Posted tagged ‘Dylan Evans’

The complexity of academic freedom

May 27, 2010

As pretty much all the world knows, Ireland has recently experienced a major debate about the meaning of academic freedom. The particular context was the claim by University College Cork lecturer Dylan Evans that the university’s decision to discipline him for showing an academic paper on fellatio by fruit bats to a colleagues who had been made to feel uncomfortable by the encounter was an assault on his academic freedom. This is how Dr Evans set out the argument in writing to UCC’s management:

‘There are broader issues of academic freedom at stake here.¬† If we cannot discuss scientific articles¬†about topics directly related to our own research, published in leading peer-reviewed international¬†journals, with colleagues in the same department, this bodes very ill for informed enquiry and debate.’

As it happens, Ireland is one of the few countries that actually has a statutory definition of academic freedom, in section 14 of the Universities Act 1997:

‘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.’

Academic freedom so understood is there to ensure that academics can develop ideas or argue against the ideas of others without having to fear that they will be penalised for doing so. Academic freedom as defined in other jurisdictions (in particular Germany and the United States) has sometimes tended to focus more on the right of the institution to determine its own curriculum and to decide on the admission of students. But what all these have in common is that ideas should be protected, even if they are unwelcome.

But while it may seem easy to map out the terrain in which academic freedom operates, it can raise complex problems in practice. If we accept that an academic may hold, develop and disseminate unorthodox or controversial views, does this right refer only to views that we might regard as ‘expert’ views, i.e. related to his or her expertise or discipline, or does it have a broader remit? If my field is organic chemistry, are my views on corporate banking protected by academic freedom? If they are, why should my views on this be given greater standing than the views of non-academic members of the public? If they are not, how can it be right that my views receive no special protection, while the identical views of my colleague in the economics department do? And if my views are covered by academic freedom, does this mean (as Dr Evans contended) that he has a right to express these to someone who doesn’t want to hear them? Or put another way, does every person have a legal obligation to listen without protest to views delivered by an academic? To give an extreme example, does my academic freedom oblige all persons at a dinner party with me to be quiet as I expound my views? Are they behaving illegally if they object?

There is also another setting in which academic freedom is sometimes invoked. If an academic wishes to criticise his or her institution, or a policy or position adopted by it, is this part of academic freedom? Similarly, have I the right to publish my criticisms of my university to a wider audience under the general heading of academic freedom? If I have, does this apply if what I say is untrue? Or what would be the position if what I say is untrue and it inflicts damage on my institution? A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court, Garcetti v. Ceballos, though admittedly not dealing with a university issue, is thought by some to have placed restrictions on the legal protection that may be claimed by academics who want to criticise their institution. However, the right to be critical, particularly where the debate concerns the academic principles of the university, should not be dismissed too lightly.

However we may answer all or any of these questions, it is clear that academic freedom is at the heart of a university system for a democratic society. The free and unhindered flow of ideas is vital for any such society, and those who develop ideas, even where they are controversial or unwelcome (provided they are within the law), need to be protected. But we also need to avoid the suspicion that academic freedom is a claim by academics not to be accountable for what we say and do. A good start to getting this right and securing public confidence is not to apply the concept of academic freedom to situations where it does not belong, and Dr Evans’ fruit bat saga is one of these.

Bringing the veil down on the fruit bats

May 19, 2010

For the moment the story is not going away, though I think it should. In fact, it should never have turned up in public anyway. It has been suggested by some commentators that UCC lecturer Dr Dylan Evans had no choice but to make his case public. I just cannot see that. There is always a choice. The discipline imposed on him was a confidential matter, and if he felt he was treated unjustly he had several avenues by which that could be addressed, including at least one that he has in fact adopted. He had not exhausted all appropriate remedies.

Instead he decided to press the higher education community’s hot button and claim he had been denied academic freedom. But as we know from the documentation that he has (quite wrongly) made public, this was not an issue of academic freedom at all. Nobody in University College Cork, from the President down, has at any point suggested he can not work on, be interested in, read, write, publish and disseminate studies on the sexual habits of fruit bats, or indeed anything else. The complaint was about the manner in which Dr Evans presented the article to the complainant. The investigators found that what he did amounted to ‘a joke with sexual innuendo’ and that ‘it was reasonable for [the complainant] to be offended’. In fact, Dr Evans’ statement in the letter he circulated widely and which was published in the Huffington Post that ‘external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment’ is grossly misleading, suggesting that he was cleared of any wrongdoing. He wasn’t.

We are not asked to judge any of this. Maybe the complainant was too sensitive, maybe she didn’t demonstrate openly to Dr Evans that she was uneasy. Or maybe she was completely right in her assessment. That’s not a matter for us. But for Dr Evans to pick all this up and place it in the tray marked ‘academic freedom’ is dishonest. No issue of academic freedom is involved. What he has done by making all of this public is to use the ultimate weapon in the academic armory to attempt to silence a colleague who has raised a personal issue through the university’s procedures. And what lots of no doubt honourable people have done is to allow him to proceed with that plan by backing a campaign they could not really have understood. Since people started raising doubts about Dr Evans’ case, another 500 or so people signed his petition.

This episode has not been good for the academic community. I am not suggesting Dr Evans is in the wrong regarding the original issue. I have no idea whether he is or whether he isn’t. But he is most certainly in the wrong as to how he has pursued his case in public. And a few thousand people have shown an extraordinary lack of judgement in backing him without having any real knowledge of the circumstances (though some, including Stephen Kinsella of the University of Limerick, have very honourably re-considered their stance). But through all that, we have let down those who may at some point in the future want to protect their personal space and dignity.