Universities and politics
The modern phenomenon of “official positions”
On my official university email signature, I don’t include any details other than my name, my address and other salient ways to contact me, and some links to my recently published law books. I don’t include any of the official “suggested statements”, even where I agree with the spirit of the statement. I also stopped putting filters or flags on social media profiles some time ago.
A couple of years back, I got into a tremendous argument with some friends and colleagues about this decision not to include anything other than my personal details on my university signature.1 My silence was violence; I was tantamount to a bigot for not adopting the official suggested statements.
I have come to the position where I think it’s inappropriate for a university to have an official position on political matters not directly related to their operation. Individual academics and students can, of course, adopt political positions, and advocate for them. Indeed, it would be strange if they did not. Academics and students are a diverse group, with a diverse range of views. In my view, it should be for them to make up their own minds what causes they support. The idea of an official position is inimical to freedom of conscience, something we developed after terrible Wars of Religion, which racked Europe for centuries.
I don’t know if my cynicism also derives from my disability, cerebral palsy. I may be particularly grumpy as I fell very badly last week, rushing to a meeting. No, it’s not broken, just very badly bruised, thank goodness.
The problems arising from my disability are physical, as you can see.
When I was a child, I was told, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” That doesn’t seem to be de rigueur these days, but if I didn’t take that attitude, I would have given up long ago.
Let me illustrate with an example. In 2020, during the height of the long COVID lockdown in Melbourne, Mum and I were taking our daily one-hour walk. I get tired. We stopped and sat on a wall, properly socially distanced, to drink a takeaway coffee and eat our favourite raspberry danishes. My calves had been injected with Botox the day before—it stops the constant spasming temporarily2—and it was necessary to walk to get the toxin to flow through the muscles properly. I also get tired, and so I had paused. We were given a “move on” order by the police. I was preparing to trot out the “I’m a law professor” line, but Mum (sensibly) didn’t want me to start arguing with them, as they had guns, so we went back up the hill, and they followed us for part of the way.
The story made it into the news. Several people on Twitter accused me of faking my disability. Later, not long after the news story, I was looking up my office phone number to fill out a form—no, I can never remember my own office phone number—and the search engine made suggestions disclosing that people were doing searches to see whether I was really disabled. My treatment team was furious to hear about this. I was not. I know what I am. I can’t control what other people say about me; I can only control the way in which I react to it. It says more about those people than it says about me.
Did the fact that people on Twitter accused me of not having cerebral palsy change reality? No. I have regular measurement of my symptoms to track how I am going by my spasticity clinic treatment team, and these accusations had not changed reality. If only it were that easy! I can’t let those words touch me.
Therein lies my suspicion regarding grand statements of support. People could put statements of support for disabled people on their emails, and hang flags with wheelchairs all over my university. It would do nothing useful for me. If anything, it would annoy me. I would think, Do something useful, instead of making grand gestures. Just as the random people accusing me of faking my disability have no impact upon my reality, similarly a statement of institutional support has no impact upon my reality, without practical support to back it up.
Acts, not words, are what matters. Recent events have brought it home to me yet again that living with a physical disability is the ultimate reality test. You can’t just wish it away. Words are powerful—I’m a lawyer, after all, and using words is part of my stock-in-trade—but there’s a limit to how far words can change reality.
These matters were on my mind for another reason too. Today, there has been a debate about whether Australian universities should declare institutional support for the Voice. As I have outlined previously, Australia is about to have a Constitutional Referendum to decide whether we should add a new section to our Constitution, establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, which will have the power to make representations to Parliament and the Executive on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The date of the Referendum has not yet been set, but public support for the Yes vote has plummeted from 70% at one point, to below 50%. It is looking increasingly as if the Yes will become No.
Meanwhile, controversy has arisen over the decision by some universities not to formally support the Voice:
University of NSW law professor and leading campaigner for the Voice Megan Davis has labelled universities’ refusal to take a joint stand supporting the Voice as “false objectivity”.
“I don’t really stomach the ‘we are mere facilitators of the debate’ approach,” she said in a February speech. “Universities are saying they don’t want to be political but the decision not to take a stance for Uluru and the referendum for a Voice to parliament is a political decision. Silence is political.”
Indeed, my own university made a public statement of institutional support for the Yes case, although importantly, the statement was careful to preserve academic freedom and recognise that individuals might have a different view.
I’m going to say it: demanding that the universities express institutional backing for the Voice will not change the plummeting support for the proposal. In my opinion, it won’t do anything at all. How one votes is a matter of conscience, and it’s not up to any organisation to tell me what to think.
When a particular body or corporation takes a political stance on an issue, it’s never changed my mind. If anything, I tend to regard it with cynicism, as a marketing ploy. I’m not the only one to see this as at least partly driven by marketing:
Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University Clive Hamilton said reputation management and marketing were part of the motivation for universities supporting a Yes vote.
“Universities today, especially the Group of Eight, act like corporations, so they have large marketing departments whose job is reputation management,” he said. “They want to present themselves as aligned with the values of young people. In other words, their customers.”
Hamilton said the commitment among many universities to educate more Indigenous students, recruit more Indigenous staff and include more Indigenous studies programs had also encouraged statements of public support for the Voice.
“They feel it would be awkward or even hypocritical if they did not also support the Voice.”
I take Hamilton’s point that universities are expressing support partly for honourable reasons, and because they think that the proposal is a good one.
Nonetheless, I think it’s inapposite for universities to take political positions in democratic votes such as this one, unless it’s on an issue that explicitly impinges upon the operation of the university. I applaud my university for recognising the importance of individual conscience and academic freedom in the statement of support it made.
By stating an institutional position, any debate within that institution is chilled. That’s not good for democracy, and it’s not good for an educational institution which should be able to discuss contentious matters.
Moreover, it’s not for universities or corporations to tell me or anyone else how to vote, one way or the other. That’s a matter of individual conscience.
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Well, I hope they’re are still friends, despite our differences of opinion. I have never stopped being friends with someone simply because I disagree with their political opinion. First, life would be very boring if everyone agreed with me, and secondly, I would have no friends left, because I can always think of reasons to disagree… former litigator, remember?
Forget the bruises, look at the lovely straight toes in that photo! Are they not very fine, and not in the least crunched over?