Academic freedom and religious belief
In Ireland, the concept of academic freedom is enshrined in law under the Universities Act 1997, section 14 of which provides:
‘A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.’
One context in which the application of academic freedom may perhaps be problematical is where an academic expresses views of a religious nature, particularly where these are addressed to students. In 2004 there was some controversy in University College Dublin when a Lecturer in Diagnostic Imaging was alleged to have persuaded students to attend Opus Dei events (Opus Dei being a conservative organisation within the Roman Catholic Church); the lecturer in question eventually retired early from the university after an internal inquiry had been conducted.
Now another case has arisen in the United States, in the University of Illinois, where a professor teaching in the Department of Religion declared to his students that the Roman Catholic Church (whose doctrines he supported) viewed homosexuality as ‘morally wrong’. After complaints were received from students, the professor’s appointment at the university was terminated, and he argued that this was a violation of his academic freedom. He is now preparing what may become a legal challenge to the university’s actions. Various points of view are emerging, some of which suggest that academic freedom does not cover the expression of personal opinions, as distinct from the dissemination of analysis and study. In this particular example, the issues could be complicated further if a person holding these views were to articulate the church’s position in such a way as to justify discrimination against gay people, which would bring him or her into conflict with equality legislation.
It seems to me that it is very difficult to know where to draw the line in all of this. Maybe it could be said that proselytising in support of any particular religion does not come within academic freedom; but then again, why should the expression of such a position be different from, say, advocating support for a controversial political position?
On the basis of the report, I am inclined to think that the University of Illinois got it wrong (though I certainly do not support the position expressed on this occasion by the academic in question); or if it got it right, then it is hard to see how a meaningful concept of academic freedom could be protected. But one way or another, academic freedom is a complex concept, and protecting it is not easy, particularly on the margins (where most disputes are likely to arise).higher education, law
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