Education

For a university that deserves the name

AUT law expert Leonid Sirota says his own university ought to apologise to those behind a cancelled meeting to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre - and begin to live up to its obligations as a university.

As reported by Newsroom, the Auckland University of Technology, where I teach constitutional law, prevented an event commemorating the Tiananmen massacre from being held on its campus. Despite AUT’s denials, there is good reason to think that this happened as a result of a suggestion, or indeed pressure, from the Chinese government’s diplomatic representatives. This is an ominous sign for the future of the freedom of inquiry and of expression at New Zealand’s universities.

AUT says that the Tiananmen commemoration had not been booked through the appropriate channels, and that in any case no event could possibly be held on campus on a holiday, as this one was supposed to be. It has been insisting, both to Newsroom and in what appear to be canned responses to me and others on Twitter, that the booking contretemps is the only reason why the event had to be cancelled.

This is not easily believable. For one thing, it would be a remarkable coincidence for the booking problem to be discovered and addressed just as the Chinese diplomats were bearing down on AUT’s Vice Chancellor. For another, it seems unlikely that such a mundane issue, and one with a supposedly straightforward resolution, would have prompted the frantic email exchanges among a number of highly-placed university apparatchiks, which Newsroom has published. One rather worries that, in abetting the Chinese Communist Party’s lies about history, AUT is taking its own liberties with the truth.

Be that as it may, the AUT leadership’s attitudes revealed in the emails are disconcerting quite apart from the truth or lack thereof of its public statements. The Manager of the AUT Chinese Centre referred to an “incident” in Tiananmen Square, and that is apparently how the matter was considered throughout the process. The Head of the Vice Chancellors (sic) Office was “pleased to inform” the Chinese Vice Consul General of the commemoration’s cancellation. The Vice Chancellor was “happy” that his purported “concerns” about the booking for the commemoration event “coincided” with those of the Chinese representatives. “The university”, the diplomats were assured, “has no wish to deliberately offend the government and the people of China”.

Why is this disturbing? Shouldn’t we, indeed, refrain from offending people and, in more pragmatic terms, biting the hand that feeds us? (Newsroom points out that close to 10 percent of AUT’s revenues come from Chinese students.) Of course, one should never set out to offend people. But one must sometimes do things that will offend, because they are the right things to do. One must sometimes risk acting on principle, rather than pragmatically, because the principle is the right one. The principles of free inquiry, free communication of ideas, and free debate are the right principles for a university to act on, and if acting on them offends some people, the university must still stand firm.

Imagine, for a moment, that it was the government of New Zealand that asked AUT to scrap, say, a commemoration of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. (To be clear: I am not suggesting that the government has actually done or would do any such thing; nor am I suggesting that, bad as it was, the Foreshore and Seabed legislation is comparable to the Tiananmen massacre.) How should AUT have responded? After all, a much larger part of the funding comes from our own government than from Chinese students. Would AUT’s leadership have scurried off to find a convenient way to cancel the event? Should they have? Actually―call me naïve―I suspect that the enormity of such a request, and its unacceptability, would have been apparent, had it come from Wellington. Somehow, this just wasn’t the case with a call from Beijing.

Yet the principles at stake are the same. A university exists in order to advance knowledge and share it both within the scientific community and the wider society; to educate individuals in a way that makes them not only technically proficient and employable, but also capable of independent and critical thought; and to serve as critic and conscience of society. In New Zealand, this is not just academic self-flattery: it is our job description, according to the Education Act. Advancement and diffusion of learning, let alone the fostering and application of independent and critical thought, are impossible at institutions where facts, be they historical or scientific, are not allowed to be stated because they offend some group or other―even a group that contributes a substantial amount to the institution’s bottom line. A university that doesn’t understand this, or does not act on this understanding, is not worthy of the name.

AUT should apologise to the people whose attempt to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre it sought to stifle. It should invite them back (which it really ought to have done all along, if all that happened was a scheduling and booking issue). It should give assurances to its staff and students that we will not be subject to censorship at the behest of our funders, whoever they may be. And it should, at the same time, give an assurance to all those who are thinking of imitating the Chinese government―because really, why would it be the only one to try stifling discussions it disapproves of?―that no such attempt will succeed again.

Dr Leonid Sirota is Senior Lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, specialising in constitutional law

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