Academic freedom in a modern democracy

As readers of this blog will know – and as you can see in more detail in the two posts below this one – concern has been expressed in Ireland by a number of university and college staff about the future of academic freedom. Speakers at a special meeting in Dublin last weekend on this topic voiced their fears that economic pressures, government policies and university management priorities might conspire to lead to a change in the terms of employment of university faculty, and that the nature of this change could compromise, erode or even abolish academic freedom, notwithstanding the protection afforded it by section 14 of the Universities Act 1997. This section 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.’

This may seem to many to be a very strong statement of protection, but some academics have voiced fears that it was being eroded by various pressures and could potentially be amended or even repealed in legislation now expected to reform higher education.

The concerns expressed by those attending the meeting in Ireland are not unique. An essay collection recently published in America suggests that the academic community is ‘bullied by corporate interests, saddled by the need to curb its rhetoric to match national political agendas, and pressured by the military.’

The main case for academic freedom is that it ensures that scholarship and teaching can support dispassionate debate, unbiased research and analysis and the dissemination of insights that may be unpopular or that someone would like to suppress. The problem for the academy, however, is that this case often looks to the public like special pleading for a group of employees who are, so the argument goes, already uniquely privileged and who sometimes use this privilege to ward off challenges to the quality of their performance. Recent letters to the editor of the Irish Times newspaper illustrate this wider public scepticism, as did a strongly-worded contribution from the floor made at the Dublin meeting by one non-academic participant.

In my view it is right and appropriate to defend academic freedom, because the intellectual integrity of all universities would be fatally compromised if this ideal were to be abandoned or put at risk. But it is also important that those making the case for it do not present it as an argument against change overall, or an argument against the accountability of the academic profession. Academic freedom is a complex concept, and it is not necessarily easy to state what added ingredient it contains beyond the right of free speech available to all citizens. But if these issues are taken into account and addressed sensitively, then academic freedom should be defended as being important, positive, enlightening and liberating for society as a whole.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education

21 Comments on “Academic freedom in a modern democracy”

  1. Andy Says:

    That’s very curious. I recall that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was considerable pressure on academics elsewhere (including at QUB) to do more research, even or especially on those whose chief interest was in teaching at degree level.

    I thought that was a worrying development at the time, but discouraging research just goes right against the grain.

  2. Vincent Says:

    How exactly will changing the terms and conditions for the upper levels of the academic staff interfere with academic freedoms.
    And again, what legal property principle can tie ‘Legitimate Expectation’ and the realities of the exchequer. Further I’d dearly love to know the cretin that supplied to the Government the legal advice stating that the expectation of future earnings are private property therefore drawing the force and protections of the Constitution.

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    “How exactly will changing the terms and conditions for the upper levels of the academic staff interfere with academic freedoms.”

    Exactly like this: by eliminating tenure, you make it possible to silence those who publish or speak truths that make the government uncomfortable, who go against the prevailing consensus, who threaten corporate profits, etc. Imagine a situation where a big pharmaceutical company has given a multi-million euro grant to an institution to research a new compound. Now imagine that the research of another researcher at that same university has discovered that a drug from that same company, one that is already on the market, poses a health threat to the public. It doesn’t take a further leap of the imagination to figure out what’s likely to happen next.

    Lest that seems far-fetched, you ought to ask Prof Morgan Kelly what sort of things happened to him when he published a series of very prescient articles in the Irish Times that gave the lie to the government spin of the time.

    What’s amazing to me is that tenure, which is such a fundamental concept to the very concept of a university (as an institution devoted to the disinterested pursuit of truth), is coming under such aggressive attack. You may have noticed that none of the actual “world class” universities in America have given even a moment’s thought to the idea of abolishing tenure. You might ask yourself why that is and how it is that Ireland is so exceptional that it thinks it can recruit internationally (because, certainly, this place has so much appeal to international scholars) while offering lecturers a much worse deal than they can get elsewhere.

    • Vincent Says:

      Exactly. We’ve had so called academic freedoms for yonks now. So then where was the freedoms exercised when scumbag medics decided to feed polluted blood product to hemophiliacs while sending whole blood to the States getting huge premiums. Where was the freedoms when kids in Homes out in Dun Laoire were subjected to pharmaceutical testing. Where was the freedoms when kids were being buggered, beaten, bloodied and broken by a bunch of scumbag priests, brothers and assorted nuns.
      Yeah, Academic Freedoms are a cornerstone for any decent society IF they are used.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Look, Vincent, you can’t blame academics for everything that goes wrong in society. What academics have to do with the abuse of children by the Catholic church is beyond me…

        But the point is, given the control of the media in Ireland by a very small group of interests, if you abolish tenure (and thereby academic freedom, which is nothing more than the freedom from government and corporate interference) you rule out one of the only other institutions where government and corporate and other ideological falsehoods can be exposed.

  4. jfryar Says:

    What I find confusing about this whole issue is the mixed messages being sent out. On the one hand, people talk about ‘academic freedom’. On the other, I fail to see this freedom existing anymore.

    As a research postdoc, my academic career will ultimately be decided on the basis of papers I publish. I might potentially be the most fantastic motivational lecturer but that counts for nothing in today’s university. What I’ll be assessed on is whether this person did good research and published in ‘high impact’ journals, is that research compatible with the strategic objectives of the department, will this person attract research funding from government agencies, etc.

    My opinion is, in science, to get ahead you have be doing research that will secure funding. That means adapting, tailoring, and in some cases bending truths to convince grant-awarding bodies that your research meets some criteria relating to economic or strategic direction. In other words, the notion of ‘academic freedom’ is a myth. I’m not ‘free’ to persue any research interest I want, only those that others think I should be researching.

    If, of course, we define ‘academic freedom’ as the right to be critical then I agree with what’s been written above – how is that any different to freedom of speech enshrined in law?

    • sapphire Says:

      You are free to pursue any research you like, it’s just that you may not get funding for it.
      Academic Freedom does not include the right to get funding for your research.

      • jfryar Says:

        Well, let me give an example. In the early 1980s the big topic in physics was string theory. It looked as though it might be the solution to all of our problems so funding agencies were happy to pump money into string theory research. And postdocs jumped at string theory with the result that departments were full of string theorists and very few people working on alternative theories.

        These postdocs subsequently went on to become academics and heads-of-department. So now you had string theorists recruiting string theorists and being in charge of the allocation of grants, which favoured string theorists. It got to the point in the US where the heads of theoretical physics departments were almost all string theorists. The whole situation stagnated research in physics by about twenty years because alternative theories weren’t explored.

        The point is that this happened because of academic tenure in the US. It was the complete opposite of freedom and the complete opposite of unbiased research.

        If, as you say sapphire, ‘academic freedom’ does not include the right to get funding, then how are academics actually ‘free’? What you’re really saying is that academic freedom is an aspiration that never really applies in the real world because people can’t actually study what they want.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    The desire to protect academic freedom is laudable but one has to ask is tenure the best way of achieving it? Most of us are pretty uncontroversial most of the time so it is unlikely to arise.
    Moreover there is a dark side of tenure, namely that once you have got it you can put your feet up if you are not worried about promotion (or maybe once you have got one promotion). People who exploit this are unusual in my experience these days but then so are those controversialists who might worry about being victimized.
    There may be other mechanisms to protect the latter which would allow us to prevent the slacking-off problem.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Most of us don’t have anything to hide from the law, so do we really need laws against unlawful searches and seizures? That’s the sort of argument you’re offering here, and it’s weak. It’s especially weak because controversy is not the only reason that one might need the protection of tenure as my pharmaceutical example makes clear.

      Then there’s the eternal canard about the mythical academic “slackers.” You’ll have to explain to me exactly what you gain by making those who have nothing to say or publish at the moment publish more and more minuscule contributions at an ever more frenetic pace to satisfy the bean counters (who, needless to say, don’t bother reading anything before making their judgements). You know, some disciplines do require a great deal of thought and reflection. These are to be encouraged. The current productivist/managerialist mentality is hell bent on stamping them out.

      Given what it takes to get an academic job it would be extremely surprising to find that any more than a tiny handful were “slacking off” as you say. You have to be driven to get an academic job. You have to go through the rigours of getting a PhD and doing well on it (and not just any PhD; you’ve generally got to go somewhere very reputable). Then you’ve got to publish and compete for an academic job. Getting promoted is even tougher. Given all this, it would have to be very rare indeed to find people slacking off.

      But while you’re obsessing about that and abolishing tenure to “solve” this phoney problem (and “solve” how? who will judge who is slacking off? will they be required to read the scholarship of the alleged slackers? will they be experts in the field?), maybe you might give a moment’s consideration (if you have time, what with the busy publication timetable) to what the abolition of tenure will do to the abilities of Irish universities to recruit internationally. Top researchers want tenure just as much as the “slackers” of your imagination. Why would they come here when every single university in the US offers them the possibility of iron-clad tenure? And what do you think that’s going to do to the quality of Irish research and teaching?

      • Al Says:

        Have to agree with Ernie
        What Managements seek from Academics are what they are unwilling to offer themselves to Government!
        Is this consistent?

        Is it to far a bridge to imagine mandatory inclusion of this knowledge economy, innovation, etc, etc, in all third level courses!

      • kevin denny Says:

        I can’t see the point in engaging with such an arrogant individual as you, who dismisses out of hand any views that don’t correspond to your particular, tendentious view of the world. Is that what passes for discourse in whatever branch of the humanities you claim to inhabit? But I guess thats the point of your anonymity: a license to be obnoxious.

        • Al Says:

          Sorry about that…
          I was having a bad day.
          Trying to do too much…

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            I think he meant me, Al.

            Kevin, saying I “dismissed out of hand any views that don’t correspond to [my] particular, tendentious view of the world” is doubly wrong. First, I didn’t dismiss you out of hand. I had an argument that you are dismissing out of hand on the flimsy pretext that I was obnoxious. Second, the view of the world I’ve expressed here is really quite mainstream. It’s the view that informs most of the great universities in the world. Only in third-rate shitholes do they worry about “slackers.” And just to forestall the thought crossing your mind at this very instant, the fact that they are shitholes has nothing to do with the number of “slackers” but everything to do with bad know-nothing administrations who lack confidence in their workforce.

            Anyway, much of my “particular, tendentious view of the world” comes from the beloved Cardinal Newman after whom the building we both work in is named. Indeed, the spinning of Cardinal Newman in his grave is, I believe, what powers the lights in that building. Others who share my views can be found among the several hundred at the meeting on Saturday, some of your colleagues in economics, Martha Nussbaum, and virtually the entirety of the university staff in France, just to name a few. That you’ve drunk the currently fashionable kool-aid and think that economics is the master science before whose tribunal all must justify their existence is too bad for you. See, my view may be tendentious but it’s a long view. And in the long view it will soon no longer be possible to ignore the centuries-old founding ideas and decades-old practices of the great universities just because one’s eyes have been glazed over by a pernicious ideology.

            “Me, ideological?” you say? Yes, you. If not, let’s have some facts about these mythical “slackers” of your imagination. How many are there? What are they doing wrong? How do you know they are there? And if you don’t have facts but only assumptions, then I’m afraid that’s just bad science infected by ideology: a witch hunt. That the proposed solution to this made-up problem is a draconian one–the abolition of tenure–and not practised by the vast majority of the acknowledged best universities in the world, both public and private, makes your view the tendentious one.

  6. Dan Says:

    Just wondering, who are all these slackers we’re all worried about. I’ve yet to see evidence that stands up, is it all just chatter?

    All I’ve seen here is the like of “when I was in UCF 10 years ago, there was this guy who was a bad lecturer” or “everybody knows that university lecturers don’t do any work – sure a friend of mine knows this guy…etc”.

    Would you destroy the energy and good will of a generation of young university staff, because of talk in a pub or on a blog? Would you do it anywhere else?


  7. I have to confess something. I am really, really sceptical about the argument for academic freedom that suggests academics have something special to say to society and can prevent abuse or whatever, and that for this reason their views need special protection.

    Frankly, this is not *the* argument for academic freedom, nor even a particularly good one. If it is anything, it is an argument for free speech for *everyone*. It’s simply nonsense to say that academics predicted our current economic difficulties more than others did. Some academics voiced concerns, others didn’t or even supported policies that got us here. And many of those who *did* sound warnings weren’t academics. In fact, if you look back at all the list of abuses, corruptions, mistakes and fantasies that afflicted politics or society over the past 50 years, very few of them were unearthed by academics. Putting forward this argument seems ludicrously self-indulgent to most outside the academy.

    The argument in favour of academic freedom is about education and scholarship, not about giving us an opportunity to talk patronisingly to the wider public or even to government. Of course, what we produce in the education process or in that scholarship may sometimes correct error or reveal corruption or incompetence, but we have no special claims over anyone else in that context.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Ferdinand, one reason tenure must be preserved is that the university is among the very last places where the past is studied. The population have short memories but universities have long ones. And in the long memory of some academics are any number of ideological purges of those holding unpopular ideas: the Cultural Revolution, McCarthyism in the United States and any number of others. Given the terror and populist hysteria into which the Irish nation has been whipped (one need only have read the Sunday Independent for the last few years to get the whiff of leather), it’s not very hard to imagine similar things happening here.

      The point is not about the right to “talk patronisingly to the wider public.” It’s about the right of a wide range of ideas, informed by the past to be heard. And, yes, for that, academics are “special.” Indeed, for a University President to be denying that “specialness” is pretty outrageous. Do you not believe in education, Ferdinand? Or are the opinions of the educated the same as everyone else’s? If so, what’s the point of being educated, since everyone already has opinions?


      • No, I don’t think academics are special, in the sense that I don’t believe in any privileged caste in society, no matter what claims it makes for itself. Of course when I was a President (and again when I shall be one) I believed that I had a special duty to support my staff and to be there for them and to represent their cause vigorously – and so yes, they were ‘special’ to me, and will be. But that’s another matter, and is not the same as claiming special privileges for us. And by the way, I don’t accept the implication of your statement above that only academics are educated! I’m also not sure that I believe that one group’s *opinions* are more valuable than anyone else’s, though their scholarly research will be.

        I do however believe that education is special, and that its benefits and values are vital. I believe that it deserves enormous respect and the whole-hearted support of society. And so I do believe in the value and necessity of academic freedom.

        However, I think the claims sometimes made for a particular interpretation of academic freedom can get us into trouble, as it will appear to some that they are just attempts to avoid personal accountability. As the non-academic reactions (and not just in the Irish Times, the internet is full of them) to last Saturday’s meeting show, that interpretation needs to be fought because it is losing us friends.

  8. Vincent Says:

    I didn’t suggest Academics could actively prevent the abuse of anything. But the ‘privilege’ of academic freedoms requires that the full unhampered blaze of lime-light be used. And a quid pro quo for those freedoms requires that you use it pro bono publico and turn that light on abuse now and then. Thereby extending that light and the fear of it being shone on people that would think about abusing.
    Many these arguments have the flavour of people under the protections of the Canon Law. Where the ancient fears about a Bishop ejecting a recalcitrant cleric to the highways with a sack on his back are being regurgitated with a modern colour.
    And for what it’s worth tenure does not equate to academic freedoms, for if it did then the vast number of people without tenure would have no freedoms whatsoever. And that simply isn’t valid.


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