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April 3, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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Academic Freedom under attack

A new policy on Academic Freedom has been drafted without consultation with students or staff.

The draft policy, which is currently accepting submissions, is in response to a letter from the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) to Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford “asking that [VUW] enter into a conversation about developing a policy on academic freedom” in 2016.

The decision not to consult was described as “a missed opportunity” by Wayne Linklater, TEU co-president. He wants the policy withdrawn.

“This is probably not the best way to proceed — especially given the level of concern among academic staff.”

Academic Freedom is defined and protected in the Education Act 1989, which provides that “Academic Freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced.”

Controversially, VUW’s draft policy states that “Academic Freedom applies only within a particular academic staff member’s field of expertise.” Linklater is concerned that “it would be possible to define someone’s expertise so narrowly as to claim that they were speaking outside it.”

When asked how VUW would define “area of expertise,” Provost Wendy Larner said, “widely, but as is specified in 4.2.1.”

Clause 4.2.1 requires Academic Freedom to be exercised in accordance with “university values” and “all relevant VUW statutes, policies, and procedures.” It is unclear how this defines the scope of an “area of expertise.”

Linklater stated: “how the heck do you define an academic’s area of expertise, given that expertise is a consequence of learning, of career experience, of multi and transdisciplinary work across a variety of faculties and schools […] especially since new disciplines and knowledge are inevitably developed by us working outside of our expertise?”

Dougal McNeill, Senior Lecturer and secretary of VUW’s TEU branch, said that robust systems already exist to prevent academics from publishing unfounded views.

“We need to trust ourselves as a community that […] we can rely on our peers in regards to what stands up to scrutiny.” He also suggested that “the best way to discredit pernicious ideas is to encourage more critical discussion around these issues.”

Clause 4.2.1 also provides that Academic Freedom must be exercised “in accordance with VUW’s values (as set out in the Strategic Plan).”

The Strategic Plan is a commercially-focused document. Clause 4.2.1 appears to limit the freedom beyond that provided in the Education Act, which specifies “the need for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards.”

Linklater said that the clause “appears to be written in an adversarial fashion,” which “subordinates Academic Freedom to the Strategic Plan of VUW.”

McNeill described it as “worrying, to see something produced which purports to support, but in fact limits, Academic Freedom.”

Further, despite being “university wide,” the policy’s content does not specifically address students.

Linklater argued the policy “is clearly not written for students, and yet the Education Act and VUW should be concerned with the Academic Freedom of students”

When approached about the policy’s applicability to students, Larner pointed to the ‘Definitions’ section of the policy document.

These clauses are excerpts from the Education Act’s definition of Academic Freedom. Larner stated, “if the consultation reveals there is a need for further detail related to student activities, we will seriously consider that.”

If the policy is not withdrawn and redrafted with consultation, Linklater said the TEU plans to campaign against it. “We thought there was room for some hui, and some meetings with staff, to convey […] what was important to staff and what they wanted to address.”

“[VUW] talks the talk, but they need to walk the walk, and there’s a mismatch here between what they keep telling us they respect, and the policy we receive.”

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