Thursday, 10 September 2009

Who would've thought lawyers would care more for academic freedom than the university?

I have only read about half of the judgement of the appealed UWA v Gray case, but the findings are far more wide reaching, I think, than The Australian has given it credit for.

The judgement acknowledges the changes that have faced universities since the 1980s, making them increasingly entrepreneurial. But the finding is clear that these pressures do not excuse the university from complying with the Act that enables its existence.

That Act requires the university to pursue knowledge and disseminate it. Commercialisation that necessarily – even temporarily – requires secrecy is a contradiction to this requirement by the University’s Act. They acknowledge that universities are likely to still pursue commercial goals and that there are significant forces compelling them to. But commercial goals will never obviate their requirement to fulfil their original mission.

This is really important, because it goes to what an academic does. Academics research and teach. They may also disseminate knowledge in other ways. They could possible patent things but this is not central to their role. It can’t be central to their role because it is not a part of the role of the university, that the Act requires.

The judgement says that UWA has been reluctant to say what the role of the modern university is. This is not surprising, since the UWA’s lawyers have been allowed to betray every tradition that the university form has upheld for hundreds of years.

The UWA stressed, apparently, in their appeal, that the only consideration of import was Gray’s obligation as an employee. The Federal Court, however, guided by the University’s Act, has nevertheless insisted on considering (a) the role of the university as explicated by the Act and (b) the role of the academic in fulfilling the university’s mission – this role being one of membership, not subjugation. The fact that UWA stressed Gray’s employee status over his membership is a betrayal to the university tradition and to academic freedom that shocked me: it suggests that the UWA values the income potentially derived from Gray’s inventions more than the special position the iuniversity holds in society. This special position – a position that, not incidentally, gives the university the right to declare authoritatively over a wide range of issues, since the separation of commercial values from knowledge production gives it this authority – is central to the university’s traditional mission.

The Federal Court obviously was not amused either and showed that the Act made the university different to other commercial employers – a difference that, thankfully, the court appreciated, even if the university did not.

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