In Defense of Academic Freedom and Autonomy in Brazil

University autonomy and academic freedom are essential if universities are to fulfill their social mission which is why public authorities must guarantee and promote respect for these prerogatives.

November 19, 2018

Brazilian society is going through a period of extreme political polarization. Obviously, political polarization is not an uncommon phenomenon at the moment. However, a climate of war, which in many cases exceeds mere ideas and contributes to hostilities, does not help the consolidation of a hard-won democratic regime. Situating the debate in the realm of ideas is a sign of intellectual maturity and political intelligence. It is important to emphasize that respectful coexistence is an indispensable condition for universities to fulfill their mission of generating knowledge and training citizens in diverse areas. Infusing the academic environment with anti-democratic and hostile attitudes compromises not only the institution's primary mission, but its relationship with society, which is ultimately the main guarantor of its activities.

A week before the second round of Brazil's presidential election, a series of police and electoral justice operations took place at several public universities across the country, resulting in the removal of banners and posters on campus. Amid these operations, some newly-elected congressmen suggested that students should record their professors in order to document possible cases of "indoctrination". It was even suggested that they should avoid gatherings or group meetings. The academic community reacted quickly, with several protests and mobilizations. At my University (Unicamp), the response was also quick. Nevertheless, uncertainties for the future remain, as the new government continues to give signs that directly assault the values of the university.

In fact, university autonomy and academic freedom have been asserted as the two primary values defended by the universities that signed the Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU), an international document that established the fundamental principles of higher education institutions in 1988 on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna. As widely reported, the 30 years of the first edition of this document were celebrated this past September at the University of Salamanca where the values established by the Magna Carta were reaffirmed.

Brazil enshrined university autonomy in the Constitution in 1988. The following year, this principle was strengthened for the three public universities of São Paulo with the introduction of the financial autonomy system and budget allocation fixed to a percentage of state revenue. The policy had significant impact on the academic production of these institutions. This can demonstrated quantitatively through quality and productivity indicators that include teaching, research and community services.

Just one day before the second round of the elections, the Attorney General of the Republic, Raquel Dodge, appealed decisions by the electoral judges who had authorized the search and seizure of folders and campaign materials at universities and faculty associations and the interruption of public political demonstrations at federal and state public universities. Unicamp immediately requested to act as amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the case. On October 31, 2018 Supreme Court Justice, Carmem Lúcia, accepted Unicamp's request. According to the Brazilian Code of Civil Procedure, amicus curiae includes a person, entity or agency with deep interest in a particular legal matter taken before the court and serves as a source of knowledge in unusual, new, difficult or controversial matters, in advance of a court decision. The amicus curiae draws the court's attention to facts or circumstances that might not be noticed otherwise. As amicus curiae, Unicamp may formally offer advice about the case to the Supreme Court.

At a time when Brazilian society is entering a new political period at the federal and state levels, it is more than opportune to highlight the principles established in both the Brazilian Constitution and the Magna Charta as guiding standards for public policies focused on higher education. University autonomy and academic freedom are essential if universities are to fulfill their social mission which is why public authorities must guarantee and promote respect for these prerogatives.

It is imperative to recall that no country has been able to achieve a progressive and sustainable pace of economic or social development without building a sound university system. On the other hand, it is not possible to consolidate the foundations of an efficient academic environment without guaranteeing free discussion of ideas and the preservation of civil liberties to ensure that all citizens have the right to freely state and express their convictions without suffering persecution by any government, institution or social group.

Brazilian universities have always valued the discussion of fundamental issues for Brazilian society and must publicly defend those principles that are indispensable to their activities—an environment of tolerance, respect and responsibility. In the current Brazilian context, recognizing, respecting and valuing academic freedom and university autonomy is not only an act of justice, but also a strategic element of development for the country.



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