Academic Freedom Under Threat Everywhere

In the current political climate, academic freedom is perhaps the most contested aspect of higher education.

November 7, 2016

In the current political climate, academic freedom is perhaps the most contested aspect of higher education. As noted often in Inside Higher Education, University World News and other media outlets, the situation seems to be getting worse all over the world. While academic freedom is respected in many countries, there are numerous cases worldwide where it is limited or even suppressed. It would be too simple to assume that this is only the case in emerging and developing countries, as there are increasing examples in so-called developed countries where academic freedom, free speech and the right to an individual opinion are challenged. Finally, the assumption that only the extremists on the right and left are to be blamed is no longer valid.

There is no universally accepted definition for academic freedom. Some definitions are broader than others. UNESCO defined academic freedom in 2008 as the right “to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies” without any sort of interference. This basic definition introduces the idea that academics are free to teach and conduct research as they see fit, without any sort of resulting retaliatory action. While these ideas are the essence of academic freedom, it is important to recognize that institutional autonomy is closely related and can be considered a form of academic freedom in itself. But the Ivory Tower is increasingly less isolated, the premises of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are both being challenged by political, economic, social and cultural quarters outside of academia.

To better understand the idea of academic freedom, it is useful to understand its development. The concept dates back to the medieval period, where in freedom was limited to teaching. It expanded to include research with the founding of the Humboldtian model of the university in the 19th century. The next major development was the expanded notion of academic freedom defined by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in the early 20th century. This organization asserted that academic freedom extended outside of a scholar's field of expertise and beyond the walls of the university. While autonomy is not the same as academic freedom, the concept of autonomy has provided significant protection for professors and students. Thus, university autonomy indirectly protected academic freedom during periods when it otherwise might have been repressed, although sometimes with limited success. This is especially significant in Germany and America when during Nazi rule in Germany during the 1940s and the “Red Scare” movement in the 1950s in the US at the start of the Cold War, the ideal was under serious threat.

Academic freedom is valued in a variety of socio-political climates but with varied degrees of fragility. Some national environments are supportive, others repressive. States have the power to protect academic freedom through legislation, something that most of the industrialized countries have done. The reality though, is that it is still possible for the scope of academic freedom to be constrained by government or social pressures placed on speech. In Europe and the United States we see evidence of this happening in the current political climate. It is all too easy for a repressive government to impose limitations on free speech, such as prohibition on seditious speech with liberties taken in its definition. Turkey, under the current government, is a clear example of the tensions between principles defined by legislation and interpretations of free speech that suit the current government that has taken actions that have inhibited speech and academic activity at many universities.  Dutch national populist, Geert Wilders, advocates free speech when it allow him to indulge in anti-Islamic rhetoric, but he was the first to demand that a professor at Tilburg University be fired when he compared Wilders’s ideology to fascism.

Academic freedom is at the foundation of the university. While there is no global agreement on its definition, it is globally valued.  Legislative and constitutional protections and effectiveness for academic freedom are an interesting methodology for evaluating the health of democracy and freedom in individual countries.  Yet, these freedoms are increasingly challenged by populist political trends with recent examples in Russia, China, Turkey, and Egypt. But other countries struggle with the boundaries of this unique kind of freedom as well. The reports from the Scholars at Risk Project are illustrative of the increasing perils that professors face in too many countries.

There are reasons to be concerned in the United States. On November 1, Inside Higher Education reported that a NYU professor who used an anonymous Twitter account to criticize his university is now on paid leave. The same day Inside Higher Education reported a case at the University of Wisconsin where, during a football game, two fans wore costumes with one as Donald Trump and the other as President Obama, with Donald Trump holding a noose around President Obama’s neck, leaving the University to struggle with the limits of free expression.  These are only two examples of how universities are struggling with whether boundaries on academic freedom are needed within its community. The sometimes overheated reactions by leftists groups risk supplanting free speech by insisting on politically correct speech and there are serious implications for academic freedom here as well. Academic freedom is a public global good which should be one of the goals we should cherish. But at the same time it must be protected from political agendas of the right and left, where it is increasingly threatened.

Hans de Wit is director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, [email protected]. Kathryn Hanson is a student in the Master of Arts in International Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, [email protected]





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