Most scholars would agree that academic freedom is fundamental to the integrity and legitimacy higher education. Without academic freedom, research and other forms of scholarship are constrained, putting into doubt the validity of results. One of the primary justifications for tenure has been that it protects academic freedom and, as a result, the integrity of the academy.
Interference with academic freedom in places like China, Singapore, and more recently, Turkey and Hungary has provoked considerable debate about the appropriateness of university partnerships, research collaborations, and student exchanges, and presented enormous challenges to internationalization strategies at institutions throughout the world.
Academic freedom should protect open and respectful debate about politics, ethics, science, etc. It is, after all, an important mechanism for ideas, hypotheses, and innovation to be examined honestly and critically—no topic or issue should be excepted. Yet Turkey has now banned the teaching of evolution in its schools and introduced a government-prescribed version of national history. While this curriculum reform is directed at K-12, it should be sending red flags to higher education. The government in Hungary pushed through legislation that would revoke the legitimacy and autonomy of the Central European University, an international university that operated with considerable academic freedom beyond the government’s control until now. Even if Bard College can rescue CEU, this government intervention has sent shock waves in Europe and beyond. The annual report from Scholars at Risk is replete with examples of assaults on individuals and institutions that undermine the possibility of unhindered scholarly activity.
China has become an important actor in international higher education. Recent reports would indicate that its growing influence has the potential to undermine academic freedom beyond its borders. It seems that the decision of the China Scholarship Council to freeze CSC-funded scholarships at the University of California, San Diego is likely to have been a consequence of UCSD’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak at commencement. With a more obvious intent of limiting academic activities at a foreign university, China requested that Cambridge University Press block access from China to some articles in American Political Science Review. Although these actions had no effect at either UCSD or Cambridge, economic and political interests are often at odds with principle and this tension is likely to increase in the future.
And then there is the United States. For decades, we have prided ourselves for taking “the high road” in matters of academic freedom, judging other countries harshly where free speech and unrestricted scholarship are not guaranteed. Of late, the discussion of academic freedom on many US campuses has degenerated into a debate over whose academic freedom will be protected rather than assuring it for all.
We now have a president who undermines science at every turn. In this administration, ideology “trumps” science when public research funds are distributed. Influence may also accompany financial gifts that come from organizations like the Charles Koch Foundation. When funding is provided to hire additional faculty, to what extent might the political preference of the funder influence the review of candidates? Cash-strapped (particularly in the public sector) universities may become increasingly susceptible to accept gifts with strings attached and external interference could shape scholarship.
An online watch list insists that " . . . students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls". Lists like this echo days from America's darkest past.
Open, uncensored discourse is fundamental to academic freedom. Yet the daily higher ed press is awash with examples of debate and free speech being denied. Remarkably many of the restraints on academic freedom are being imposed by students! The chaos and destruction caused at Berkeley earlier this year prompted by the planned appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos and the confrontations at Middlebury College at a talk scheduled with Charles Murray have been covered extensively in the professional and general press. More recently students shut down an open forum took place at the College of William & Mary when students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement impeded a talk by a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ironically, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter, was there to discuss free speech. Columbia students shouted down a video appearance by Tommy Robinson. Perhaps more alarming, administrators do not seem to be able to find a constructive strategy for dealing with raging students other than punish them or cancel controversial speakers.
I find myself sympathetic with the anger and frustration of the student protestors in many of these incidents, but not the behavior, particularly in the context of a university campus. If we can’t sustain civil debate on a university campus where academic freedom is meant to protect the expression of all perspectives, where then can it happen? Theories like those of Charles Murray and proposal like Bruce Gilley’s suggestion that there is a case for a new colonialism need to be debated publicly, not withdrawn. How else will students learn how to examine these ideas for their shortcomings of logic, academic rigor and data?
Particularly disconcerting is that these student protests are fodder for the Trump administration’s campaign to undermine the value of higher education. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking full advantage of the protests to suggest that freedom of speech is under attack on US campuses.
At a time of increasing globalization and when internationalization is developing as a key dimension of higher education, if we cannot cultivate the capacity to coexist with differences of opinion, culture, religion, or politics civilly on our campuses, then we will continue to watch the blessings of academic freedom dissipate.
Sadly, modern universities are at risk of becoming ideological battlegrounds rather than communities of free inquiry. Heaven help us if we continue down this path.