Friday 15 November 2019

Could There Be Method In Massey University’s Madness?

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 The offending regulations were either amended or withdrawn altogether.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.


Trev1 said...

Massey has clearly lost its way. Prospective students should think again about registering for Massey in 2020 because their qualifications will always carry the stigma of a second-rate, failing institution. The Minister of Education must remind Massey of its obligations towards free inquiry and open debate.

John Hurley said...

Contrary to a popular view in psychology, intelligent people are just as prejudiced as less intelligent people – but just toward different groups. (N = 5,914)

John Hurley said...

Last election A Slice of Heaven - In association with Massey - "The arguments against immigration are unsustainable".
Election before Nigel Latta's The Hard Stuff (with Paul Spoonley). "Immigration is a no-brainer"
This election we are nearing 5 million
But changes to the Immigration Act in 1987 transformed the composition of the migrant community, and now this country can claim to be super-diverse - a term and concept coined by American sociologist Steven Vertovec in 2007, that describes a new era of hypermobility. Stats NZ senior demographer Kim Dunstan says New Zealand is now home to people from most of the nations across the globe. And it is rubbish
Spoonley adds that any change in New Zealand’s ability to attract skills from overseas could have serious implications for our economy. “ If you look at the last 20 years, migration has been a huge part of the economic growth of this country... In fact, if you take migration away, you would have literally no growth, no economic growth.”
It seems NZ's missing ingrediant is skilled foreigners to sail the ship - and I assume there is some truth to that.
Society can only function with a free press a free press cannot exist while the part that receives public funding is compromised and the other serves vested interests.

John Hurley said...

"So reassuring: the interim head of an Oxford college is trying to abolish saying grace and standing when the dons enter but the students are revolting in defence of tradition."

David George said...

Thank God my children are smart enough not to need to go to university and are happily making their way in the world.
Something has been going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and are afraid to speak honestly. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising. How did this happen?
First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life.

guerilla surgeon said...

And yet your free speech hero Jordan Peterson is suing someone to shut them up. Typical right-wing hypocrisy.

Plugger said...

These days universities in NZ are willing momuments to the neo-liberal cause.

Arts departments are being decimated. Universities are being run as money making schemes.

The main culprits are academics turned commercial 'managers'.

If you look hard enough, you'll find a seething resentment in these arts depts to these academics living some kind of double life with this commercial mindset.

Tom Hunter said...

What has happened to New Zealand’s universities that the fighting spirit of staff and students, once so evident on the nation’s campuses,

Seriously? You don't know? You don't get what has happened here?

Okay, it's very simple: Back in those days the students and staff were Left-wingers fighting against their Right-Wing, Conservative enemies: the Ruling Class, the Oppressors, etc.

Now it's the Left that are in charge, and they have inculcated students with these notions of "speech=violence" and so forth, such that rather than protesting against restrictions on free speech, the students will actively support it, and certainly the staff will also. Just think what they'll be like in a three-four more decades when they're starting to run New Zealand.

Think of it this way: in the decades before the Russian revolution the Marxist-Lennists and their smaller Far Left associates, screamed and cried about the horrors of the Czar's fearsome secret police, the Okhrana, with all their extra-judicial arrests and torture and murder.

But as soon as the Marxist-Lennists came to power it was all go for their secret police, the Cheka - who are of course turned out to be ten times more murderous.

Same old, same old. Including having poor old Lefties like you watching all this in horror and asking Now how did that happen?.

guerilla surgeon said...

"No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school ... shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments."
Well, if we're talking about free speech and academic standards, he is a great example. No student can now lose marks on a biology class for claiming that the world is 6000 years old – because free speech.

"But as soon as the Marxist-Lennists came to power it was all go for their secret police, the Cheka - who are of course turned out to be ten times more murderous."

The problem is of course that all this lack of free speech is being done under the aegis of the neoliberal education system, where I imagine that academics have to be careful not to do anything that might result in fewer bums on seats, and therefore less money coming in. If you want academic freedom, which on the whole the right doesn't, given that they are reducing it all over the world – you have to separate universities from so-called performance-based assessment.
Of course the right doesn't want complete freedom of speech, it is just using it as a stick to beat the left with. After all, Donald Trump Junior's alt-right supporters just shut down one of his speeches at a university. Something that they always blame the left for. And journalists are being persecuted all over the world by authoritarian governments, usually right-wing. And yet somehow in the minds of conservatives since the Marxist Leninists that are doing all this. The cognitive dissonance must be amazing.

guerilla surgeon said...

Anyone who thinks that untrammelled freedom of speech has no negative consequences should look to the 300,000 people who died in South Africa because some eejit decided that AIDS was curable by quack medicines, and managed to win in the "marketplace of ideas". Or the kids that have died of measles because some fuckwit managed to convince people in the "marketplace of ideas" that vaccinating their kids is a bad thing.
I put it down to the lowering of academic standards under market forces in academia, which seems to have helped convince people to believe that one person's opinion is just as good as anyone else's – no matter what the qualifications. And it's just taken two minutes to convince someone or something that I am not a robot. Could do without that.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you're ignoring the elephant in the room. Voluntary Student Membership (VSM), as imposed in 2011 by the Nats, basically makes it impossible for students (or at least Student Associations) to challenge the institution, for fear of having their funding cut off. An occupation of the Registry would lead to the Vice-Chancellor tearing up any agreement for the following year.

I note that Chris Hipkins is refusing to repeal VSM.

greywarbler said...

I hardly think that the left are in charge here Tom Hunter. It is the left of the conservatives. And we have to keep asking for some left-type actions, and grudgingly they will appear in truncated form.

John Hurley said...

Free speech isn't false rumour it is the ability of the public to hear both sides of the story

Puddleg said...

Why does Massey have the right to do this?
Because they are a corporation, with no mandatory social responsibility, in the business of taking money.
In other words, they are happy to adopt an extreme libertarian position, but are wise enough to coat it in intersectional blather.
A Fabian socialist or a traditional conservative might say that the university instead has a duty to facilitate and moderate constructive debate on the issues of the day. This is how society has progressed in the past. Imagine if Oxford had been afraid to invite Jerry Falwell, surely a too-triggering personality to the weaklings of today, so missed the opportunity to expose him to the wit of David Lange.
In past discussions of this type, Karl Popper has often been quoted. If Popper is an authority on the limits of free speech, then we should remember that he was a Logical Positivist. A logical positivist only believes what has been proven to be true.
Logical positivists who promise to tell us what they are unable to believe, and explain what would be required to prove it, are not welcome at Massey.

Brian O'Brien said...

If universities, supposed to be a bastion of fearless discussion,will not defend free speech, who will? (One small point:the occupation of the University of Otago's registry was in 1971. How do I know? I was there.)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The right don't want freedom of speech. They just want THEIR speech to be free. If there is any suggestion of some radical Islamic cleric coming to preach in New Zealand, or some communist talking about revolution they are up in arms screeching away about how it shouldn't be allowed. The problem is of course that in the marketplace of ideas, the facile and superficial often wins. And all you people are crying for freedom of speech don't seem to be doing a a great deal to oppose the supposedly terrible ideas that you want to listen to. Presumably because you agree with them?