News from the Regions

IAMCR Newsletter - July 2016


Congratulations to Prof Gerard Goggin and Chika Anyanwu for their election to senior roles at the IAMCR, Gerard as secretary general and Chika as member of the International Council. Both have made – and continue to make – significant contributions to ANZCA.They’re amongst the most collegial and facilitative of colleagues one could hope for and have done much for communication scholarship down under.

Gerard, in fact, led Sydney University’s successful bid to host the 2017 ANZCA conference in Sydney. Please look out for the call for papers and consider joining us in July 2017.

ANZCA has commented in Australia news media recently about a number of recent cases in Australia where academics were sanctioned – one is at risk of losing his job, as I speak – for ‘bringing the university into disrepute’ through their tweeting and other social media activity. Without wanting to comment on specific cases, as the details are not public, the cases raise some important boundary issues about academic freedom and the limits of the managerial university.

The starting position has to be that it is a mistake to see university reputations as being in tension with the free and robust participation of their academic members in public debate. As Henry Reichman of the American Association of University Professors noted in 2014, academics must be free to engage with the larger community. ‘Policies that restrict such freedom will only undermine the ability of colleges and universities to fulfill their mission and serve the common good’. The reputation of a university must be seen as intertwined with enabling – if not championing – its academics to exercise academic freedom against pressures from funders, governments and powerful interests.

Universities managers, in human resources, research offices or marketing, seem to be particularly uneasy about the robustness of the exercise of that freedom on social media. There are two major issues here. Firstly, universities are not the people to take on that role. Public intellectuals will swear back at a troll – as Deakin University’s Martin Hirst is said to have done – or criticise Israeli politicians – as Steven Salaita did, losing his job offer from Illinois University as a result. That speech is open to criticism, which should be voiced, norms of public debate upheld and the positions of privilege, from which boorishness and bigotry often arise, called out. In rare cases where it reaches a legal threshold, universities should ensure their staff stay within national laws of harassment, civility and the like. But, when you begin from principles of academic freedom, we should be very slow to allow political or economic or social argument on Twitter to become a university employee or brand matter.

Secondly, this is not a matter of universities giving a platform for socially divisive or abusive voices. There is a case to be made for universities and student associations refusing to host voices avowing violence or intolerance, even a case for arguing that Germaine Greer should receive fewer speaking invitations if she holds aggressively intolerant views on transgender issues – although bans are rarely a successful way of tackling an issue. But Twitter is not a university platform. Likewise, academics are not simply employees, but also public figures.

Underneath these concerns lies the problem of the conservative culture of university management, in which brand reputation encompasses also a desire to create a safe and non-controversial environment for students and a desire to look after external relationships with potential funders. That culture needs occasional vigorous disruption. Cases of academics losing their jobs for their tweets may be isolated, but the underlying practice of academics self-monitoring and managers screening content is sadly not. For these reasons, we need to tell university managers that our social media activity is, for the most part, outside their ambit.

Donald Matheson
President, ANZCA