ACADEMIC CENSORSHIP: Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities

Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities


Gideon Polya


Gideon Polya, “Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities”, Free University Education: .

The core academic ethos involves commitment to truth, reason and free speech and these elements are operationally intimately intertwined in the concept of academic freedom.


Academic freedom is critical for scholarly interaction, application of the scientific method and dissemination of findings to academic scholars, professionals and the lay public.


In a wider social context academic freedom enables informed, critical positive and negative feedback within organizations and society as a whole.


Academic freedom is presently under attack in Australia and paradoxically this constraint is coming from within our universities.


This situation must be urgently reversed.


I will now attempt to deal systematically with these constraints on academic free speech in Australian universities.


Constraints on “Normal” Scholarly Inquiry and Expression.


The normal scholarly process successively involves research, discovery, submission of manuscripts, editorial and referee-based reviewing, revision and final publication. This process has variations as with conference presentations, electronic publication and use of other media for transmission of ideas. However this process is under great threat at the moment in Australia – and I make this statement as a highly committed academic scientist who has published over 120 works, had nearly 30 years of continuous research funding and who currently works 7 days a week in the workplace. The major types of constraint on research and publication include the following:


Pure research funding from within institutions is negligible for little academics although lavish for big academics with large extramural support. This quid pro quo top-up support is often written into big corporation-university research deals and, in general, has been described as the “Matthew Effect” in science i.e. “to him who hath, so shall he receive”.


Extramural pure research funding is very difficult to obtain. Thus the annual Australian Research Council allocation for Large “Discovery” projects is about $100 million per year – about $3000 dollars for every academic in the country and a national disgrace. Fewer than 10% of academics apply for Large ARC grants and of these only about 20% are successful. If every academic prepared a Large ARC grant proposal, the cost of preparation would be commensurate with the research funds available.


Applied research funding carries peculiar limitations including explicit, contractual, legally-defined constraints on publication, timely publication, conference presentation, in-house communication and the taking of lateral research directions. These constraints can be particularly disadvantageous for graduate students.


The nature of the research undertaken can be heavily constrained by corporation-institution legal agreements that prohibit “competing research” by academics who can be neither privy nor signatories to such agreements; by Codes of Conduct that strongly oppose interdisciplinary and novel approaches outside the narrow, conventional confines of an academic’s  discipline; and by available infrastructure, human resources and time.


The time available for research is increasingly limited by human and physical resources and discriminatory access to such resources; bureaucratic involvement imperatives; student/staff ratios; and by bullying and heavy handed managerialism that can dramatically increase teaching and administrative workloads and the time spent by victims attempting to defend themselves from aggressive management.


Having made the intellectual advance the academic faces problems of dissemination. Funding limitations on national and international travel and conference attendance limit that venue as well as decreasing the “networking” that can affect acceptability, funding and publication. It is getting much harder to publish, especially in top journals but correspondingly there is an appallingly misplaced, aggressive and utterly stupid managerial emphasis on “quantity and quality” for ostensible “quantitative accountability” purposes.


“Legal” copyright theft or attempted theft by institutions is a mounting problem, especially in relation to patents, journal publications, electronic publication and conventional and electronic publication of lecture and teaching material. Academic managers are now making explicit noises about their “rights” in relation to academic books.


If the above were not bad enough, there are emerging university occurrences that undermine the whole process e.g. interception of mail; Website censorship; misconduct threats; and e-mail disconnection. One is reminded of Edward Lear’s recipe for an Amblongus Pie in which the final step was to “throw the whole lot out of the window as fast as possible”.


Constraints on Scholarly Free Speech and Inquiry that are “Self-Imposed” Responses to External Pressures.


Academic research-based companies and academics with corporate links face acute insider trading conflicts of interest. Such academics may well be reluctant to disseminate results that might depress linked share values, especially when they have a substantial stake themselves. Such arrangements have been highly circumscribed by bodies such as the Howard Hughes Institutes and Harvard University in the US. However Australian universities have a soft approach to such matters.


At a more sophisticated level, the very nature of research can be distorted by corporate funding sources. Thus finding a patentable equivalent of aspirin with inferior properties is not particularly useful from a scientific viewpoint but may be hugely rewarding financially. Further, such financial considerations may well influence medical training and professional attitudes. Indeed one gets the distinct impression in general in our universities it is the magnitude of the research funding per se that is most important.


Distinct pressures prevent academics from making “dissenting” public comments in their disciplinary areas. Thus scientists have a well-founded horror of being labelled as anti-technology “luddites” e.g. biologists are very reluctant to comment negatively on current controversial applications of biotechnology.


Presently endemic academic self-censorship also arises from overwork; diminished self-esteem; conservatism; unwillingness to be seen as “controversial” or “different”; job insecurity within a financially straightened, discriminatory, stressful and downsizing system; from intimidatory abuses; and from observation of bad treatment of vocal academics.


Some astonishing examples of academic self-censorship can be given that impact on general societal perceptions.  Question: what man-made event killed almost as many people as died in the Jewish Holocaust, occurred at the same time and was responsible for 90% of the total British Empire casualties of World War Two? Answer: the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943-44 that killed some 4 million people - but which has been almost completely removed from general public perception.


University Constraints on General Intramural and Public Comments by Academics.


Academics have a threefold task - to teach, research and make informed public comment. The university managers are dollar-driven - they basically want to maximize teaching to fee-paying student “clients” and maximize “research funding income”. However they have a well-justified fear of academic public comment and the impact this might have on income. While the coalition victors in the recent election were xenophobes, the Labor losers pretended xenophobia out of palpable demophobia (or fear of the people). The university managers in this parlance are mercenary xenophiles and obsessive demophobes. Thus there are anecdotal reports of “marking up” of overseas students and reprimand for being “too tough” on such students. There have also been astonishing managerial denial and “shoot the messenger” responses to public reportage of such matters.  


Universities variously constrain academic public comment by a variety of statutory means including Codes of Conduct that prohibit comment on university processes, comment outside narrow disciplinary confines and comments that might conceivably bring the institute into disrepute, trigger its legal liability or constitute unbecoming behaviour. In one university Council members are constrained from adopting positions seen to be connected with their having sectional interests (e.g. as academic representatives!)


A variety of unofficial, “middle management” mechanisms can also be used to deal with the dissident academic including: discriminatory treatment; isolation through sustained public and private sledging; dressing down in private; complaint to higher authority; secret denigratory files; secret denigratory staff meetings; secret denigratory letters; public humiliation in front of colleagues; continual interference with teaching; withholding of any research support; and explicit public criticism and slagging for the simple expressions of circumspect opinion.


What actually happens at the coal-face exceeds implausible satire. I have recorded a thousand such academic “true stories” that await the light of day.  Thus an academic Dr A was subjected to sustained abuse by a superior at a lengthy staff meeting for expression of circumspect, non-personalized opinions to others. After an hour or so of this, a decent colleague finally intervened and suggested that if Dr A wanted to express an opinion then he should give an agenda item in writing to the School secretary!


At a higher level, university managers have “statutory” means of dealing with even mildly dissident academics including: threats and actual or ostensible “due process” proceedings relating to unsatisfactory performance and serious misconduct; suspension; removal from facilities (e.g. office, laboratory, e-mail); and ultimately dismissal. However adjunct processes include: secret files; legal threats; herding academics into accepting early retirement from their careers.


Research constraint follows redundancy of academics because the teaching and research area of the redundant are no longer “officially” needed by the institution. Further, gag clauses typically constrain “packaged off” academics from public comment.


Employees must be able to report inappropriate circumstances and if they cannot their workplace is unsafe. However, workplace reportage in our universities is clearly problematical, notwithstanding Commonwealth and state occupational health and safety legislation protecting reporters. World’s best practice critically demands encouragement of employee reportage and sensible improvement of the system i.e. a “system” approach rather than what is regarded as an utterly counterproductive “person” approach of “shoot the messenger, don’t change the system”. Australian universities do exactly the reverse of world’s best practice by threatening and victimizing responsible employee reporters.


A final example can be given of how the system works and the degree of intimidation of Australian academics. I have repeatedly called for a Royal Commission or a Senate Inquiry into our universities. A Senate Committee Inquiry into Australian universities (2000-2001) received over 360 submissions (on analysis, from  fewer than 1% of Australian academics). However only three academics responded as individuals from one particular university i.e. about 0.15% of the academics there.


Astonishing things have coincidentally also happened this year to some other prominent submittees. The excellent 440 page Senate Committee Report “Universities in Crisis” was tabled in late September 2001 but was almost completely ignored in the recent election campaign by both the Coalition and the demophobic, “we are xenophobes too” Labor campaigners.   


Suggestions for   Partial Solutions for this Unacceptable Situation.


i. Disclosure of managerial fraternal interests. One can ask the following incisive questions: who runs Australia - the women? No, the men. What sort of men run Australia? In my perception it is overwhelmingly the Prosperous Anglo-Celtic Men or  “Pacmen” who run Australia. (I believe that I am free to make this comment because I am 50% Pacman myself, my forebears having been early settlers of South East Australia who gobbled up this part of the world). Are the club and other fraternal associations of the ruling Pacmen transparent? No. In the UK the Blair government insisted on public disclosure of fraternal associations of top law officers such as police management and magistrates. We should insist on similar disclosure in Australian public life and in our institutions, including universities.


ii. Disclosure of  interests and associations of university managers, middle managers and  Council members. Superficial inspection of the membership of one university Council reveals non-elected State government political appointees, corporate figures linked to financial interests with the university and various people with personal links to  important university management figures. There is an elected non-professorial representative and an elected professorial representative; however in a recent ballot one of the candidates was (unknown to the electorate) actually nominated by top management and (to be fair) the union-linkage and union-endorsement of another staff candidate could well have been unknown to the non-union half of the staff electorate. Of course all of this pales into insignificance when one considers academia proper in which cronyism, familial nepotism and “jobs for the boys” nepotism can be astonishing.


iii. Public audit and ranking of university ethical standards. Universities should be audited in relation to the core ethical commitment to truth, reason, free speech and collegiality. Our universities should be publicly ranked for their ethical fitness as places of scholarship and tertiary level student learning.


iv. Our institutions and their managers should be regarded as suspect. We have draconian defamation laws that protect the guilty in society as a whole and in our universities in particular. In the absence of sensible political reform in this country we need to establish a general, publicly accepted sceptical position that the managers are likely to be guilty and the need for them to endlessly prove themselves innocent.


v. There is a need for a national university ombudsman. The Senate Committee recommendation for a national university ombudsman is excellent (indeed this was one of the key proposals made in my submissions to the Senate Inquiry).


vi. There is a need for vigorous public advocacy for academics. The interests of non-academic and academic staff can be quite different and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) (which represents both) appears primarily concerned  with statute-defined “due process” for employees rather than with an implacable Voltairean public stand on truth, reason and free speech. Thousands of academics have been disposed of in recent years by “due process” and yet one can think back to 40 years ago when the earlier academic Federation of Australian University Staff Associations (FAUSA) fought long and hard for the reinstatement of one academic (philosophy professor Sydney Sparkes Orr).


vii. We need a special “free speech” status for academics. While one would ideally like to see American-style “free speech” liberty for all in Australia, a useful start would be recognition of the special position of academics as professionals dedicated to truth, reason and informing the public. Of course this proposal will not fly as long as the major threats to academic free speech in Australia come from within the universities themselves.


viii. Finally, we should publicly insist that universities that constrain free speech are not fit for our children.      


[Gideon Polya “Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities”, Public University Journal, volume 1, Conference Supplement, “Transforming the Australia University”, Melbourne, 9-10 December 2001:   ] .