When academic freedom is undermined from within.

By Suze Wilson

As a leadership scholar whose research includes a focus on political leadership, I’ve been writing ‘expert analysis’ articles for news media outlets since at least 2017. As part of ongoing research related to both gender in leadership and crisis leadership, I’ve been studying Jacinda Ardern’s leadership behaviours, practices and approach, publishing a number of articles about this via The Conversation. I’ve also had work published in scholarly journals related to Ardern’s pandemic response and the virtues that inform her response and that of other women heads of state. Since the Delta outbreak in August 2021, however, doing this work in the mass media has come with a price: I get abusive responses from members of the public.

I’m very conscious that the volume and intensity of what I’ve encountered is absolutely miniscule compared to that targeted at Auckland Uni’s Siouxsie Wiles, or Massey’s much-admired and sorely missed Cat Pausé. I know, also, that my Pākehā privilege means I don’t face the racist abuse that wāhine Māori scholars and other scholars who are people of colour endure when they speak out in their area of expertise. Comparatively, then, I do realise I have relatively little to complain about. But that doesn’t make the behaviour ok.

Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne contends that misogyny is most usefully understood as the enforcement arm of patriarchal beliefs and structures. Accordingly, when someone subjects me or other women to abuse, threats, and harassment for daring to express our views, the motive and the goal is to intimidate, and to punish us for failing to be a ‘good’ – i.e., docile, silent, submissive – woman. The threat conveyed to all women is ‘watch out, or this could be you too’.

Such behaviours also serve also to undermine the legislatively protected right to academic freedom that we in academia have, to engage in public commentary on matters related to our areas of scholarship and research. And, it contributes to the erosion of civil discourse, which is so fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.

In the aftermath of Jacinda Ardern’s resignation, I’ve been interviewed by a number of media outlets both domestically and internationally to provide commentary on her leadership. I’ve also written articles for The Conversation and The Listener. One theme I’ve emphasised in all those engagements is the pervasive and disgusting sexist and misogynistic abuse to which Ardern has been subjected. For me, it’s impossible to understate just how significant I see those factors as being for women’s leadership more broadly, and for understanding why Ardern lost popularity. I think it’s vital we do not trivialise or diminish in any way the significance of that.

It has therefore been both upsetting and disappointing, to put it politely, that for the first time in my experience I’ve received abusive messages from other academics about my comments. One characterised my article in The Conversation as ‘nauseating’. The other concluded I had “disqualified yourself as a scholar and, in my view, as an individual” – meaning, in other words, they believe I ought not to be allowed to exist. For context, neither of them has any qualifications or publications in relation to leadership, or anything even vaguely connected to my field of expertise, yet nonetheless feel entitled to school me on what I should and should not say when exercising my academic freedom.

In my experience, these examples offend against the way we generally speak to each other within academia. I’ve seen some pretty harsh peer reviews, but never such insulting and disrespectful language. If as academics we expect our employers and the government to ensure that our rights to academic freedom are protected, it also seems to be the case that, for some of us, that work starts by taking a good hard look at our own behaviour.

Suze Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at Massey University.