Protective Zone: Reading the rules and guidelines released by Massey University, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that its governing body considers the whole concept of free speech a disruptive threat to the orderly imparting of orthodox academic knowledge.
IN TRUE ORWELLIAN fashion, Massey University has announced its commitment to Free Speech by restricting it. Beneath the ponderous bureaucratese of its official communications, the University authorities’ censorious impulses are chillingly clear. The process of inviting controversial external speakers onto the Massey campus has been made so daunting, so potentially penalising, that only the most fearless staff members and students will now be game to attempt it. Reading the rules and guidelines released by the University, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that its governing body considers the whole concept of free speech a disruptive threat to the orderly imparting of orthodox academic knowledge.
The Wellington-based lawyer and former Act MP, Stephen Franks, has speculated as to what the students and university staff of the 1960s and 70s would have made of such a blatant administrative power grab. The answer, of course, is “very short work”!
Two examples will suffice – both of them drawn from my old alma mater, the University of Otago. The first dates back to 1972, when the university authorities announced a new and draconian set of regulations. The students responded by occupying the University Registry. Roughly half the student body was involved in the protest, during which, according to legend, they consumed the Vice-Chancellor’s entire supply of chocolate biscuits!
Five years earlier, the poet and prophet, James K. Baxter, the University’ Burns Fellow, had responded to a similar outbreak of official folly by penning his celebrated “A Small Ode to Mixed Flatting” in which he mocked the authorities attempt to ban the practice. He slyly referenced the wild Scottish poet, Robbie Burns – “that sad old rip/From whom I got my fellowship” who liked nothing better than to “toss among the glum and staid/A poem like a hand grenade”.
Needless to say, in 1972 – as in 1967 – the glum and staid lost the fight. The offending regulations were either amended or withdrawn altogether.
The second example is more recent, dating back to the mid-1990s. Students were, once again, in occupation of the Registry building – this time in protest at the impact of student fees. When the University authorities discovered that the Alliance Party leader, Jim Anderton, had accepted the occupiers’ invitation to explain his party’s fees-free policy, they were outraged. As Anderton emerged from the Registry, he was greeted by the University Proctor who threatened to trespass him if he again set foot on Otago’s campus.
It was then the turn of the university’s staff to protest. Hundreds crowded into a lecture theatre to affirm Anderton’s right to discuss politics with the student body. A Vote of No Confidence in the Vice-Chancellor was proposed. The anger of the meeting was palpable. As in 1972, the University authorities backed away from the controversy precipitated by their errant authoritarian instincts.
What has happened to New Zealand’s universities that the fighting spirit of staff and students, once so evident on the nation’s campuses, has been reduced to a pallid pile of expiring embers? Historically speaking, university bureaucracies have never hesitated to tighten-up and screw-down the turbulent inhabitants of their ivory towers. What is it, then, about the times we live in that allows those same bureaucrats to do their worst and encounter resistance only from former staff and students old enough to remember when they couldn’t?
Talking to today’s academics it would seem that the teachers and students of the modern university are at each other’s mercy. Lecturers and tutors are subject to the detailed written appraisal of their “paying customers” – whose career expectations it is most unwise to set back with anything less than “As” and “Bs”. The students, meanwhile: products of parenting strategies as over-protective as they are over-expectant; cannot take too much in the way of challenging ideas or uncompromising expression. The use of the term “snowflake”, while derisive, is not entirely inaccurate. Academics have learned the hard way just how sensitive these kids can be.
Certainly, the Massey authorities seem confident that it will not be their restriction of free speech that provokes outrage and protest. In their estimation, it is much more likely to be the presence on campus of representatives of ideas and causes deemed “hateful”, “harmful” or “offensive” that gets the staff and students up in arms.
God help us, but there just might be some method in Massey University’s bureaucratic madness.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 November 2019.