better make some noise while you can
It's time to take risks in the name of academic freedom
Academic freedom is so crucial to the integrity of academic life
that even those politicians, bureaucrats and administrators who
are by temperament hostile to it feel compelled to affirm it. The
flourishing of university life needs individual risk-takers who
are ahead of their time and prepared to search for the truth, wherever
it may lead and whomever it may offend.
Historic breakthroughs in intellectual and scientific thought inevitably
challenge the prevailing order, which is why those who question
the conventional norm frequently face repression. Since the 19th
century, the ideal of university autonomy and the liberty of those
involved in higher learning to teach, research and express their
views have been formally upheld in many societies. It helps to promote
the development of science and knowledge, which benefits all of
Sadly, contemporary academia takes academic freedom for granted
and implicitly treats it as no big deal. Yet a closer look suggests
it is threatened from both within and outside the university. Paradoxically,
direct attacks often come from within the university. There is a
mood of intolerance towards those with unconventional, unpopular
opinions. Some academics do not simply challenge the views they
dislike, they seek to ban them and prevent those who advocate them
from working or speaking on their campus.
Take, for example, the campaign to ban Tom Paulin, poet and Oxford
University academic, from speaking at Harvard University for allegedly
being anti-Semitic, and Durham University's memo to arts and humanities
academics telling them they will have to gain approval from an "ethics"
committee if they want to give lectures and tutorials on subjects
that could offend students.
Such censorship is the inexorable consequence of an academic culture
that is increasingly prepared to censor itself and others. For some
time, so-called ethics committees have pronounced on what kind of
research is ethical and what kind is not. Extending their role to
censoring academics' opinions is the logical next step. Academics
who privately treat ethics committees as a minor nuisance need to
realise how much their freedom is under threat.
Although the Durham memo put matters rather bluntly, its premise-
that words that offend students must be banned - is widely institutionalised
in higher education. Virtually every UK university has adopted codes
of practices that convey the message that "the student must
not be offended".
That academics are expected to live with a code that explicitly
demands that the pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas and
arguments be restrained by the need to spare the feelings of others
is a symptom of our time. What is more disturbing is that there
is no serious opposition to such policies.
Of course words can offend. But one of the roles of a university
is to question conventional truths. A good university teaches its
members how not to take hateful views personally and how not to
be offended by uncomfortable ideas.
Another threat to academic freedom is the growing auditing ethos,
which has fostered a climate in which academic freedom is compromised
by bureaucracy. Lecturers, for example, now need to ensure that
their teaching is consistent with "learning outcomes"
that meet the requirements of externally imposed benchmarks. In
many ways, the erosion of academic freedom through quality assurance
procedures is more insidious than the more overt crusade against
offensive speech. Such systems help create a climate of conformity
where the freedom to express one's views and teach what an academic
sees fit is bartered in exchange for a quiet life. We should speak
out against it.
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement,
11 February 2005