I learned early on that critical researchers attract additional scrutiny, from the ire of former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon over my research on gangs at the start of my career to the refusal of then Trade Minister Tim Groser to release a single document on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement towards the end. Along the way there has been sniping and concentrated fire from political pundits and bloggers.

In universities, the contest of ideas takes place within relationships of power. Senior academic colleagues can be potent gatekeepers for the prevailing orthodoxy. A former dean attacked Tiriti research by law school colleague David Williams and me, publicly and personally. The National Business Review reported how senior male academics in the Law School waged a “Stop Kelsey” campaign to prevent my appointment to a professorial chair. When appointed to a personal chair in 1997, it was with support from conservative academics in other disciplines who staunchly defended my academic freedom and refereed by an eminent international legal scholar.

How has my career succeeded in spite of these obstacles? My first rule of survival is to be clear from the outset about your role. Clarity helps develop medium-term strategies to guide your career, anticipate and confront the inevitable obstacles and setbacks you face, and approach the future with confidence.

My second rule is to focus single-mindedly on the issues and not go down the rabbit hole of personality politics, even when those in power seek to do so. Personalised attacks indicate your opponents lack substantive arguments. Maintaining a private persona is equally important. Keep the focus on the issues. I have no social media presence and leave that to others because social media means having to deal with endemic disinformation. I have no idea how we would run the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement campaign today with the need for integrity of information it required.

My third rule is to be strategic about when to use your voice and the power of your position, whether in media, government, the courts or international forums. Know which battles to fight, when and how, and when it’s not the right time or issue. Equally, don’t opine outside your expertise. An effective public intellectual needs to be media savvy. Recognise the media can be an ally, an enemy or just weird.

Make sure you do your homework. I learned as a young researcher that getting it wrong has consequences. I wrote a report for civil society that criticised the fourth Labour government’s human rights record that relied in part on second-hand information. A print journalist challenged several of my claims. I felt vulnerable, and instead of admitting my errors and apologising to those whose reputations my inaccuracies had impugned, I hunkered down to defend myself and my co-author who had relied on my research. That taught me a painful lesson, and helps to explain why some of my writings are over-burdened with detail and references.

Restoring and upholding the public-good function of universities requires leadership at all levels. Academics need to rediscover our collective spine.

One last guiding rule: it is the responsibility of academics to defend this space by speaking truth to power within the university. Statutory references to academic freedom and the critic and conscience role of universities are not just slogans. They were hard-won protections in the later 1980s, thanks to University of Auckland academics Ruth Butterworth, Margaret Wilson and Nic Tarling, when then Education Minister Phil Goff sought to take the universities to market.

Protecting that space has become increasingly difficult over three decades of managerialism, the downgrading of vice-chancellors from academic leaders to chief executives and employers, the privatisation of university financing, and deunionisation of campuses. Collective governance on academic matters through faculty, senate and council is still embedded in the Education Act, but has been systematically destroyed by management hierarchies.

The union, once considered an integral part of university governance, is treated by management as the enemy in an institution that increasingly relies on precarious employment and where academic decisions often rest with Human Resources. Even senior academics feel vulnerable when speaking truth to internal power under these conditions.

Restoring and upholding the public-good function of universities requires leadership at all levels. Academics need to rediscover our collective spine. Protection rests in numbers, including through the union, and we need to perform our public responsibilities despite any gagging and loyalty clauses inserted in our contracts or imposed unilaterally as university policies.

Precisely because talking truth to power is a risky and unequal encounter, those who undertake it need to be protected. Too often, from my experience, critical scholars who survive and succeed in academia do so despite, not because of, our intellectual home. That needs to change. We require support for academic activism from the top down to create an environment free from fear and that fosters and celebrates the full diversity of our public-good roles.

Last but certainly not least, every academic activist needs a solid, dependable support base who will talk truth to your own power and haul you back on track.

This article is adapted from Jane Kelsey’s valedictory lecture, Truth to power: the legal academic as licensed subversive. 

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