Sandra Grey – Academic Freedom is not enjoyed equally.

Hau Taki Haere | Tertiary Update Vol 26, No 8

By Sandra Grey

Standing up for the most vulnerable is a core union value. TEU members do it every day.

Questioning received wisdom is a core academic value. Staff in the tertiary education sector do it every day.

But as six scholars – one of whom, Richard Shaw, will be speaking at TEU’s conference this year – have pointed out, not everyone in our community stands up for union and academic values.

In an article for The Conversation, Shaw and his Massey University colleagues have noted that “Women working in universities, including those in positions of academic leadership, are … routinely subjected to online vitriol intended to shut them down – and thus to prevent them exercising their academic freedom to probe, question and test orthodox ways of making sense of the world.”

The observations are not new, but the challenge that they put to men in the academy and beyond is both timely and necessary.

Being a ‘noisy, troublesome woman’ (an academic woman), seen as a nuisance at best or ‘woke’ at worst, often leads to rape and death threats.

I know this approach to shutting women down all too well.

My academic scholarship, which won me a Marsden grant and international speaking invitations, was often dismissed as ‘feminist activism’ not genuine scholarship, while my online posts about gender equity have earned me comments like ‘you’re too fat and ugly for anyone to ever want to ****’.

The use of vitriol and spiteful comments is real both within and outside our tertiary education institutions.

And we do need all men in the TEU to step up and call out the behaviours highlighted by Shaw and his colleagues for the sake of academic freedom, and as a way of living our union values.

We need to publicly speak up and demonstrate that there is no room to hide. Whether that’s in meetings on campuses or on social media. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are not shields behind which you can make commentary that harms and silences others.

We also need to extend the call, it’s not just women who are subject to vitriol and derision.

This is clear in the writings of two people we will be remembering at this year’s conference, the late Cat Pausé and Moana Jackson.

At the 2021 TEU Academic Freedom Conference, one of the most well received panels was led by the late Cat Pausé. The panel explored what academic freedom means for people who are not cis white men.

What does it mean? Academic freedom is not something enjoyed equally by everyone in academia.

The panellists bravely spoke of the harassment they had received for sharing their academic and political views, and the inconsistent protection received from their own institutions.

And the late Moana Jackson, who worked closely with the TEU on its Te Tiriti journey, also challenged the way in which free speech has been constructed.

“The current use and misuse of free speech in a Pākehā liberal framework too often stifles that aspiration in an odd privileging of spite over respect. It also twists genuine attempts to protect people into some misguided attempt at political correctness.”

Let’s honour Cat and Moana, and take up the challenge of Richard Shaw and his colleagues, by speaking against those whose racist, sexist, and homophobic values cause daily harm to scholars and unionists alike.

If you want to be part of the action to enhance and preserve academic freedom, please feel free to contact me and join TEU’s Academic Freedom Network.

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