Disruptive or productive? Two sides of the protest coin

The Australian, April 22, 2015

Last week, the University of Sydney announced formal misconduct allegations against academic Jake Lynch and five students after a campus protest in March ­interrupted an advocate for the ­Israel Defence Forces.

Let’s leave aside the particulars of the allegations, the case is important because it raises vexed questions about universities’ power to regulate behaviour on campus. Staff and students at Sydney and other universities are expected to abide by university codes of conduct. Sydney employees must exercise their “best ethical judgment”, recognise the importance of ideals, act conscientiously, and show tolerance, respect, responsibility and “service through leadership in the community”. Similar requirements are made of students. Universities are never in a position to enforce these codes uniformly.

This means any decision to invoke them for misconduct ­charges is essentially discretionary and may be political. The political dimension of conduct codes is amplified by the fact the conduct they mandate is neither consistent nor objectively defined. A protest that interrupts an event can trigger allegations of misconduct; it also may be argued it conforms to the codes’ requirement of conscientious and idealistic behaviour that displays participants’ “best ethical judgment”.

Protest against injustice is and always has been the wellspring of progressive change. That in itself is an argument it is ethical. The Freedom Ride picket at the entrance to the Moree swimming pool 50 years ago was highly disruptive, disrespectful and intolerant to the manager and people who wanted to swim. But it was exactly the kind of exercise of responsibility and community leadership that should be prized.

There is nothing about universities that prevents this logic applying to them. Dissent and protest are inherently disruptive. That is exactly what they are for — disrupting, and thereby calling attention to, the established order of things. When a group of students interrupts a campus speaker, they cause a temporary upheaval in the familiar order of hierarchy and authority, forcing onlookers to entertain the possibility of altered power relations in the world. This can be highly productive intellectually. As the situation at Sydney suggests, interrupting a speaker can vastly increase the overall intellectual energy devoted to an issue. The onus is on those who want to claim that interrupting a speaker is necessarily contrary to the ideals of a university to show why.

Universities should be dedi­cated to fostering a healthy democratic culture and empowering young people to take initiative as political actors. This means they must always err on the side of extreme indulgence towards student protest. Academics, for similar reasons, must never be sanctioned for giving dissent a political expression on campus, as Lynch has with the institutional academic boycott of Israel. Clamping down on them, as Sydney is doing, is tantamount to stifling the political impulses on which vibrant democracy depends.

Codes of conduct aren’t just inconsistent and subjective; they also hold staff and students to a higher standard of behaviour than institutions themselves. It’s paradoxical that while universities can enforce conduct codes against their staff in the name of ethics, no mechanism exists to guarantee ethical standards of institutional conduct on the part of universities themselves.

This is not a facile point. Administrators must recognise that what constitutes the values they enforce through codes of conduct is intrinsically contested. Failing to acknowledge this contradicts universities’ mission to be sites of experimentation between differing political views, and cows staff and students into an uncritical docility that is wholly inimical to the civic purpose of higher education.

Nick Riemer is an English lecturer at the University of Sydney.

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