Balancing Act: Academic Freedom versus the Common Good

Perseus and Andromeda by Charles André van Loo (CC0)

This article appeared in the October 2022 edition of Murra Magazine, published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra.

Growing up in regional Australia, particularly in the frontier country of the Cape York Peninsula, develops one’s sense of ‘rugged individualism’. But an Australian sense of liberty, particularly in its rugged regions, would not be possible without the equality of opportunity provided by a strong nation-state. This tension between individual freedom and the necessity for a strong sense of community is ingrained through several generations of my pioneering Australian family (some tracing their lineage to the Kamilaroi people of the Guyra region) and permeates my scholarship. This tension is not lost in my recent appointment to the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts, where my colleagues and I provide advice to the CEO on the selection of research projects for competitive grants funding.

My sense of individual liberty stems from the liberal arts tradition, and my commitment to Australia’s liberal democracy extends beyond mere words. As one of four generations of my family who have served in the Australian Army, two of those generations in both world wars, with one grandfather (despite being gassed in Pozières in 1916) serving again for six years in World War II, the family tradition is a lot to live up to. And that sense of community is evidenced in my family’s role in the Guyra region, where my great-great-grandfather established one of the earliest Salvation Army Corps at Tenterden in the early 1890s. He, too, enjoyed writing and often wrote for The War Cry. Balancing individual liberties with the needs of the community, however, is not without its challenges. 

I find the tension between individual rights and community responsibilities to be most acute in my work with the College of Experts. Each College member must put aside their individual biases (including those biases that might otherwise be unconscious) in performing their important role. As a proponent of the liberal ideal rather than simply following trending virtues, I am averse to any attempt to have my academic freedom curtailed. But the College of Experts brings the communal aspect into the scholarly tradition in the same way our political system enables our individual liberties.

While an American might cringe at government-funded research as the norm, Australia’s sense of community that enables our individualism is reflected in the role of the Australian Research Council in recommending research projects for funding. With recent geopolitical events disturbing my sense of individual freedom and providing a Damascene moment, the National Research Priorities supported by a rigorous system for prioritising public-funded research clearly play an important role in supporting Australia’s national interests.

Having a front-row seat to some of the best research projects in Australia while learning from more experienced members of the College has provided me with a robust sense of balance between academic freedom and the need to ensure public-funded research contributes to the common good. In reconciling this tension and reflecting often on how our Australian liberal democracy functions, the profound sense of responsibility is not lost on me.

The experience has not only been beneficial for my own research and bringing that experience into the research community at the University of Canberra, but also for my teaching. Grappling with unconscious bias, focusing on the project and not the person, establishing rigorous criteria, and being able to defend a project while deferring to others’ expertise are humbling lessons that provide one with a sense of stewardship.

I daresay my ‘rugged individualism’, inculcated by the frontiers of the Far North and my time in the bush with the Army, has become more sophisticated through its moulding by institutions. As a political scientist, I have always been fascinated by how difficult it is to change institutions, defined by March and Olsen as ‘the formal and informal rules of the game’. Yet as a member of the College of Experts, I have become increasingly aware that the rules of the game ensure the game is played fairly. Creating an institution worthy of our respect for academic freedom while giving the community a ‘fair go’ with their money is quite the challenge. In the reflection I have outlined here, the Australian Research Council strikes an important balance between the needs of individual researchers and the community. I am honoured to play my part in the functioning of the Australian Research Council, which, when viewed in this way, I find to be a peculiarly Australian institution.