Former Victorian Liberal Minister Phil Honeywood says that awarding honorary university roles to former politicians undermines the hard work of real academics who have earned their titles.
And a quick survey by The Australian last week suggested that such appointments have been mostly Labor, made by universities awash with “left leaning academics”.
Pictured with the story was the most prominent recent example of a vice-chancellor’s “temptation to gather a cadre of VIPs”, the University of Adelaide’s recruitment this month of Julia Gillard.
Actually, Adelaide’s decision was not the work of the kind of left-leaning academic cabal suggested. Appointing a University of Adelaide alumna who rose to be Australia’s first woman Prime Minister would have been attractive regardless of her party affiliation.
But it happens that our School of History and Politics had long enjoyed the adjunct presence of former Liberal leader and foreign minister Alexander Downer and former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, while we lacked a federal Labor figure: the addition of Ms Gillard brings not only a role model and mentor for young women aspiring to politics, but also a more diverse range of political views than we had before.
And with the growing demand for students who are work-ready, familiar with real-world situations, universities welcome seasoned professionals from outside the academy willing to share their experience with students, and readily offer them adjunct titles.
At Adelaide there are non-academic visiting staff from an array of professions, from architecture to law, from business to music. Clinical training in health fields depends heavily on honorary clinical staff from hospitals, who are routinely given academic titles: there are nearly 1,500 of them at Adelaide.
The full-time academics usually embrace the benefits these titleholders bring from outside the academy: seething resentment amongst the regulars would be hard to detect. And politics students have as much to gain as any others through contact with leading practitioners of their field.
Still, there is no doubt truth that, in politics and politically-sensitive fields in universities, academic staff tend to be politically left-leaning. This occurs not just in Australia: in the US former Harvard President Derek Bok concludes in his new book Higher Education in America that academics, “whose political orientation inclines to the liberal side of the political spectrum far outnumber those whose views lie to the right”.
He laments that this has had unfortunate consequences, not least in the dramatic diminishing of support for some universities from their conservative State legislatures.
Undoubtedly, we would all like to think that our campuses are places where the fullest range of views can be freely expressed. Where there are marked political imbalances in the academy, or methodological orthodoxies that engulf an entire department, the environment will likely not be ideal. An inhibiting atmosphere can descend on the student body too, where student leadership is elected with particularly partisan views.
This adds to the responsibility of academic leaders, who must regularly encourage their staff and students to present all sides of a controversial issue. Just as at Adelaide we were glad our non-Labor politics adjuncts will now be balanced with a Labor figure, at any campus where “left-leaning” voices dominate steps should be taken to leaven discourse, by inviting speakers or making visiting appointments of those who could broaden the diversity of views.
Overall, the environment for freedom of expression on university campuses today is positive, but not always ideal. The principal threats to a broad church are often from within—the force of students and faculty with particularly strident views—and deans and heads must try and maintain the campus as a neutral platform for debate, an intellectually diverse environment in which opposite views can be heard with civility.
Clearly vice-chancellors have a role here too, which is far from gathering a chorus of VIPs. Indeed, the dwindling levels of confidence in university leadership revealed in some campus staff surveys of late may be partly because academics don’t believe their leader will stoutly defend academic freedom, that breaches of it will get an energetic response, or that standards of civility in controversial debate will be vigorously upheld.
Published in The Australian