New Auckland vice-chancellor walks the walk on free speech

I recently reported that the appointment of Australian academic Professor Dawn Freshwater as Auckland University vice-chancellor promised to be a rare breath of fresh air for New Zealand higher education. Where other Kiwi universities, especially those headed by Aussie academics, are clamping on intellectual freedom, Professor Freshwater was at least talking the talk on freedom of thought.

Still, Oilers could be forgiven for not getting their hopes up too early. Plenty of academics pay lip-service to “academic freedom”, only to turn around and stamp their jackboots on the throat of free inquiry.

Education Minister Dan Tehan has accused leading universities of “failing Australia” by refusing to champion free speech on ­campus.

So, where does Professor Freshwater really stand? I’m pleased to report yet another glimmer of hope, as New Zealand stands to gain from Australia’s loss.

The French review was called in response to escalating clampdowns on free thought in Australian universities, and it was especially triggered by the violent protests over a campus speaking tour by gender studies critic, Bettina Arndt, that saw the riot squad called to Sydney University. Former High Court chief justice Robert French recommended a “model code” for universities, to uphold free speech and academic freedoms.

While the University of Sydney and the University of NSW have both raised reservations with the model code, The Weekend Australian can reveal the University of Western Australia is the first institution to issue a new ­response to the aggressive campus culture aimed at shutting down debate.

UWA has ­finalised a statement making clear its expectation that students must be open to a free exchange of ideas that may clash with their beliefs and make them feel uncomfortable.

UWA vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater, chair of the Group of Eight universities, is championing the new statement on freedom of expression. It marks the first ­serious response to the French ­review, which urged the higher education sector to make near ­unfettered speech a “paramount value”.

The UWA statement would allow campus calls for censorship to be dealt with according to clear principles, not by “the subjective whims of vice-chancellors or the vicissitudes of PR considerations”, Professor Freshwater said.

The UWA document stresses learning through “openness to considering ideas that challenge existing belief structures” and ­resisting “inappropriate constraints on the freedom to express (ideas)”, while noting that ­“vilification of marginalised groups” is taboo.

As vice chancellor of UWA, Professor Freshwater has been at the coalface of tackling the violently intolerant leftist culture that is stifling our universities.

Work on the statement began after US paediatrician Quentin Van Meter, who says using ­puberty blockers for children is akin to child abuse, was denied a platform at UWA last August. The move came after student agitation against his supposed “trans­phobia”.

This culture of violently intolerant lefist bigotry is gaining a worrying foothold in the Antipodes; but has its genesis in the US, where it is all but total. But there is at last some kick-back, even there.

The UWA statement, finalised after an extensive internal consultation process, was inspired by the example of the University of ­Chicago in the US.

A beacon for intellectual freedom in the US, the Chicago statement tells new students: “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement.

“We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of ­intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where ­individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The emergence of a “call out culture”, in which a noisy minority of activist students tries to silence competing views as sexist, racist, Islamophobic or transphobic, ­exists throughout the English-speaking world but is worst in the US.


Professor Freshwater is one of the most senior academics in Australia. Her stance on freedom of expression matters. New Zealanders can take hope that maybe a beacon of free expression will begin to shine in the Land of the Long Red Shroud.