencies.

For example, the University of Tasmania's media policy cautions that it is hard work to keep up a flow of positive stories in "a media saturated community" that "divides very quickly on parochial lines".

In a small island with only one university, its "position and reputation can be very quickly undermined by presenting an unco-ordinated and undisciplined image to the community".

Macquarie University expects staff to weigh their competing allegiances to their profession, university and to "the community at large". As these are not always in harmony, staff must "weigh the importance of these allegiances in each particular set of circumstances". Above all, academics should not engage "with the media in any activity or comment which is designed to bring the university into disrepute".

At the University of Western Sydney, academic experts are described as "valuable media properties" and the university has "rights in the way in which they represent themselves and their opinion". Where their views "may be controversial or cause offence to some stakeholder groups", academics must check with the director of media and communication whether they can use their university designation.

The more punitive aspects of university media policy -- sometimes seemingly made on the run -- are especially visible during scandals or controversies.

The universities of Queensland and Melbourne don't have new generation media policies in place, but that hasn't stopped them from recently acting to discourage and smooth over criticisms of organisations with which they have lucrative dealings.

At Queensland, lecturer and GP Andrew Gunn was initially asked to apologise to a pharmaceutical manufacturer for raising perfectly legitimate questions about the marketing of the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil. The university later conceded it had overreacted and retracted its demand for an apology.

At Melbourne, former lawyer, public transport activist and urban planning academic Paul Mees was initially threatened with demotion for outspoken public comments that offended the state Government, before he moved to another university. Both Gunn and Mees were speaking out on matters that obviously fall within their respective areas of expertise. But in these cases being a subject expert afforded little protection.

That Mees's comments were potentially actionable partially explains his university's actions, but its pre-emptive move is symptomatic of the damage limitation reflex whenever extra-mural relations are involved.

Scandal caused by public academic commentary tends to stimulate more media policy activity, as occurred in 2005 following Macquarie University's (then) associate professor Andrew Fraser's race-based criticisms of African refugee migrants to Australia.

Queensland University of Technology also moved against John Hookham and Garry McLennan in 2007 following an opinion piece in the HES in which they severely criticised a PhD project within their faculty about disability.

In both the Macquarie and QUT instances, disciplinary proceedings and dispute settlements, with their legal implications, placed limits on what could be said in the media. Although there are obvious differences in these cases -- Fraser, in particular, has been condemned by several fellow academics -- they all display the volatility of university-media relations.

Ironically, in the Mees and Gunn cases the universities sabotaged their own reputations by taking heavy-handed actions against the academics that they encourage to speak widely, and by seeking to stifle public debate.

Innovation Minister Kim Carr's comments earlier this year that researchers "must be -- and must be allowed to be -- active participants in (public) debates" have deeper resonance in the light of such events.

But they had better read their employers' latest media and public comment policies first.

David Rowe and Kylie Brass are with the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney.

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