Source: Massey University
A fundamental part of Massey University’s strategy is to exercise what we call our civic leadership. This means showing leadership on matters of interest nationally and internationally, including informing and engaging in discussion around the range of social and cultural issues faced by Aotearoa New Zealand. We want to contribute to a socially progressive and constantly changing country, and a key part of this is supporting our academic staff to publicly disseminate their research findings and act as ‘critic and conscience’ of society.
Academic freedom is a given under the Education Act 1989, which underscores the freedom of academic staff and students to (among other things) state controversial or unpopular opinions. At Massey, our Freedom of Expression Policy upholds academic freedom, while also recognising our commitment to encourage and model respectful dialogue, and that such exchanges should not silence, disparage, marginalise, stimatise or incite hostility towards others – especially vulnerable groups or those that have been marginalised in the past.
Along with the freedom of expression and free speech, which are critical in a healthy democracy, academic freedom is a privilege and a right that sits at the very heart of the tradition of a university, and is central to our mission of enacting civic leadership through our role as ‘critic and conscience’.
Often a lot of emphasis is placed on the ‘critic’ aspect of ‘critic and conscience’ and not as much on the ‘conscience’ part. Taking a critical position can be a way of highlighting flaws, weighing up policy, or poking holes in arguments. Taking a ‘conscience’ approach, however, requires us to be more than a critic – it demands that we propose a way forward.
And part of being the conscience is ensuring that marginalised and/or vulnerable groups are considered, given a voice, and that we work towards equity.
It’s a wicked tension, one that the university and its people walk every day – a balancing act between enacting academic freedom, respecting free speech and stating provocative evidence-based opinions on the one hand, and our strategic ambition to contribute to a socially progressive Aotearoa, being a te Tiriti-led organisation, and ensuring our words and actions are mana-enhancing, on the other.
Academic freedom is upheld and enacted when academics speak from an evidence base. However, when an academic speaks and offers public commentary as a private citizen, or from outside their area of expertise, it needs to be made clear that their opinion (particularly if it is controversial or unpopular) is being offered in their private and individual capacity, not in their role as a subject matter expert. It’s important that these two positions don’t get conflated. For this reason, it needs to be made it clear that the views presented do not necessarily represent those of the University. One way to do this is by adding a disclaimer, but this can be confusing. So, where an academic is contributing in the media to a subject on the basis of their professional expertise, it is entirely appropriate for their University role and title to be identified. But where that contribution is provided with no greater expertise or opinion than that offered by a member of the general public, then there ought to be no association with the University. We need, I think, to consider the rights of academic staff and students under the Education Act alongside the exigencies of New Zealand law, and remind ourselves that, as members of a civilised society, we should treat each other with respect and not inflict unnecessary harm.
It’s hard, and it is contentious, and we won’t always get it right.
This week at Massey, we published a statement to further affirm our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We embrace and value diversity, and we welcome all people to our university. Further, we believe that everyone, regardless of their identity, deserves to be respected and that they have the ability and freedom to be their whole self.
I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no room for discrimination and intolerance at our university.
Thanks to the hard work of many of our staff members, we are Rainbow Tick certified, meaning we are committed to providing a respectful, safe and inclusive environment for everyone. Our achievements include having gender-neutral facilities, safe living spaces in our halls of residence including gender-neutral options and support for anyone transitioning gender. Rainbow training is available to all staff and I actively encourage you to participate in this.
Finally, I fully acknowledge that our commitment to diversity and inclusion will continue to be a work in progress. And it should, for as social contexts change, and as the world around us changes, so, too, must we.