In defence of academic freedom

This is the opening speech by Paddy Healy (former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland) delivered to the meeting of Irish academics on January 22 in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

Academic freedom is a necessity in a healthy democracy. Citizens have a need for a diversity of expert opinions to enable them to take informed decisions and to direct their political representatives. The warnings of a possible banking collapse came from outside the banking industry and indeed from outside the regulatory and political system. The warnings of Professor Morgan Kelly and others went unheeded.

Analysis and criticism of social, economic, scientific and artistic policies by academics is the right of citizens. If academic freedom is restricted this flow of information and analysis is likely to be reduced or stopped.

Citizens have a right to objective information on the content of food products, the safety of structures and other engineering systems, on pollution of the environment, on aesthetic matters and on health issues. Academics must retain the unrestricted right to give this information.

Academic freedom and tenure is not just a ruse invented by academics to protect their employment as some letter writers have suggested.

The purpose of ‘tenure’ as protecting a university professor or lecturer against dismissal, as set out in the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel of 11 November 1997, is to provide protection for the independence of university academics in their teaching and research by ensuring that they cannot be dismissed for the expression of unpopular or novel ideas. Savage (Academic Tenure and its Functional Equivalent in post-secondary Education, ILO Working Paper June 2004) suggests that ‘tenure’ might also ensure that those among the academic staff teaching ‘highly technical but not popular subjects’ are also protected ‘so that such learning is not easily removed from the university milieu because of ephemeral undergraduate student demand’. As Savage goes on to point out: ‘dismissal procedures are the key’. Tenure exists in reality if academic staff can only be dismissed for ‘just cause’, such as professional incompetence, financial corruption, sexual or racial harassment or the abandonment of position, proved before a ‘fair and independent body’. One of the more ‘vexing’ questions in his opinion is the effect of ‘financial exigency and programme planning’ and whether these factors can override the guarantees of ‘tenure’.

At a large meeting of academics held in UCD on Thursday last, the representative of the Irish Federation of University Teachers informed us that as a matter of policy IFUT would be making no concessions on the issues of academic freedom and tenure. The President of the SIPTU Education Branch gave similar assurances.

My colleagues and I are encouraged by the declaration of the Board of Trinity College in favour of academic freedom and tenure. We must of course be careful of the meaning of those terms. We are also encouraged by the declared opposition to research by command from above. It would be most appropriate if the governing authorities of other third level institutions made similar declarations.

I would like to congratulate Dr Hugh Gibbons, IFUT President, and his colleagues in IFUT at TCD for their hard work and persistence in securing this declaration.

Academic staff in institutes of technology were believed to have effective tenure through the permanency of public servants until the emergence of the Croke Park Deal. Academic freedom is written into existing contracts. I call on the governing bodies of these institutions to unconditionally withdraw all threats of redundancy to academic staff.

It is important that third level institutions continue to produce graduates who combine a high level of professional expertise with a capacity for critical thought. That is necessary for a healthy democratic society and a successful economy.

The funding model of third level institutions penalises failure of students to progress by passing examinations. This has led to very unhealthy pressures in the direction of lowering criteria for progression. There have been incidences of administrative passing of students. Academics must retain the unfettered right subject to reasonable criteria to say that a student has not reached the required standard. Academic freedom based on permanence of employment is necessary in order that academics can resist unhealthy pressures. If ‘dumbing down’ becomes rampant, serious damage will be done to our society. The qualifications of existing graduates would be devalued. Authorities in many areas such as health, social services and education would be denied a reliable criterion in employing professional staff. Companies seeking to employ graduates would have similar problems. The reputation of Irish qualifications abroad would be destroyed.

Let us repeat here the concern expressed by Savage (above) lest highly specialised but not popular subjects be removed from third level institutions. I would add a concern that creative arts and sociological enquiry would be increasingly de-prioritised through funding mechanisms. I also echo the concern of Tom Garvin that open-ended or “blue sky research” would be deprived of funds in favour of focussed problem solving for commercial purposes. I am reliably informed that the next round of cuts under the HEA Employment Control Framework will necessitate redundancies in addition to non-replacement of staff in some institutions.  Areas of knowledge, inquiry and cultural endeavour must not be selectively deprived of resources. Nor should resources be squandered on a large management layer arising from the inappropriate replacement of collegiality with a command model of management to the detriment of teaching and other academic activity.

There are also serious concerns in the areas of science, engineering, computing, medicine and other health sciences.  There must be no drift towards allocation of academics to research projects outside their own research interest. Genuine research simply cannot be done on such a basis. Institute of Technology staff must not be prevented from engaging in scholarly activity by timetabling for 19 to 21 teaching  hours  per week.

We have no objection to having industrial research partners. But the co-operation must be on terms which do not affect the independence of academic staff. There must be no question of suppressing unwelcome research outcomes or impeding the development of knowledge as has happened in a number of cases abroad.

Academic freedom based on tenure and permanency is an indispensable prerequisite for a healthy democratic society, for the maintenance of academic standards and for the continued flourishing of genuine scholarship in Irish academic institutions.

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6 Comments on “In defence of academic freedom”

  1. Ricky Connolly Says:

    Academic freedom is great. The teacher has the right to teach what he wants in the way he wants, regardless of what the people paying his salary want him to do.
    I can’t wait ’till my dentist wins the right to medical freedom. That way if I ask him to perform a check up, he’ll be within his rights to perform a root canal instead.
    Even better will be when my plumber is allowed to have plumbing freedom, and he will be allowed to perform whatever modifications he sees fit, regardless of what I have specifically contracted him to do.
    Academic freedom ensures that the people paying for a service have absolutely no right to determine how that service will be delivered. The history lecturer can teach 20th century geopolitics with whatever slant he sees fit. The science lecturer can teach creationism with impunity. The economics lecturer can teach crackpot theories without fear of being thrown out on the street, as would happen if his employers were able to judge him qualitatively on his work.
    Yes, academic freedom is certainly “an indispensable prerequisite for a healthy democratic society.”

    Ricky Connolly

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Maybe you’d like to tell your heart surgeon how to do your bypass too.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Better yet: you tell him what you think you have and then tell him how to do it.

    • Ernie, I think the surgeon analogy is interesting, because one of the complaints about medical consultants is that they patronise the patients, inform them only inadequately and never take responsibility for what goes wrong. I don’t really think that we want to go there.

      The analogy works because, like medics, academics need to be able to combine intellectual freedom and integrity on the one hand with sensitivity to the needs of students and of society on the other. We may have managed that appropriately, but we haven’t necessarily persuaded society that we have; and that’s why we are under attack.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        My point was that there is such a thing as expertise and that not everything in a democratic society is open to democratic oversight. The majority don’t get to determine what the truth is and they don’t get to determine what the best methods are for discovering it. They shouldn’t even get to determine what disciplines ought to exist since the people of today don’t have a right to deny the people of the future access to knowledge that has been traditionally considered important (by the people of the past).

        A good lecturer, like a good heart surgeon, will generally explain to those concerned by her actions what it is she does and why. But failure to do that sort of explaining doesn’t call into the question the person’s expertise and that expertise itself should not be subject to “oversight” by the inexpert on the pretext that they are footing the bill, if by “oversight” you mean: determining what can and cannot be held to be true, efficacious, etc.

        As for why we are under attack: we are under attack because the population is terrified and looking for scapegoats. Thanks to the monolithic Irish media, the public sector has been fingered. And thanks to the less-than-moral actions of some academic administrators and managers (and not frontline academics), the spotlight within the public sector has been shone on third-level institutions in this regard. Those same administrators and managers are the ones who now propose to do away with tenure as a way, once again, of pointing the finger elsewhere. They haven’t thought this through for even a minute.

        The fact of the matter is, if the public is worried about how its money is spent on third level (and, as a taxpayer, I am among the public worried about this), they would do better to worry about administration malfeasance and not mythical “slackers” among the lecturers. At UCD, Hugh Brady et al. turned a university that was in surplus into one running huge deficits, paying themselves and their friends an unauthorised extra €6 million in the process. Not to mention squandering further millions on outside consultants (hired largely to endorse already-formulated administration plans) and still further millions on the pharaonic “Gateway Project.” You’d think with this kind of expenditure, staff would be energised. Not so: the staff are completely demoralised (and, sure, who cares about that? I mean, it’s not like staff morale matters in a university is it?) So we’re supposed to look at all of that and worry about whether a couple of lecturers here and there might be coasting? As if that were the real problem! Have you noticed that the same people proposing this “solution” to a makey-uppey problem are the same people that squandered the millions of taxpayer money? And one of the reasons that nobody seems to have noticed this is the persistent habit of those in government and the media and, yes, even you Ferdinand, to lump all academics and administrators into one big pile. So the Irish Times lists the salaries of all the “overpaid” academics and what do we see? We see, if we know who the people are, that nary a one is actually an academic as opposed to an administrator. Does the Irish Times tell you that? Of course not. So we all get tarred with the same brush: overpaid, underworked, coasting, etc.

        This assault is leading every Irish academic who can contemplate moving abroad to do so. I came here from abroad. Unlike most of the administrative class, who are recruited by their pals, I was actually recruited internationally. There is little reason for me to stay: my pay has been cut substantially; the conditions of my work have become far more onerous and now the very freedom to conduct my teaching and research as I see fit is under assault. My colleagues have got the message and several of them have left or retired early. They are not being replaced, which puts even more work and pressure on those of us who remain. Never mind the fact that the libraries in this country are pathetically underfunded and have been for decades. Why would you expect anyone of any quality to put up with this nonsense? If you don’t value what we do, fine, we’ll do it elsewhere and you’ll be left unable to recruit anything but just the sort of third-rate staff you’re so busy witch-hunting.

        So think about that one, Ricky Connolly, when it comes time to send your kids to college. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

        (Sorry, Ferdinand, that my response to you descended into a rant. But I mean every word of it.)

        • Ricky Connolly Says:

          “The majority don’t get to determine what the truth is and they don’t get to determine what the best methods are for discovering it.”

          I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion that the majority do not get to determine what the truth is (facts are obviously objective), but this does not mean that even these ‘experts’ should get to determine which services I receive when I am the individual who is paying for them. If I want a particular type of heart surgery (say, myocardial revascularization), then I will go to a surgeon who will perform *that* operation, and avoid any one who attempts to legally restrict my ability to choose otherwise.

          “expertise itself should not be subject to “oversight” by the inexpert on the pretext that they are footing the bill, if by “oversight” you mean: determining what can and cannot be held to be true, efficacious, etc.”

          Leaving aside from the utter elitism of believing professionals are infallible and need no oversight, I am not talking about airy notions of truth. I am asserting that the person who foots the bill for a service should determine exactly what service they receive, and not to be straight jacketed by the opinion of the service provider.

          “we are under attack because the population is terrified and looking for scapegoats. Thanks to the monolithic Irish media, the public sector has been fingered.”

          The public sector is being ‘fingered’ because their employer is broke. I don’t see why private sector employees should suffer because somebody else’s boss is incompetent. It is not just the usual scapegoated administrative middle management that is the problem. Look at the government labour unions who go on strike at the drop of a hat and cripple the entire country. Look at the front line council workers who take two years to complete a three month project such as a road resurfacing or a roundabout construction. The public sector is vilified because there is zero accountability for incompetency. As long as the public sector is immunised from competition, it will continue to underperform and overspend.

          “Never mind the fact that the libraries in this country are pathetically underfunded and have been for decades.”

          Libraries are failing financially because the public do not WANT them. If they did, libraries would find a way to survive on a commercial basis. There has always been a segment of Irish society who believe the public are too stupid/uncultured/etc and that the state should confiscate their income and spend it on projects that the public SHOULD want, rather than allowing individuals to dispose of their income in the way they themselves see fit.

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