Inside Story

Professionalism meets freedom in academia

When the personal shouldn’t be the political

Katy Barnett 18 June 2024 2451 words

When I saw Tim Anderson’s slides, tweets and social media posts, my first thought was, ‘I wonder what his classes were like, and whether he tolerated differing views?’” marrio31/iStockphoto

Imagine you’ve enrolled in a subject at university called “Histories, Narratives and Trajectories of Football(s).” Imagine also that you are a massive fan of the English Premier League, and you can’t wait to do this subject. You turn up to class, and the lecturer states that he will be considering all legitimate codes of football, but that this does not include “the Evil Game.” You wonder what the Evil Game is. And then he displays a slide:

Somewhat flummoxed, you ask about the Beautiful Game. The lecturer scowls at you. Real football games, he says, have oval balls and not round balls. Therefore rugby, Australian Rules Football, and American football are covered in this subject, but not what Australians call “soccer,” which he believes to be evil. This is his solemn and sincere belief, based on the colonialist origins of soccer and the fact that soccer supporters are imperialist thugs. He believes the world should be liberated from the evils of soccer. You discover on social media that in his private time he attends rallies against soccer players and organises protests at soccer games.

Everyone else turns to stare at you. Is this a class in which you feel comfortable voicing your dedication to English Premier League football? The answer is likely no, unless you’re a particularly brave and confrontational person. You probably won’t decide to argue the point in your assessment either, unless you’re a pig-headed and idealistic student like I was.

Okay, I’ve deliberately made this a ridiculous example — please, don’t tell me that somewhere, somehow, a lecturer has really done this! — but I hope you see the point.

Let’s say that you are upset by your experience in this class. You decide to lodge a complaint with the university against our hypothetical Dr Soccer-Hater. He tells the university that it is within his right to freedom of speech and his right to academic freedom to teach his classes in any way he wishes. What do you think?

Your answer to this may depend on whether you have strong views about particular football codes. Perhaps, if you love soccer or you’re a soccer player, you’re outraged at Dr Soccer-Hater, and you think he should be summarily dismissed: his behaviour is impermissible, dangerous and offensive. Or perhaps, if you attend anti-soccer rallies on the weekend, you support him entirely: he is exercising his academic freedom, and you regard soccer as imperialist nonsense. Perhaps you don’t care: you’re indifferent to Dr Soccer-Hater’s views, and wish the whole debate would go away.

As it happens, I don’t have strong personal preferences regarding football codes, maybe because I moved countries several times as a child, which is precisely why I chose this example. For me, at least, this topic doesn’t trigger an amygdala hijack, where I have a very strong emotional fight or flight response. I apologise to any football enthusiasts of any code whom I have “triggered,” but I hope I made you chuckle a little too.

First, let’s think about Dr Soccer-Hater’s freedom of speech. Is he entitled to hate soccer and argue that it is an evil game, even though most people might think this is ridiculous and misguided? I think the answer to this must be yes. And he can use slogans such as “the Evil Game” in his protests if he so chooses. This is entirely within his right to freedom of speech. In the realm of soccer, there are no rules about discrimination or hate speech.

What about Dr Soccer-Hater’s academic freedom? In my view he is also entitled to argue that soccer is an evil game, but he must use scholarly methodology. In other words, he must consider whether there are any arguments to the contrary, and at least note where other scholars disagree with him. He has to back up his arguments with evidence, be objective and fair, and not simply engage in the production of propaganda or polemic. Propaganda is biased, lacks objectivity and seeks to lead people towards a particular emotive or political conclusion.

In my view, Dr Soccer-Hater’s PowerPoint slide has a propagandist element, from an objective viewpoint. It seeks to provoke an emotional response, and signals to the class that soccer is definitely wrong and evil and there can be no argument about that. Dr Soccer-Hater might say he is entitled to dissent from mainstream society, and that the function of academia is to question established orthodoxy and challenge long-held notions. This is absolutely true, but his slide doesn’t present a reasoned argument and makes it difficult for the class to discuss the question. In my view, academics should be very wary of presenting contentious issues in this way.

That being said, there may be situations where it is appropriate to share a slide like this. For example, a lecturer may use the image to illustrate the psychological effect of the juxtaposition of two unexpected images in a shocking way. Or a lecturer may be discussing extreme imagery and rhetoric in political debate. I think these uses must be distinguished from a propagandist use designed to lead students towards a particular political conclusion which reflects the lecturer’s own beliefs.

In my view, we cannot force Dr Soccer-Hater to affirm or like soccer, or to change his beliefs. We might order him to do so, but he is likely to resent such an order and it might even make his dislike of soccer worse. We should ask Dr Soccer-Hater to tolerate people who like soccer in his class and in his workplace, and leave room for soccer-loving students to express their views in the classroom.

I don’t know what has happened to toleration: that great mainstay of the Enlightenment seems to be slipping away from us. Toleration means that some of us might find Dr Soccer-Hater’s views offensive, and his views on soccer players to be downright dangerous, but we accept his right to hold those views. We certainly don’t have to accept his views — we can argue against them — but we shouldn’t force him to change his views.

In return, however, Dr Soccer-Hater also has correlative duties towards us, and most particularly towards students in his class. If he is teaching the history of football but really hates soccer, he should make it clear to students that he will not let his personal views affect how he treats them in class or grades their assignments, and ensure that he follows through on this. In other words, we tolerate Dr Soccer-Hater, but he must also tolerate soccer-loving students in his class and soccer-loving colleagues in his workplace.

Dr Soccer-Hater must give soccer-loving students who take his class room to discuss their views, to accurately teach the history of football. Moreover, he must not let his personal prejudice render him incapable of judging students’ work fairly. If I were Dr Soccer-Hater, I would make it clear that a soccer-loving student can do very well in my class, and that I welcome reasoned academic discussion, including people who disagree with me strongly.

I’ll be frank: my view of Dr Soccer-Hater and his classes will be shaped by the extent to which he tolerates the views of others, and most particularly by the way in which he treats students who disagree with him. Often those who are quick to assert their own right to freedom of speech change their tune very quickly when others express views which they believe are wrong or offensive. People can deal it out to others, but not take it. From a pragmatic point of view, it is always easier to persuade others to respect your rights if you are respectful of the rights of others.

Let’s suppose I’m a soccer-loving academic colleague and I play soccer in my free time. It follows that I disagree very strongly with Dr Soccer-Hater’s views. But I can tolerate Dr Soccer-Hater’s views as long as he doesn’t allow his views to affect his professional relationship with me or with students. This is the case even if he posts material on social media detailing the problems of the Evil Game.

For me, the pivotal aspect is how he treats those colleagues and students at the workplace who belong to the group he dislikes. If he incites students or colleagues to exterminate soccer players or soccer supporters, his behaviour should not be tolerated. And, for what it’s worth, I would take this attitude if I shared his views on soccer and soccer players.

Conversely, I might respect Dr Soccer-Hater, despite our strong difference in views, if he tolerates and listens to other views, and writes reasoned and careful work. I might respect him even more if I knew that students who disagree stridently in his class can excel, and that he treats all students with care, regardless of their beliefs on football. We have a duty of care to all students. We cannot let personal prejudice and bigotry affect our relationships with students, and for me, it is central to our professionalism. We’re there to teach them how to think, not what to think, and we must rein in any personal prejudice.

It has become de rigueur to say that it is impossible to divorce the political from the personal, and therefore we shouldn’t even try. In fact, some go further and believe that every single decision we make is political, and that people should be judged by everything they do and say. This reminds me of the television series The Good Place, in which every decision is allocated points by Heaven. Of course, no normal human being can live up to such standards, not even the series’s moral philosopher, Chidi.

I’m like Chidi: I would go mad if I had to question every single decision I make; I have enough trouble making sure I’m wearing matching shoes or my clothing the right side out. But people who think in that way tend to be moral absolutists. While I agonise all the time, they don’t have to think about or question their decisions. They know they’re doing the right thing. It’s everyone else who fails their standards and who should be called out.

These thoughts were inspired in part by the recent Federal Court case, University of Sydney v National Tertiary Education Industry Union, in which a majority of the full court overturned the decision of the trial judge and found that the University of Sydney was entitled to dismiss a politics lecturer, Dr Tim Anderson.

Unlike our hypothetical lecturer, the controversial images in this case were not shown to students directly. Rather, Dr Anderson presented a seminar to academics which included a PowerPoint slide with an Israeli flag being torn to reveal a swastika. But Dr Anderson then posted an image of his slide on his Facebook page (where students and others could see it). The swastika was the symbol of the Nazis, who deliberately killed more than six million Jews in the Holocaust, and Israel is the Jewish state. Therefore the image was deliberately provocative, and indeed, it was described by Justice Perram as “incendiary.”

The majority of the Full Federal Court found that the union hadn’t established that Anderson’s posts and comments were in keeping with the requirement to exercise the highest ethical, professional and legal standards as required by Clause 317 of the University of Sydney Enterprise Agreement 2018 (in force until 2021).

I was also inspired to write by a controversy some years back when some people objected to the views of the great natural law jurisprude, Professor John Finnis. I disagree with Professor Finnis’s writings on the topic of same-sex marriage but I respect him as a scholar and teacher. It probably helps that this aspect of his writing is only a very small part of his huge corpus of works.

In part, my views come from the fact that Professor Finnis’s former students who are LGBTI+ have told me of his fairness and decency as a teacher, and praised the pastoral care he afforded to all students. In part it is also because I once personally experienced his even-handed approach, even though we disagreed fundamentally on the jurisprudential topic we discussed (distributive justice). Indeed, he suggested several ways in which I could strengthen my argument. That is how academics should behave.

I’ve tried to unpick the complexities of this issue carefully, and the ways in which I see tolerance, academic freedom and freedom of speech operating. Upon reflection, the question I still have in Dr Anderson’s case is whether he showed academic professionalism, particularly when dealing with students but also with colleagues with whom he disagreed.

Although Dr Anderson’s classes and teaching practices don’t seem to have been considered in the case, or in the disciplinary proceedings, his competence and professionalism as a lecturer is highly relevant to my view of his conduct. When I saw Dr Anderson’s slides, tweets and social media posts, my first thought was, “I wonder what his classes were like, and whether he tolerated differing views?”

Dr Anderson is allowed to have an academic position or beliefs that some may find offensive or wrong. He is allowed to attend protests in his private capacity, too. Ideally, though, we are entitled to expect a certain level of professionalism and objectivity from university lecturers when they are undertaking an educative role. I wrote a monograph arguing for the award of accounts of profit for breach of contract in exceptional circumstances (controversial in Australia), but I make it very clear to students that they are encouraged to disagree with me or question me. I don’t know what Dr Anderson’s practices were in this regard.

I am always aware of the position of power and influence lecturers have over students. It is important to draw the limits around when polemics, propaganda and activism are appropriate in the classroom, and ensure that lecturers are cognisant that they teach a diverse student body who may have different views, beliefs and practices. This requires a certain measure of even-handedness.

As I have said before, I believe academics must beware the siren-call of activism. Activism (as opposed to advocacy) is in many ways, inimical to the academic mission and to sensible, reasoned discussion on controversial topics. It leads to polarisation and division, not discussion. The academy must leave room for discussion. Indeed, promoting productive discussion should be our very purpose. We do a disservice to students when we do not allow for this. •