The elements of academic freedom

Times Higher masthead, via their site.As universities grapple with reducing budgets, their autonomy from government comes increasingly under scrutiny, and traditional academic values such as academic freedom come under threat. As a consequence, a recent story in Times Higher Education concerning a recent attempt to define academic freedom in detail, makes for fascinating reading (with added links):

What is freedom? Choosing your v-c

By Rebecca Attwood

Proposal is key part of plan for European ‘Magna Charta’ on scholars’ rights.

Academics would be given the right to appoint their own vice-chancellors under plans for a Europe-wide definition of academic freedom. The proposals have been tabled by Terence Karran, a senior academic in the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln

One of the cornerstones of the proposals is the need for academic self-governance. Setting out his plans in the journal Higher Education Policy, Dr Karran says: “To guarantee academic freedom, academic staff must … be able to determine who shall serve as rector. … Where possible, the rector should be appointed from within the university by a democratic process with the support of the majority of academic staff. … Where the appointment is external … academic staff should have the major role in determining (it).”

So far as I know, very few universities in fact choose their Rector (President, Provost, Vice Chancellor, head honcho, great leader) in this way; I think that the only one in Ireland that does is TCD, where I work. The Irish Times recently reported that discussions on “whether the college has the traditional election among academics or whether there will be a more modern search and selection process” are “already concentrating minds at Trinity”. Against that backdrop, I find it interesting that something very like TCD’s “traditional” process is being seen as part of a radical modern proposal to safeguard academic freedom.

It is an important proposal, but there is more to Karran’s piece than this; rather, it is a comprehensive vision of academic freedom. In Ireland, it is secured by section 14 of the Universities Act, 1997 (also here); the Magna Charta Universitatum was founded by the University of Bologna and the European University Association (EUA) and opened for signature by universities in 1988 on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna; and section 4 of Recommendation 1762 (2006) concerning Academic freedom and university autonomy (reaffirmed last month) the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe provides:

4. In accordance with the Magna Charta Universitatum, the Assembly reaffirms the right to academic freedom and university autonomy which comprises the following principles:

    4.1. academic freedom in research and in training should guarantee freedom of expression and of action, freedom to disseminate information and freedom to conduct research and distribute knowledge and truth without restriction;

    4.2. the institutional autonomy of universities should be a manifestation of an independent commitment to the traditional and still essential cultural and social mission of the university, in terms of intellectually beneficial policy, good governance and efficient management;

    4.3. history has proven that violations of academic freedom and university autonomy have always resulted in intellectual relapse, and consequently in social and economic stagnation;

    4.4. high costs and losses, however, could also ensue if universities moved towards the isolation of an “ivory tower” and did not react to the changing needs of societies that they should serve and help educate and develop; universities need to be close enough to society to be able to contribute to solving fundamental problems, yet sufficiently detached to maintain a critical distance and to take a longer-term view.

Building on earlier work, Karran now proposes a working definition of academic freedom for the European Union states which could form the basis for a European Magna Charta Libertatis Academicae; his proposals cover not only the protections for teaching, research and tenure, but also extend to academic self-governance, and are drafted in such detail as to determine boundaries and accompanying duties. He concludes:

… the European Union already has a Magna Charta Universitatum, [and] establishing a Magna Charta Libertatis Academicae would constitute a desirable next step. Such a document would protect the professional rights of staff, and raise vocational standards, while providing enhanced protection for students from abuses of academic freedom. … More important than this, however, is the recognition by academics that the protection of academic freedom is something in which they should become actively involved. There is a tendency, given both the ever-growing pressures to teach more students and write more articles, for university staff to ignore the process whereby, via legislation or legerdemain, academic freedom is being slowly but irrevocably eroded. Academic freedom brings rights and responsibilities — a major one of which is to ensure that such rights are there to be used and enjoyed by future generations of scholars. Society at large will only sanction the granting of particular freedoms to a specific professional group if it is persuaded that these freedoms produce net benefits. Hence it is incumbent on today’s academics to voice, with passion and persuasion, the reasons for the continuance of academic freedom. Neglecting such a responsibility will surely impoverish academics, academia and the free society in which they operate.