In defence of academic freedom

Over 90% of new businesses fail.

The vast majority of genetic mutations are harmful to an organism.

A simplistic observer might assume that new businesses or mutations, and that suppressing them might be desirable. Yet upon genetic mutation depends the entirety of evolution, from multi-cellular life to the giraffe’s stupendous neck. And without new business formation, an economy would stagnate. Far from them being undesirable, a society which encourages new businesses is more likely to prosper, grow and outcompete its rivals.

As with new businesses, so with new ideas. The majority of challenges to existing wisdom will be wrong. But without heterodox ideas, society cannot be move forward. Knowledge can not advance. And as the principal institutions in the search for that knowledge, the principal of academic freedom is vested in universities, to further that goal and to provide a defence against the tyranny of public opinion.

As set out in the 1915 Declaration of Principles of the American Association of University Professors:

An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university. It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is often right. Indeed, by its nature, we believe it to be right. But sometimes it is wrong.

It was once orthodoxy that the sun revolved around the earth. That the earth and humanity had been created a few thousand years ago. That slavery was essential to a successful economy. That women were inferior to men, unsuitable to hold property or to vote. That a person’s capability or worth could be judged by something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin.

Nor were dissenters from these orthodoxies believed to be making an academic, intellectual point. On the contrary, beliefs that humans had descended from apes, or that women should have the vote, were seen as dangerous and subversive, threatening – so the orthodox of the time wrongly believed –to cause great harm to, or even entirely undermine, society. One need only read some of the criticisms levied at the suffragettes to be sure of this.

There is a dangerous trend in today’s universities to say that academic freedom will only be tolerated provided that it expresses ideas that the orthodox agree with, or find harmless. Ideas or research that is distasteful, or may be thought harmful, must be suppressed. Yet by its very nature, orthodoxy cannot distinguish whether or not a ‘harmful’ or ‘distasteful’ idea is correct or otherwise. Many such ideas will indeed be mistaken, wrong or simply bizarre – but as we have seen above, many vital ideas were also thought dangerous and distasteful in their day. Had ideas perceived to be ‘harmful’ been suppressed we would have had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no labour movement, no women’s suffrage, no gay rights and no theory of evolution.

As an aside, it is important to observe that while the current orthodoxy is of the left, the examples above demonstrate that the right has acted equally intolerantly of dissenting views in the past. Neither side has a monopoly on vice, and the cause of academic freedom is one that transcends political ideology.

City upon a hill

Worryingly, universities are becoming increasingly intolerant of academic freedom. This is not a pressure primarily being imposed on by outside, but rather from within the academy itself.

In many cases, including the attacks on Nigel Biggar and Noah Carle, the attacks have been led by academics. These can only be described as witch-hunts, in which large number of academics sign a petition to dismiss or defund one of their peers. Notably, in each case the majority of those signing are from a different field to the individual in question, meaning they cannot possibly be qualified to opine on whether or not the person’s research is of good quality. In other cases, particularly in the US (for example the Evergreen Affair, or Harvard’s recent dismissal last week of its first black faculty dean), students have played an important role, but the authorities have been quick to cave to the mob. In the Carle and Sullivan cases, universities appear to be seeking to dangerously limit academic freedom, by suggesting it applies only to peer reviewed papers and not to any of the academic’s other activities, something that would be a dramatic restriction from its historical understanding and significantly curtail academics’ freedom, particularly in the modern information era.

More worryingly, for every high profile case that goes viral, there will be a much larger chilling effect, where a researcher – particularly if they are young or on a short-term contract – decides to self-censor. Why research anything unorthodox, if the risk is public humiliation and dismissal?

Universities should be a shining beacon to society, a city upon a hill in which free thinking and new ideas can flourish. What is startling about the current affair, is that the academy is revealing itself to be less open-minded and more intolerant of heterodoxy than the population as a whole.

Government ministers have been forced to lecture universities about the importance of free speech and academic freedom. The Times has come out in support of Noah Carle. The #RhodesMustFall campaign faltered not in Oxford, but upon meeting backlash from the wider public, media and donors. And whenever I have repeated Biggar’s statement to those outside academia, from all political persuasions that ‘British people can have pride, as well as shame, in their history’ they have universally considered it a statement of the obvious, often adding words to the effect of, ‘Just like any other country, isn’t it?’ Only in academia is this considered an unorthodox opinion that deserves dismissal.

Actions for university leaders

This state of affairs is not a stable one. Universities’ special place in society is founded, in part, upon its ability to act as a beacon of free-thinking debate and the pursuit of knowledge. In the longer term, it will be difficult for universities to defend their other extraordinary privileges, such as institutional autonomy and the Haldane principle, if the academy itself is seen to have turned its back on academic freedom.

So what are university leaders to do? I can suggest three principal actions:

  • Publicly speak out about the importance of academic freedom. This applies to anyone in a position of real or perceived authority within higher education, and includes the necessity of challenging cases where universities, or others, seek to limit it.
  • Adopt statements supporting free speech, such as the Chicago Principles. Ideally this would be adopted by entire universities, but if the university refuses, some good can be achieved by it being adopted by individual faculties.
  • Stand up to the mob. While students and academics are free to protest, university leaders should make clear that calls for dismissal of faculty on speech grounds will not be accepted. And under Popperian principles, academics who campaign for the dismissal of their peers should themselves be criticised and condemned for their attempt to undermine academic freedom.

There are many within universities who still hold to a belief in academic freedom. It is time for them to act, now, before it is too late.

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4 responses to “In defence of academic freedom

  1. Isn’t there a tension here, between universities which aim to be places of free ideas, and those that also portray themselves as welcoming to a diversity of students- who would expect to live and work in a place where ideas that may be harmful about their identity are not openly discussed by their seniors?

    And how does this sit with the idea that universities should work to create less “hostile environments” for those underrepresented in HE, as engines of social mobility, as discussed by Duncan Exley on Wonkhe today?

    I don’t propose to know the answer, but finding the right balance is something universities must consider.

  2. ‘British people can have pride, as well as shame, in their history’. Really? Said in the context where there has been no real acknowledgement of British imperialism and its murderous, rapacious impact & legacy. This ongoing toxicity pervades Britain’s view of its own past and far too much of current politics. Truth would be a good start rather than this constant whine from the right wing that their views are somehow suppressed. When in reality they have never had so many platforms to speak from and even the most reactionary are now seemingly normalised in our everyday discourse.

  3. The danger of this view (that is is merely an issue of the right wing) is mistaken and a strategic mistake. Much of the progress made in society has been through the protection provided by freedom of speech. As can be seen in the US there are cases attacking the freedom of speech of left wing academics as much as right wing ones. Once the principle of free speech is given up, it is lost for all sides. This also goes beyond left and right, some of the worst cases have been left wing academics denounced as right wing because they have a disagreement with a specific issue held by a minority left opinion.

    Freedom of speech has got to be defended as a liberal principle, rather than as an pawn in an ideological battle between the left and right. Anything else is short-sighted.

  4. ‘There is a dangerous trend in today’s universities to say that academic freedom will only be tolerated provided that it expresses ideas that the orthodox agree with, or find harmless.’ Really?What’s your evidence for this? Signing a letter profoundly disagreeing with another academic’s current research project because you believe its effects to be harmful is not a violation of free speech, but an expression of it. I expect better from Wonkhe…..

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