ASPI’s proposal to further militarise and securitise the University. Part 2

Aug 13, 2021

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s recent proposal to enrol the science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas of the research universities as part of a national security establishment along the lines overseen by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is a regrettable initiative.

First because of the contempt it displays for the University as a place of learning. Secondly for the inevitable and considerable danger for the university system should the proposal be implemented.

Our universities are in crisis.They are no longer fit for purpose?

For those who have paid attention to the evolution of the Australian universities under neoliberalism (and before for that matter),  ASPI’s proposal is but another offensive against the traditional and reasonable concept of the university – a concept frequently declared on feast days of the university to placate those who, worried about the evidence, envisage it as more than a tool shop for the established political, social, and economic order 

Operationally, however, the universities revert to the standard operating procedures demanded by that order. Their status is pathetic: secular monasteries inhabited by various types of mendicant orders in the land of infidels, apostates and barbarians in relation to the best traditions of the Enlightenment.  

For the most part – Ramsay Centres for Western Civilisation being one notable exception – they are generally indiscriminate as to who they accept funds from on the grounds that they cannot afford to be sensitive to their provenance. They are, therefore, suitable places to be plundered, hamlets to be colonised by the security agencies of the state.

For all of that, to anyone who has been paying attention to press releases and announcements from the main research universities, the ASPI proposal is but a call for the  intensification of existing practices: Defence already funds university research and teaching in several areas and not just in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) which are the focus of the ASPI’s Australian DARPA proposal. 

By way of two examples, it might be recalled that early work on certain Star Wars (rail gun) technology was conducted at the ANU, and opportunities to participate in the Minerva Project, an initiative with a strong preference for anthropologists, but generally “designed to mobilise social scientists for open research related to the war on terror” . . by “researching the relationship between Islam, violence, and terror, and proposing new experimental fields which . . . might be as useful . .  as game theory proved to be during the Cold War”(sic). On close examination, it was found to be  subversive of sound research funding, and sound intellectual practice.  

When parsed for not only greater detail, but also for what it leaves out, an implemented proposal would have Australian universities follow their US counterparts down a track which leads to serving the objectives of the Military-Industrial-Complex  MIC) through satisfying their technophilia by providing the bases for for more efficient instruments of death, destruction, and population control.  

This will, of course, be justified in the name of deterrence. The problem here is that this over-used benediction has been seen to be intellectually and empirically wanting – which probably accounts for the fact that it is studiously avoided by those who most deeply know it.

For the university-as-institution the current dystopia will be exacerbated, in the first instance, to  cloaks of secrecy and a faculty divided by access to knowledge and radically different modes of performance evaluation.  What is made quite explicit in the ASPI proposal is the need for appropriately security-cleared academics. Equally, it is clear that those so cleared will be assessed by other so cleared against criteria that are determined by satisfying the objectives of the MIC and not peer-review.  Mutatis mutandis, this will apply to the postgraduate students who will be involved. It cannot be otherwise given the classified nature of the research in the first place.

Nevertheless, on the basis of attracting significant revenue streams a new national security-relevant clerisy will be ushered in and they will enjoy the status and privies of an exalted caste.  Implicit in the ASPI proposal is that, on the completion of their respective projects they will return to their previous academic  lives.But how credible is this? 

Once joined, life within the clerisy will become habit forming and addictive. The numerous studies and analyses on British, but especially American academics indicate that a “return home” is not to be contemplated with equanimity.  For their Australian counterparts the thought of being immersed in lecturing, tutoring, examining, and the overburden of administrative dross would be a carceral sentence.  

And some students might justifiably ask whether they want to be taught or supervised by an academics who have spent several years of their lives perfecting or advancing instruments of death, destruction, and political control.

These objections, and others of a similar character, are unlikely to receive serious  consideration in the chancellories of the universities. Indeed, there is an ongoing proliferation of things labelled “centre” and “institute” across the campuses of Australia, all representing exceptions, special interests, privileged funding sources.  

If anything, and with regard to very recent developments, the resistance might for the present, be futile.  Last month ANU, with no sense of irony, let alone shame, announced that former Army Major-General, and Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, had been appointed a “professor in the practice of national security” in the  university’s National Security College (NSC) with a brief to strengthen the links between the NSC and government.

What more is to be said except, perhaps, Kurt Vonnegut’s memorable phrase,” and so it goes” To be sure, the NSC could never be accused of identifying with an open university and academic freedom in the Enlightenment tradition – its advertisements for suitably security-cleared academic staff when it was first established puts paid to any such suggestion. But celebrating the professorial appointment of a person who has spent his entire career discretely eschewing open debate, and withholding or managing information and ideas on national security is an explicit episode in self-harm.

Such people, no matter their previous lives of faithful, distinguished service, belong elsewhere, off campus, in the  privileged centres and institutes they should take with them.  On some things, and on the basis of the historical record, this is one of them. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was right: moderation is impossible; abstinence should be the rule.

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