Posted tagged ‘academic freedom’

Brexit perspectives in the academy

October 25, 2017

Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

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Universities and freedom of speech: one more time

January 18, 2016

For the second year running, the website spiked has published a particular university league table for the UK, providing ‘a detailed, annual insight into the state of free speech, debate and expression in the British academy.’ It presents universities in three categories: ‘red’ (universities that have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’); amber (universities that have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’); and green (universities that have ‘a hands-off approach to free speech’). 115 institutions have been included.

By far the largest group consists of the ‘red’ universities, with 63 institutions. This includes some very familiar names, for example Oxford, LSE, and Queen’s in Ireland. Then there is the ‘amber’ group, with 40 universities including Cambridge, Aberdeen, York, and Ulster. The ‘green’ group of institutions that do not interfere with free speech has 12 universities, including my own RGU.

Oxford may be amongst the ‘red’ group, but its new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, has indicated that she would like to adjust this culture. Speaking at her installation she suggested that students should ‘appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own.’

Universities may increasingly be at risk of seeing intellectual challenge as a disturbance of scholarship rather than its affirmation. Free speech is the guarantor of academic integrity and should never be compromised, where it is within the law. In that sense the rankings published by spiked may serve a useful purpose.

Collegiality, the frank expression of views and the university community

August 17, 2011

A recent short news item in the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. A professor at Santa Barbara Community College had written what is described as a ‘scathing internal memorandum’, seriously attacking his head of department and accusing him inter alia of ‘lewd behaviour’. The whole episode made its way into the Californian courts, and there not was ruled that there was no defamation because the memo had been written ‘without malice’.

I won’t suggest whether the court was right or wrong, not least because I don’t know enough about the details of the case to be able to do so. But it does strike me that what one might euphemistically describe as frank expressions of opinion are common currency in academic exchanges of views, partly because academics are encouraged to present and defend their views and positions in a robust manner. For anyone involved in management positions in universities it is not a rare experience to hear from colleagues who have been hurt or who feel stressed by such experiences.

Of course as academics we value freedom of speech and academic freedom. But I wonder whether we sometimes care enough about the way in which the exercise of these freedoms can undermine those other key characteristics of successful academic institutions, collegiality and goodwill. Is it really an expression of academic freedom to launch personal attacks, and is there not a risk that these will generate an atmosphere in which less forceful faculty retreat from participation in discourse so as not to find themselves in the firing line? In fact, can this problem be aggravated by the use of email, particularly when widely circulated, to launch harsh criticisms of others?

I am quite willing to believe that the Santa Barbara professor did what he did without malice. But I don’t think he was setting a good example. And I don’t think people should hide behind academic freedom when launching personal attacks.

Targeting academic balance

April 30, 2011

If you have never heard of Andrew Breitbart, think yourself lucky. He is a man with a mission in the United States, mostly to do with combating anything he regards as liberal. He has maintained several websites dedicated to these pursuits, some of which use interesting techniques: secretly taken video footage is used to discredit people featured in them, usually people who are not on the more extreme end of the conservative spectrum.

His most recent outing into this kind of territory has been on his website biggovernment.com, where he published edited video footage of two university lecturers in the University of Missouri explaining industrial relations tactics in the classroom. The extracts were edited to make it appear as if the lecturers were urging a partisan, pro-union approach on students, including the apparent condoning of violence. It later emerged that the extracts were shown totally out  of context, and that the lecturers were explaining how such views emerge, and were in no way representing them themselves; this was obscured by the editing.

In fact, education is is Breitbart’s sights. In a recent interview he announced that he would be setting up a new website, bigeducation.com, and that this would be its mission:

‘Yeah, Big Education is probably going to be the most controversial one; teachers, professors, teachers unions. The ones who feel obligated to hit our children over the head with indoctrination are now going to be held accountable for the first time ever by new media. It allows the exposure of the algebra teacher who rails against Sarah Palin for a half hour; let’s do a video expose.’

In fact, this has become one of the key tactics of the US extreme right: to intimidate those who might wish to explain liberal policies in the classroom as part of the education process. The aim is to ensure that teachers must fear the consequences of presenting a balanced picture. In the process it is not just academic freedom that gets destroyed, but a sense of confidence in the value of dispassionate analysis. It is based on the assertion that only conservative views are factual and impartial, and that therefore only they deserve to be heard.

Of course conservative views do deserve to be heard objectively, but not as a monopoly source of all truth. The task of the teacher is to present all shades of opinion and to explain their background and origins.

Because of the noise created by Breitbart and his videos, one of the lecturers has resigned and has suggested that he may have been put under pressure to do so. It is time for Americans to take note that where the expression of facts and opinions becomes dangerous to academics, more than just academic integrity will suffer. Andrew Breitbart is a very dangerous man.

Academic freedom and the McCarthy instinct

April 3, 2011

One recent development in the United States that we should find alarming is the new tendency to investigate the political opinions of professors to see if the expression of these might offend someone’s sensibilities. This article in the Washington Post newspaper gives several example of (mostly conservative) organisations that have been attempting to get information about the political activities of academics with a view to asserting that these activities, if politically partisan, are in some way an abuse of their academic freedom.

Whether academic freedom should cover the expression of opinions that are unrelated to the academic’s area of expertise is something that can legitimately be debated, but professors like everyone else should have the right to express their opinions on political issues, and it is an abuse of fundamental rights to seek to restrict that, unless the opinions are in some ways an incitement to hatred or discrimination.

Political witch hunts are never good news for a liberal democratic society. Where they occur they need to be fought.

Academic freedom: response to IUA statement (Paddy Healy)

February 12, 2011

Last week the Irish Universities Association issued a statement on academic freedom, reproduced in this blog. Paddy Healy, Convenor of the Gathering for Academic Freedom, has now issued a response (below). There will also be a meeting on ‘academic freedom and campus dissent’, addressed by Paddy Healy and others, Tuesday, February 15 2011, in the William Jefferson Clinton Auditorium, UCD, Belfield.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) issued a statement on February 4 in response to a call to defend the principle of tenure on which academic freedom is based. This call, signed by 160 academics, was published in the Irish Times on January 20.

We note that the IUA has no authority to speak on behalf of Irish universities. It is a private company of which the seven university presidents are directors.

In its response, the IUA could have given clear assurances that it was opposed to any changes to the relevant clauses in the Universities Act. As the law of the land trumps industrial relations processes, we would have taken considerable comfort from such a declaration.

As it is, however, the IUA makes no such declaration. Indeed,  the IUA statement is replete with ambiguity and dissimulation. Most remarkably, it suggests that the principle of tenure might be seen as protecting academics from dismissal for misconduct  though this is not the case.

The IUA statement is causing increased concern in the academic community.

Steve Hedley, Professor of Law at UCC and a signatory to the call, has given a detailed reply to the statement on the blog Ninth Level Ireland.

The IUA states:

‘What we must do as a foundation for that defence [of academic freedom-PH], is to distinguish between freedom and licence. This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.’

It should be understood that the contract to which the IUA refers is not the existing contract but a new contract to be put in place pursuant to the Public Services Agreement (Croke Park Deal).

Stephen Hedley comments:

‘The other, and more pessimistic, interpretation [of the IUA statement-PH] is that academic contracts are to be read as limiting the guarantee in the Universities Act – in other words, that academic freedom should only exist to the extent that each academic’s contract allows for it. This is extremely worrying. Academic freedom is, in large part, freedom from university management – and so is not worth much if it can be removed by a simple clause in an employment contract, drafted by that same university management. I don’t know what is intended here; and I certainly hope that this reading is wrong. But if the object of the statement was to reassure, then it has failed in its object.’

On the question of tenure the IUA states:

‘Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract … However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.’

Stephen Hedley comments:

‘With that introduction, the IUA statement gives a number of reasons why tenure is positively undesirable. Tenure is an “amorphous concept which somehow subsists in a parallel realm” to the rest of employment law; this “creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct”. … The solution is “to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract”. This seems to mean that tenure, properly understood, should only mean that each academic’s contract lasts as long as it lasts – in other words, that “tenure” is to be all but meaningless, adding nothing to ordinary employment rights.’

To be clear: the signatories of the January 20 letter never suggested that tenure could or should preclude disciplinary procedures in cases of misconduct and/or breach of duty. Academics have never been ‘unsackable’ on foot of such allegations as some commentators and propagandists have claimed. Nor have they been absolutely free to exercise their academic freedom (or responsibility?) to defend academic values without fear or favour. As a number of documented Irish cases show, some of them have been subjected to harassment and intimidation for speaking out in defence of academic standards and intellectual integrity, even if they haven’t been subjected to the ultimate silencing, namely redundancy.

It is because tenure confers immunity from this ultimate abuse of power that it is internationally recognised as essential to academic freedom by UNESCO and by other international bodies such as Education International. And it is because academic freedom as currently protected by Irish law is such a fundamental principle of democracy that all repressive regimes have sought to eliminate or to limit that freedom.

Instead of allaying the concerns that we expressed in our original letter, the IUA response has heightened them.

Following persistent work by the IFUT Branch, the Board of Trinity College has already issued a declaration in support of academic freedom and tenure in December 2010

We therefore call now on the governing authorities of all academic institutions to dissociate themselves from the IUA statement and to issue a similar declaration.

IUA Statement on the Croke Park Public Service Agreement

February 5, 2011

This is the full text of the statement by the Irish Universities Association on the implementation of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 (the Croke Park agreement) in the universities.

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to clarify the universities’ position in respect of our implementation plan under the’Croke Park’ Public Service Agreement (PSA).

Background

The Public Service Agreement (PSA) was formulated against a backdrop of the worst financial crisis in the history of the state. The Agreement is aimed at improving efficiency and quality so that public services can continue to be delivered with the reduced resources available to the Exchequer. Since the conclusion of the agreement, we know that the state’s financial position has worsened considerably, leading to the agreement with the EU, ECB and IMF, of the four year national recovery plan. The current position re-emphasises the need to implement the PSA. This has been stressed by the Chair of the National Implementation Body.

Concerns Expressed about the University Plans The PSA explicitly provides for a review of academic contracts and this has been further emphasised in national policy by the recently published HE Strategy. The focus of the concerns expressed to date is that the provisions of contractual revision represent an attack on academic freedom and tenure and thus the very essence of the university.

In our view this is emphatically not the case.

These proposals must be viewed in the context of both the wider strategic stance of the universities, and the real intent underlying their specific content. These two aspects are elaborated on below.

Overall strategic position of the universities

There is a widely held view that universities which have a strong capacity for self determination are both more efficient and effective. We are fully committed to maintaining this position, and, indeed enhancing it. We made our position clear in our interactions with, and inputs to, the Higher Education Strategy group and the resultant Strategy (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) reflects this.

The Strategy does discuss at length the balance between institutional self determination and accountability to the state and society in general. It is appropriate that this be discussed, not least given the current crisis. There has been deep-rooted societal questioning of the causes of our economic collapse. This has included reflection on the failures of our financial regulatory system and the functioning of our entire administrative and political system. Given the depth of the crisis, the universities have sought to play their part in response. This has been reflected in the universities agreeing to cut staff numbers by over six percent while continuing to respond to the demand for additional student places.

In summary, the universities are committed to the principle of self determination and to enhancing this over time.

Content of the PSA Plan

In line with the overall strategic position outlined above, it must be stressed that the theme underlying the plan is accountability and not control. As regards the proposed contractual revisions these have been driven by a desire to identify good practice across the universities and to consolidate this on a sectoral basis. In terms of the specific provisions, it is worth highlighting the major ones and elaborating on their intent and the thinking underlying them, as follows:

Attendance/hours of work

Attendance: this is stated as a requirement to be in attendance at the university during the normal working week and for the duration of the college year which is 12 consecutive calendar months.

It will be apparent that there has been considerable questioning of academic hours of work in recent times. At the Public Accounts Committee the University Presidents and IUA strongly defended the record of University staff and firmly rejected simplistic definitions of academic hours based on contact time. In our inputs to the HE Strategy process, and at the PAC, we rejected efforts to impose a requirement for fixed hours within the academic contract. We believe this would inhibit flexibility and ultimately compromise the widespread excellent commitment which staff have demonstrated.

However, we believe it is reasonable to set down minimum standards in respect of attendance as outlined above. Some have suggested that this is to have the effect of physically shackling academics to the university and banning remote working etc. We want to stress that this is categorically not the case. Our concern is fundamentally about accountability for work and, in practice, this provision is simply to consolidate a framework which protects against cases of obvious abuse of the freedoms which currently exist and which we support. Thankfully, those abuses are extremely rare, but it cannot be denied that they have occurred.

Tenure

Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract.

It has been suggested that the above represents a concerted attempt to casualise university employment. Again, this is emphatically not the case.

However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.

In some of the commentary, the concepts of tenure and academic freedom have been conflated, with the implication that any contextualization of tenure will be used to attack academic freedom by facilitating the dismissal of staff who express unpopular ideas.

This is a completely wrong characterisation as will be reflected in the section on academic freedom, where we vigorously uphold and support freedom of thought and enquiry.

We do not believe that it is helpful to have an amorphous concept of tenure which somehow subsists in a parallel realm to that corpus of law. Such subsistence at best creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct. The fostering of such an impression is enormously damaging to the public reputation of the universities, to our desire for continued and enhanced self determination, and it does no service to the vast majority of staff within the university.

Academic Freedom

The capacity of universities to develop new knowledge and to share that knowledge within the collective community of learners and with the wider society is essential: in the literal sense, it is the essence of what defines a university. We have consistently defended this.

We have firmly and repeatedly rejected the notion of universities as mechanistic institutions which exist to supply static units of learning to a cohort of passive consumers. Most recently we gave an extensive presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills showcasing the range of innovation and high quality demonstrated by our universities and emphasizing the contribution of our academics as independent thinkers and contributors to national and international debate.

We are unambiguously committed to academic freedom of thought and enquiry.

We are equally committed to our academics’ freedom to continuously vary what is taught as the universe of knowledge expands. We believe that the continual testing of what is held to be true is essential for all in the community of learners.

There can and should be no doubt of this and we will defend this position.

What we must do as a foundation for that defence, is to distinguish between freedom and licence.

This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.

As articulated in this paper, the obligations element is simply a framework that contains accountability requirements which reflect the excellent practice of the vast majority of academic staff and which also safeguard against those cases of abuse which, though extremely rare, have the capacity to undermine public confidence in the universities.

Public Confidence

It is worth considering further the importance of public confidence. Universities have an essential role within society in the creation of new knowledge and in challenging conventional wisdom and accepted truths. However, if this role is to be effective, universities must have public trust and confidence.

Trust and confidence are qualities which are earned; universities have no intrinsic right to them. Intellectual freedom which exists in the absence of such trust and confidence would be a debased currency of little or no value. It would reduce universities to voices crying in the wilderness, dependent on society for their subsistence but powerless to influence it.

Conclusion

In summary, the PSA plans are designed to reinforce all that is good in our university system and provide for the further enhancement of our self determination.

They allow Universities to maximise their traditional and properly-valued contribution to society, as well as making a real contribution to national recovery.

Their implementation will enhance our reputation and strengthen public trust and confidence in our institutions.

In consequence they will strengthen our voice and our position in society to the benefit of, students, society and staff alike.