Academic freedom as ideal and practice

Johan Ehrstedt, Heidi Henriksson, Jari Böling & Xiaolu Wang

This blog post was written as a part of our coursework assignment for the second module of university pedagogics.

Currently, the university is going through uncertain times marked by austerity measures, demands for ’effectiveness’ and growing reliance on the private sector. These tendencies, we argue, pose serious threats to the academic freedom of universities. In this text, our purpose is to contribute to the conceptual discussion about academic freedom by linking together the ideal(s) and the practice(s) surrounding it.

The concept of academic freedom is intimately linked to the very idea of the university, to the extent that it can be called a fundamental principle of university life (Karran 2009, 17). It is a concept both often defended and criticized, but problematic to define. This is because academic freedom needs to be seen as a contested term that can be given various meanings from different positions. The contestedness of the whole concept of academic freedom is quite natural when you consider the fact the introduction of the concept can be dated back to the early 19th century and was at that time a response to the rise of the modern research-oriented university. The concept was premised on giving the state the power of decision in matters of appointing new professors, so that those considered critical of the contemporary political order were, in practice, excluded from these positions. In the 20th century, the idea of appointing professors regardless of their political inclinations evolved. Instead of having absolute freedom as lecturers, according to Max Weber among others, university teachers should not express their ideological standpoints but restrict their teaching to scientific matters, making a clear distinction between science and politics (Josephson 2015).

The whole concept of academic freedom is connected both to views on knowledge and truth and their internal relationship with what is considered to be the academic mission. Some critics of academic freedom argue, that since scholars are broadly questioning the notion of objective truths and neutral knowledge, academic knowledge is no longer superior in the sense that scholars should be entitled to exclusive privileges (Josephson 2015). These critics seem to define the term “freedom” exclusively as “freedom from”: that scholars and academics have privileges that mean they can avoid such duties, regulations and criteria that other professional groups or student groups cannot avoid. These kinds of stereotyped and disparaging perceptions are mostly misplaced as their definition of freedom is a negative one. They fail to see freedom in terms of the ability to choose, to be critical, to act responsibly and make informed decisions. (Most people would consider these traits as inherently positive ones.) In this sense, academic freedom is neither just a set of privileges nor only a philosophical ideal, but a concept also connected to the practices of making science. As Josephson (2015) argues, the interaction between competent practitioners gives us important insights about science as a profession. When governments and private companies seek to influence research projects, the autonomous knowledge production within academia is at stake. Of course, there will always be interaction between academia and the surrounding society, but we maintain that it is in the interest of the society in general that the academic freedom is preserved and enhanced.

In a way negative definitions of academic freedom hinge upon a highly atomistic and conformist view of people and society. Contrary to this, academic freedom can be seen to enable people to do the opposite: to push the boundaries, to challenge structures and, to some extent, to break rules are part of the academic freedom and a responsibility for scholars and teachers. In turn these possibilities are a part and parcel of the processes that make the production of knowledge and truth possible. This is one way of operationalizing academic freedom: by putting it in relation to what should be seen as the core mission of the university, namely to be able to produce critical and even transformative knowledge. In the same vein Terence Karran (2009, 20) says,“knowledge is created by challenging, rather than accepting, orthodox ideas and beliefs, which means that, because of the nature of their work, academics are more naturally led in to conflict with governments and other seats of authority”.

While it is debatable whether academics are by default more critical of powers that be, it goes without saying that a lot depends on how university teachers and researchers make use of their freedom. This applies both to inside and outside academia. Sweeping political changes, including abortive notions of ’effectiveness’ and ’productivity’, have taken place within the Finnish society in the past twenty years. A consequence of this in matters of higher education have been increased levels of managerialism and the bypassing of both academic staff and students in relevant decision-making processes. These developments have already had a profound influence on academic culture and one can reasonably argue that academic freedom is more and more threatened also by forces inside academia.

With freedom comes responsibility. Academics must take their role as intellectuals seriously and both engage popularly in public debates and in the media, for instance. This freedom to be critical and to connect knowledge with transformative action should neither be weakened at universities, nor should it have to be solely restricted to academia. Instead these ideals and practices could, when and however possible, be broadened to concern other forms of education such as basic education, popular education and vocational education.

Moreover, other areas of professional life and civil society could also benefit from this kind of freedom to think and act critically. But it is important to keep in mind that “freedom”, along with “flexibility”, can also be used as euphemisms for precariousness and uncertainty. Choosing an academic career often means short-term grants with competition over scarce resources and an indeterminate future. This precariousness of course concerns not only academia, but working-life in general. Thus, engaging in the debate over what kind of freedom is desirable is an important task. That is also why we argue that positioning oneself both when teaching and in research is both a freedom and responsibility for scholars.

Criticism from university towards government, private sector and different sectors of society should be welcomed by all respective parties. Indeed, the level of freedom to criticize existing norms, policies, power relations and arrangements and the response this elicits from different quarters of society can be seen as an indicator on how pluralistic a society that claims to professing to pluralistic values in essence really is.

Josephson, Peter, “Kräver akademisk frihet bodelning mellan vetenskap och politik?”, Tidskriften Respons. Recensionstidskrift för humaniora & samhällsvetenskap 3/2015., accessed 6.6.2016.
Karran, Terence (2009) Academic freedom: Essential Liberty or Extravagant Luxury? In Bell, Les; Neary, Mike and Stevenson, Howard (eds). The Future of Higher Education: Policy, Pedagogy and the Student Experience. London, GB: Continuum, 2009.

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