Activists’ broad claims on defence are self-defeating

Activists need to properly articulate their position on uni's defence ties.

In its recent Student General Meeting, the Students’ Representative Council passed a motion to oppose proposed cuts to Arts, Business and Dentistry. Within the motion was the rather out of place resolution “to oppose the university’s connection to the Australian military in light of the recently announced AUKUS submarine deal.”

When The Australian picked up the story for a manufactured ‘Exclusive,’ SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu further said that “The SRC believes that funding within the university should be allocated to what we think of as socially productive ends. We think that militarism is not socially productive…the amount of money that is bound up in these [defence] partnerships should be redirected to stopping staff from losing their jobs.”

Deaundre Espejo has detailed the extent of defence-funded research in Australian universities, and demonstrated its likely growth over the next decade. However, the SRC’s nascent anti-defence collaboration stance has been ill-defined and poorly articulated, without any goals beyond undefined ‘opposition’ or wholly unrealistic funding redistribution. 

There are worthwhile activist positions that can be taken on universities’ defence ties, but the SRC’s current pronouncements do little more than make students appear dogmatic and uninformed and, if implemented, would likely leave universities worse off. 

Definitional problems

Calls to “oppose all military ties” suffer from a lack of clear definition, drawing no distinction between private weapons industry partnerships and government-funded initiatives. In terms of university defence-funded research — existing in the popular imagination as bombs and rockets — the majority is banal. Logistics, sociology and international relations, among many other fields, all regularly fall under the banner of defence-funded research. Under calls to completely divest, projects from the routine — military history — to the groundbreaking — Samantha Crompvoets’ sociological studies into the SAS — would fall by the wayside.

Research areas which might be more directly associated with military usage — materials and aeronautics, for example — generally have extensive commercial and public application beyond any immediate military usage, and blanket opposition to military connections would have significant effects on the viability of research areas which maintain links with the defence industry. 

Like all aspects of the university, ‘military connections’ cannot be neatly sorted into black and white. Activists should recognise that some level of military connection in Australian universities is both inevitable and predominantly prosaic. 

If the SRC’s main grievance is with militarism, then that protest should be directed towards government policy, rather than universities’ relatively minor role in participating in academic research which may be used to advance Australia’s defence interests. Such a situation is not, as Espejo puts it, a “another signifier of how far higher education has deteriorated,” but rather an entirely natural and predictable position for a publicly-funded university to find itself in. 

However, if the SRC’s position is based on concern for the university as an institution, then there are a number of elements of ‘military connections’ which could reasonably be opposed in a more targeted and coherent manner.  

Classified research & clarity on ethical boundaries

American student activists found significant success protesting certain aspects of defence collaboration in the late 1960s, extracting concessions from universities which seem unimaginable today. At MIT, university management agreed to disassociate from a Department of Defense funded research laboratory which then accounted for 25% of the university’s operating revenue. 

At Stanford, the university agreed to institute a policy prohibiting classified research on campus after students staged an occupation of a research laboratory. Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago and a number of private universities followed suit in prohibiting secret research. In all these cases, the issue was framed in academic rather than political terms: classified research was seen to be repugnant to the core tenet that academic research should be freely published and disseminated. 

Even in American universities where classified research continues, many have strict publicly-available policies which guide its acceptance and boundaries. At the University of Virginia, for example, classified research must have clear academic merit, and the potential for human dignity to be compromised must be considered.

By contrast, Australian universities do not have specific policies dealing with classified research. In a statement to Honi, the University of Sydney said that, while all forms of research must be compatible with the University’s “core values and ethical standards,” “our researchers have academic freedom to choose to work on [defence-funded] projects, including classified defence research.”

Citing academic freedom to justify such participation appears at odds both with the general purpose of academia — to publish and disseminate research — and the University’s own definition of academic freedom. In its Charter of Academic Freedom, the concept is defined as “the freedom of staff, in the course of their academic duties, to educate, discuss, or research and to disseminate and publish the results of those activities.” Such a charter would imply, at the very least, that classified research — due to its incompatibility with the goals of publishing and disseminating — be subject to a policy framework as in the US, rather than simply allowing academics to “choose” to work on such projects. 

The experience of the 60s demonstrates that change can be affected if it is targeted, and there remain a number of other policy gaps at USyd — on ethical boundaries in defence collaboration, and on external partnerships — that are underdeveloped. 

Focusing on small areas of defence/uni collaboration avoids the conspiratorialism which currently colours the SRC’s stance, and is more likely to lead to change. 

Unintended consequences 

Even if the University were, in a bizarre turn, to divest itself completely from military ties, the consequences would likely not be pretty.

Recalling MIT’s 1969 divestment decision, Dorothy Nelkin writes that “the decision proved unpalatable [for both sides].” Activists did not influence policy — defence research simply moved elsewhere — and the university was left in a significant financial hole. 

Contemporary calls to reject ‘military connections’ suffer from the same issues. Defence research would simply shift to private companies, thinktanks, government agencies or foreign universities, while a spurned government, which already views universities with disdain, would not hesitate in exacting funding punishment. 

Ultimately, as long as there are defence and military requirements, public universities will play a role in their support. If activists wish to oppose militarism, it is the government rather than universities that should be the target of protest. 

The SRC’s poorly articulated opposition to defence and military collaboration unfortunately makes it difficult to disagree with Alan Tudge’s assessment of the USyd SGM motion: “Left wing uni kids will be left wing uni kids.”

Read Deaundre’s Espejo’s artice: ‘Universities deeply embedded in Australia’s military buildup