It’s tough being a conservative at university nowadays, or so the story goes. I found nothing surprising about Zachary Snowdon Smith’s tale of extreme and bizarre opinions expressed by teachers and students at the University of Melbourne, but I also don’t think campus conservatives are victims of an ideological indoctrination program. Like Smith, I am a University of Melbourne alumnus, but I studied both the humanities and the sciences. My time in student politics and as Secretary of the Student Union in 2009 made me well acquainted with the progressive tendencies at the university. However, I emerged from this supposedly dangerous indoctrination machine with no intention of becoming an evangelist for a “resentment-ridden ideology.” Australian universities like Melbourne are much too big and too diverse to ever run an effective indoctrination program.
Conservatives may, for or better or worse, find themselves a minority on campus. The University of Melbourne is situated in the country’s most progressive major city, as evidenced by their unique propensity to elect the Greens to the lower house in federal politics. The university has an urban campus filled with young, educated people, and is majority female—a perfect demographic storm for progressive politics. It’s no surprise that a majority of the students and lecturers have progressive leanings. But comprising an intellectual or ideological majority is not the same as indoctrination. It is simply the current academic vogue in the humanities, not some kind of systematic oppression of campus conservatives.
Universities cannot and should not act to curb the expression of views that might be interpreted as extreme or unorthodox. The University of Melbourne has a very liberal policy on academic freedom. All scholars have the right to express ideas or opinions even when doing so may cause offence. The only conditions are that discourse should be reasonable and in good faith and that any applicable ethics rules (for example, research ethics) are adhered to. Therefore, if a teacher or student, argues that female genital mutilation has positive aspects, that is not grounds for disciplinary action. The World Health Organization and United Nations would disagree, but we should not sack teachers or expel students merely because they disagree with the WHO or the UN.
It is simply impossible to tell ahead of time which of today’s stupid, unlikely, or unreasonable ideas may be discovered to be useful and true tomorrow. Classic historical examples might include Copernicus and Galileo, but there are numerous questions over which academics reasonably disagree. Gender studies professors argue about whether sex work is empowering or disempowering for women and what is the best legal and policy approach towards it. Neuroscientists, like myself, argue with each other over the relative contribution of a particular molecule towards a mental disorder or disease. In each case, one group might think the other side’s arguments are stupid or unsupported by evidence. University administrators cannot and should not try to pick winners in these arguments. The best approach is to just let the academics argue about it until they come to a resolution.
It is easy to forget, when complaining about the dominance of progressive politics within universities, that the humanities are just one faculty within a much larger campus. On the same campus, the commerce faculty might teach first year students classical or neoliberal economics, while the humanities professors might assign readings from Karl Marx. Peter Singer, a University of Melbourne alumnus and laureate professor, might inspire a new generation of animal rights activists as the university fills its biomedical precinct with animal research laboratories. If the humanities on campus are really indoctrinating students in just one way of thinking, you only need to walk across campus to find another department full of people whose indoctrination program is completely opposed.
Students also complicate the indoctrination story by bringing their pre-existing values into the classroom. According to Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, some students will resist engaging with certain topics, such as radical feminism, to express their political opposition to the topic. This includes self-righteous progressives, as she writes in a piece for the Conversation:
Certain students this semester seemingly felt no compunction at all to challenge my language. Mid-sentence. “Prostitution” for example, will promptly get corrected to “sex work” before we’ve even had the lecture discussing the politics of language. In a week on Black Feminism, an in-context use of “Nigger” should, apparently, have had me saying “N-Word” because that’s less upsetting. There is, seemingly never enough warnings I can give to buffer upset.
Students, even at the undergraduate level it seems, are no passive receptacles for knowledge. They can and do shape the curriculum through their actions, from explicit demands that have forced professors to reconsider the language they use, to more subtle signals that they send through their course selection and teaching evaluations. University administrators and lecturers are therefore in an unenviable position. On the one hand, many students are demanding more progressive classroom cultures. On the other, conservatives are denouncing them for being responsive to these demands.
Where students go after their degrees also shows that the University of Melbourne is a spectacular failure as an indoctrination machine. If the university was any good at indoctrination, we would not expect to find its alumni prominent in both of Australia’s major political parties. The University of Melbourne has hosted both a Liberal Club and a Labor Club since 1925 and proudly counts Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister and Liberal legend, Sir Robert Menzies, among its alumni. Its library even manages a special collection documenting Menzies’s life. The more left-wing Labor party has had prominent Melbourne alumni such as Gareth Evans and Kim Carr on its frontbench. Melbourne alumni can be found in both the progressive Grattan Institute think-tank and the conservative Institute of Public Affairs. Recently, James Patterson was returned to the Senate on the Liberal ticket, having previously worked for the Institute of Public Affairs and studied at the University of Melbourne.
Universities are large institutions with an enormous amount of diversity. The University of Melbourne boasts over 50,000 students from over 140 countries and its 4,600 academic staff produce over 7,000 research publications on an annual basis. With such a large body of students and staff, political and ideological diversity is inevitable, so it’s no surprise that among the University of Melbourne Student Union’s 200 affiliated student clubs are both libertarian and socialist political groups. A good indoctrination program would not allow these various groups to exist, let alone fund them through the student union.
The narrative of conservative victimhood at universities is based largely on criticisms of the humanities when universities also support students in science, commerce, engineering, medicine, and law. So long as campus conservatives are using their minority status to claim oppression or ideological indoctrination they are joining in a game of grievance one-upmanship with their progressive counterparts. Perhaps this strategy might win sympathy in the short-term, but it might also discourage more conservative students from engaging with these disciplines. In the long-run this will leave us all unable to communicate and argue on matters of substance where we reasonably disagree.
Shaun Khoo completed a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science (Honours) at the University of Melbourne and a PhD at the University of New South Wales. He is currently a behavioural neuroscientist at the Université de Montréal.