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HENRY ERGAS: Universities offer course in self-serving cowardice

When in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, a college president is accused of being a hypocrite, the novel’s narrator retorts that the description is grossly unfair. After all, the man is still far from the stage of moral development at which the charge could possibly arise: to be a hypocrite one has to know right from wrong.


Today, as our universities’ leaders vacillate between equivocating and cowering, that lack of principle, which was once the exception, has become the rule.


It is, for example, difficult to believe that the University of Melbourne, faced with the threat that a presentation by Professor Tal Shima, an eminent Israeli aeronautical engineer, would be severely disrupted, didn’t warn the thugs that they would be arrested, charged and expelled – it cancelled Shima’s lecture. By capitulating, the university not only set an appalling precedent; it made a mockery of its commitment to the untrammelled pursuit of scientific excellence.


Nor is it much comfort that the universities can be tough when they want to be, for their outrage is a case of being strong with the weak and weak with the strong. The University of Queensland savaged Drew Pavlou for misconduct that pales compared to the behaviour our academic institutions routinely accept from pro-Palestinian militants. Equally, James Cook University sacked Professor Peter Ridd for breaches of confidentiality that fall far short of the “doxxing” of Jewish academics that, at least so far, has been brushed off with barely a murmur by the University of Sydney.


The impression that Pavlou and Ridd paid a price for being on the wrong side of politics is hard to escape. Attacking Israel, in rhetoric laced with anti-Semitism, while trespassing on university property is fine. Peacefully opposing China’s murderous repression of dissidents, as Pavlou did, is not. Equally, releasing confidential details about Jewish academics induces a mere slap on the wrist. Denouncing what you believe to be scientific malpractice, as Ridd did, warrants dismissal, particularly if the malpractice involves generously funded climate change research.


There is, in those inconsistencies, at least a hint of crass opportunism. Pavlou and Ridd threatened their universities’ incomes. Keffiyeh-clad chanters of “from the river to the sea” merely threaten Jewish students.


Karl Marx mockingly described the Church of England as being far happier to give up 38 of its 39 articles than one-39th of its revenues; in protecting their income rather than pursuing their purpose, our academic clerisy put even Marx’s benchmark to shame. And compounding the shamelessness, the hypocrisy comes cloaked in the mantle of academic freedom.


It would, unfortunately, take too long to explain the concept’s historical origins and development. What can be said is that the modern conception of academic freedom, forged at the start of the 20th century, involved two pillars: that universities would be self-governing institutions; and that the precise nature and limits of that self-government would be defined by their mission, that is, the advancement of learning.


No one more cogently articulated that conception’s implications than Max Weber. Academic institutions, he argued, had to be free to appoint those they considered best qualified; but that came with a duty to make appointments strictly on the basis of intellectual merit, thus supporting the universities’ purpose.


At the same time, academics had to be free to undertake research; but that imposed a duty to avoid bias, “facing reality with an open countenance” and “carefully keeping a distance from all of the period’s illusions”.


Most of all, academics had to be free to teach. But that entailed what Weber regarded as the highest duty of all: to be teachers, not preachers. “The university must be the house of the intellect, not that of seers and prophets,” he wrote – and even less should it allow itself to become “a nest for fanatical sects”.


Weber’s goal in distinguishing teaching from preaching was not just to protect the truth; it was to preserve the freedom of students to learn. Instead of academics “imposing their political position upon the student”, the freedom to learn required fostering “students’ intellectual independence by stressing that value judgments are matters for civilised debate, and that opposing viewpoints can be

defended”. In return, students had a duty to display the seriousness, civility and tolerance on which the very idea of a university rests.


Academic freedom therefore entailed rights that were always accompanied by duties, with only those who respected the duties being entitled to the rights. As a result, Weber dismissed both the “Kathedersozialisten”, who used the podium to advocate socialism, and the “Flottenprofessoren”, whose lectures championed the aggressive expansion of Germany’s navy, as abusing the university’s privileges.


And mindful of the growing power of demagogues, he had no tolerance for students who claimed a moral right to hijack the university in their chiliastic quest to reshape the world.


Weber’s emphasis on the interdependence of the four academic freedoms – the freedom of appointment, the freedom of research, the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn – became chillingly relevant in the interwar years when university students spearheaded fascist movements first in Italy, Hungary and Romania, then throughout central and eastern Europe. Hailed by Mussolini as “the fighters who have encouraged the reluctant, castigated the pusillanimous and forced governments to surrender”, it was those students’ tactics of occupying university premises,

disrupting university life and vilifying, harassing and intimidating opponents that Theodore Adorno, the father of Critical Theory, and his Frankfurt School colleagues had in mind when they called the student protesters in 1968 “red fascists”.


That those “red fascists” now pullulate on our campuses is hardly surprising. In effect, the leaders of Australia’s universities – who are among the world’s most highly paid academic administrators – neither seem to understand what academic freedom means, nor show signs of genuinely defending it.


Thus, appointment based solely on intellectual merit was jettisoned long ago in the name of diversity and inclusiveness. As for neutrality with respect to political value judgments, it is regarded by many academics with the scorn reserved for chastity, and was, in any event, abandoned by the universities themselves when they engaged in partisan campaigning on behalf of the voice.


And the freedom to learn in an environment dedicated to intellectual endeavour is clearly not a major priority for university administrators, who find it easier to give in to the bullies than bear the opprobrium of resisting them – and of appearing, God forbid, to side with “reactionaries”.


The great intellectual historian Arthur Lovejoy, who, having resigned from Stanford in 1901 over the politically motivated dismissal of a university professor, went on to develop a vastly influential formulation of academic freedom, observed that “like most forms of desirable freedom, academic freedom can neither be won nor kept unless its natural guardians possess civil courage”. As the moral fabric of the Anglosphere’s academic institutions unravels, the future of our universities now hinges on finding the courage to break cowardice’s icy grip.


Henry Ergas AO is an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. He has taught at a number of universities, including Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the University of Auckland and the École Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Administration Économique in Paris, served as Inaugural Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong and worked as an adviser to companies and governments.


This piece first appeared in The Australian

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117 commenti


Labour plan to can Charter Schools. What a likely waste of money. Irresponsible. Spendthrifts.

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Just Boris
Just Boris
2 days ago

Well that’s certainly an excellent piece, thanks Admin for posting. Sadly universities have fallen so far that one wonders if they can recover to their former glory.

Some of it is greed. Too much focus on research grants & foreign students, too little on teaching.

Some of it is an inflated perception of relevance. Too many courses now that are essentially bullshit one could learn in a semester online.

And of course the indoctrination & arrogance outlined by Mr Ergas. The special blend of ignorance & entitlement shown by the pro-hamas activism or the BLM solidarity naïveté shows us all how far left they have leaned, They're no longer teaching kids how to think, only what to think. And i…

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Aaron Shanahan
Aaron Shanahan
2 days ago

I'm saddened and I'm horrified that universities have become a place of engagement for activists to spread their poisonous tentacles and attain control of their leanings.

If universities won't change, I'm telling you straight up, they'll lose some very talented people that have reached the point of saying goodbye.

I know 2 such people that have had enough. Both tutors.

And both of them are dear to me.

Both are engineers and both wish for a charter university model.

And I think that's doable.

The model has to change. If it can't change, it will perish..

It's not good enough any more to dictate terms to students and base teaching and outcomes according to this philanthropic social rubbish of nothingness…


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Risposta a

This is worldwide, led by US universities, and even OxBridges. Stupidity rules.

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Voltaire is supposed to have said "I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to0 say it" Actually he did not say that it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarizing Voltaire's principle of freedom of speech. The journey from ignorance to wisdom begins by accepting how little we really know and understand and how we compensate for our ignorance by defending our own opinions and rejecting those of others. People with academic qualifications are often more inclined to like to believe that they are much more intelligent and "smart" than they really are. They take disagreement with their opinions and high status very personally and prefer a culture of mutual ego massage. Reliable answers to some questions can be…

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Risposta a

It seems to me that the Age of Reason ended and was replaced by an Age of Feelings during the period of time when the Post war "boomers" were supposed to be maturing and becoming responsible adults. Do we even understand what "feelings" really are? They are just a consequence of the amounts of substances like Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin influencing the function of our brains. The production and metabolism of these "feel good hormones" is regulated by neurons in our promotive lower brains that produce unconscious instinctual and emotional responses to various experiences. The correct name for the feelings related to these substances is PLEASURE but most people mistake this pleasure for HAPPINESS. The most common experiences for stimulating these pleasure hormone…


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This forum is mostly fascinating for the volume of deep-dyed ignorance frequently displayed - as the response to Mr Ergas nicely demonstrates.

The universities are stuffed. Even the sciences have been forced into lock-step. They have been degenerating for decades, and are now a sick joke, staffed by toadies and increasingly-illiterate racist bigots.

So it's a pleasant surprise that the students are beginning to see through the wall of lies and bullshit inflicted upon them. Maybe there's a glimmer of hope for us yet.

The Jewish settler nation was based on genocide and displacement from its foundation, and has now almost used up the vast reservoir of guilt and sympathy engendered by the Holocaust. It has no viable future, surrounded…


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Risposta a

There is a natural human tendency to avoid trying to understand complicated issues, Pick a side and expect a problem to be solved by one group of people slaughtering another. How lovely for some to be safely removed from the reality of what is happening to real people far away and deciding which ones should be allowed to live or die. Do those earnest social justice warriors yelling "river to the sea" even know which river and sea they are referring to or understand any of the long and complicated history that has preceded this current tragedy?

Or are they just "joining the crusade" to fill some of the emptiness in their dull, boring and overly indulged little lives?

There is a…

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