ANU preaches free speech, censors student

“ANU prides itself on the principle of academic freedom and I am always proud to see our students standing up for issues they feel strongly about. I am disappointed this happened, and everyone has learned from it.” 

Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, let go a sad tweet on 20 March. He was referring to the university removing the biographical information of a high achieving law student from university marketing material. 

Odette Shenfield had refused to remove a reference to the government’s refugee policies, which she rightly described as “inhumane”. For that, she was erased from the promotional booklet. This was despite recently picking up a string of academic awards and accolades, including the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and Australian Government Solicitor Prize. 

In the wake of student and community outrage when national media broke the story, the ANU College of Law took to Twitter admitting it “made a poor call” and quickly reaffirmed its support for students “speak[ing] out on issues they feel are important”. 

It’s hard to take such a commitment seriously when correspondence between Shenfield and the marketing department had been leaked in the Canberra Times a few days earlier. It clarifies the reason for the omission and points to the priorities of the university more generally. 

“I hope you can appreciate that the Commonwealth government is the donor for one of your prizes, and that should never stop you from speaking out against policies that you feel strongly about, but part of our job within the college is to maintain donor relationships to ensure it is available to future students”, an email from the university reportedly explained. 

“The publication of this booklet is aimed at fostering those relationships.”

The university’s “poor call” and the vice-chancellor’s disappointment seem less to do with removing the bio and more to do with putting their motivations in such clear and honest language. 

Think whatever you fancy – but please don’t rock the boat by actually saying it! The hypocrisy is reinforced by a quick look at some relationships the administration has recently fostered. 

In December 2016, the university signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, promising “a collaborative working partnership on research, analysis, training, policy matters and other engagement activities”. 

This year, the vice-chancellor is considering setting up a new undergraduate degree in Western Civilisation to access substantial funds from the estate of the late insurance mogul and Liberal Party donor Paul Ramsey. 

When concern is raised around the lack of free speech on our campuses, it’s usually from a racist throwing a tantrum over the right of students to organise against his bigoted ideas or from a conservative conspiracy theorist railing against the imagined threat of politically correct thought police in academia. 

Freedom of speech is being undermined and a censorious atmosphere is descending on our campuses, but what this looks like in the real world is a far cry from the right’s paranoid ravings. 

The experience at ANU shows that the primary threat to free speech at university comes from the very people preaching the virtues of academic freedom – the university bosses and administrations. 

When it comes down to it, those running the university care about revenue streams and respectable relationships and are happy to silence or sideline anything that might threaten these first principles.