The ANU’s vice-chancellor Professor Ian Chubb is a bluff, no-nonsense sort of a bloke whose admirers call fearless and whose detractors say is a bully.

It is said that Brendan Nelson, the former Education Minister feared him, and no one doubts that Chubb sticks up for his university if he thinks it is under threat.

So, on Tuesday night a quiet little email went out to all academic staff that did not once mention that 2007 was an election year, but the intent was quite clear: don’t let the government bully you.

Chubb was mindful of the fact – and he had the ANU Council pass a motion to this effect – that academics not only enter public debate, but indeed also have a duty to inform it with the wisdom of their disciplines.

In an era when NGOs have had their funding cut for criticising government policy, institutions such as the CSIRO have been muzzled and the government has itself vetted research grant applications, academics – whose need for public funding is great – are naturally wary.

Says Chubb: “It is important, I think, that we reinforce the notion that academics can anticipate the support of the University when engaging in public debate using their expertise to inform that debate.”

His email advised that the Council of the ANU had adopted a statement on the use of academic expertise in public debate, which defined “the core activities” of the ANU in the following way:

ANU advances knowledge through excellence in research, education and community engagement, and in particular by:

  • adding to the world’s stock of knowledge through original inquiry and intellectual discourse;
  • enhancing understanding of Australia – its economy, society, culture and environment – and its position in the region and the world;
  • exploring the important problems and issues that confront the nation, the region and the world, and working to provide solutions; and informing the public through leading open discussion of these issues.

The last activity, Chubb warned, posed particular challenges.

It means that academics have an obligation to present their expertise outside the strictly academic context. In other words, they are expected to inform public debate from the perspective their scholarly expertise brings to an issue. But it can involve them in public debates where the issues are controversial, and the debates heated and emotional.

ANU staff members have the same rights as all Australians to air their views in public debate, and to use their private resources for such purposes.

As ANU staff members, however, they are encouraged, as part of their academic responsibilities, to engage with the public and participate in open debate in areas in which they have expertise…

When staff members spoke within the broad framework of the expertise which led to their employment, or which they had subsequently developed through research and scholarly activities as ANU staff members, they were entitled to use their ANU affiliation as evidence of their expertise on the issues, said the vice-chancellor.

He said that the use of an ANU affiliation therefore required that the views put forward had been developed as part of “exploring the important problems and issues that confront the nation, the region and the world, and working to provide solutions.”

As new knowledge was discovered, or new interpretations of existing knowledge come to light, the initial position may change – it was a normal part of the scholarly development of ideas.

In public debate, such as opinion pieces or columns in the media, it is generally not possible to provide a detailed scholarly justification of the position adopted, nor to present every possible perspective on an issue; but it is expected that the position adopted should be defensible and that justification for it should be either available or able to be given at a level which would be of acceptable standard in the field of scholarship.

Engaging in public debate can, in the worst cases, expose ANU staff members to various forms of harassment, including ad hominem attacks, questioning of their integrity, and threats to their research funding or even personal safety.

In engaging in public debate within the broad framework of rights and responsibilities outlined above, staff members can expect to be supported by the ANU. This does not necessarily imply endorsement of the particular views they have put forward, but means defending their right to speak as an ANU staff member in their areas of expertise, and support for the general notion that public debates need to be informed by academic expertise and conducted with due regard to factual analysis and scholarly interpretation.”

It is an admirable stance of which Voltaire would have been proud, but the fact that it even needed to be said is cause for deep concern. Will other vice-chancellors follow suit and so present a united front to the surreptitious censorship and intimidation that have marked the Howard years?

Peter Fray

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