The New Zealand Herald
Editorial: Troubling threat to academic freedom
26 July 2003
The article on the
That freedom, it should be said at the outset, is not quite the same as free speech. In a free country people generally have a right to express any view to the extent they are able, and suffer no legal consequences unless they are unable to prove a defamatory assertion about another person or a company. Academic expression is not that free.
Academics work within the discipline of their subject. To be awarded higher degrees and to have their work published by their peers, they need be familiar with others' scholarship in the subject, acknowledge it and challenge it if they wish by applying the principles and procedures of the subject. Their conclusions cannot be mere flights of imagination; they must be based on all available evidence and rigorous reasoning.
Academic freedom means that their work ought to be judged only on academic criteria and never constrained by social, commercial or political sensitivities.
On the facts presented by historian Thomas Fudge in the Herald this week,
Joel Hayward chose to assess the historical veracity of "Holocaust denial" for his MA thesis. He concluded, according to Fudge, that there was no unimpeachable written evidence that Hitler personally ordered the physical extermination of Jews, that there was no way of confirming the estimate of six million deaths and that gas chambers were not used systematically for murder. Except for those issues,
He was awarded his MA, went on to do a PhD in a different area of history and became a lecturer at
The university set up an inquiry by a retired High Court judge and two professors of history. They concluded the thesis was flawed but apparently not enough to revoke the degree. They did not believe the student was motivated by malice or racism but they believed he should not have ventured a judgment in such a controversial area. That last statement is the most troubling of the whole saga as Fudge presents it.
It sounds like an admission by the committee of inquiry, and by implication the university that accepted the findings, that there are some subjects too "controversial" for study, even by an honours student under supervision. Historians must never put historic events beyond critical examination. All of history has to be open to constant reappraisal of events, their causes and consequences and the light they throw on the past and present.
Fudge believes the Holocaust is not the only taboo subject in this country. Academics here, he wrote, "are often sensitive to public opinion and political moods. They may actively discourage graduate students from investigating certain topics. There are other topics that ... are sometimes subject to constraints on arguments that may be employed, evidence that may be weighed and conclusions reached".
There is a growing belief that the Government-appointed Tertiary Education Commission will threaten academic freedom. If there is another threat, from within the university walls, the future is bleak, not only for students but for all New Zealanders.