A comparative view of academic freedom. Part I: the role and meaning of Institutional Autonomy.

Jack Heinemann · University of Canterbury · March 2015

This is the first part of a two part series contrasting views on academic freedom.

Countries that belong to the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) are duty-bound to broadly adhere to its recommendations on higher education teaching personnel. That resolution describes obligations of institutional and individual academic freedom.

How academic freedom is captured in domestic legal frameworks, however, determines the behavior of these institutions. Thus, it is the government of each country that must implement laws compatible with international obligations. As a result, these obligations can vary from country to country.

How it has been adapted in the Philippines was the subject of a series of opinion articles published in the Philippine Star by Prof. Isagani Cruz. Prof. Cruz has taken a prominent role in his country as a commentator on academic freedom. There are some interesting dissimilarities in how he perceives that academic freedom works in the Philippines and how our laws describe it.[1]

I will use the device of contrasting two systems to further explore the meaning of academic freedom and the role of critic and conscience here in New Zealand.

Who has academic freedom?

Section 5 of Article 14 [of the Constitution] on Education, Science and Technology, Culture and Sports, states clearly and simply, that ‘academic freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning.’

Staff enjoy this freedom under a conditional delegation from their employer.

Prof. Cruz makes the insightful point that a right conferred by law to someone does not imply the right is exclusive to that person. Whether or not the right is also enjoyed by other parties depends on other things. In our system, those include common and case law and/or institutional policies.

New Zealand law also specifies that academic freedom is institutional. s161(2) of the Education Act reads:

For the purposes of this section, academic freedom, in relation to an institution, means-(a) The freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions [emphasis added].

New Zealand legislation stipulates, perhaps in contrast to the Philippines, that academic freedom is delegated to academic staff and students of tertiary institutions.

When it comes to the relative autonomy of individuals within their institutions, the situation is not as clear. Our Act says s161(2)(c,d):

The freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject-matter of courses taught at the institution. The freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning.

The activities are not the prerogative of either party alone, and the responsibility of both. But is ‘staff’ a person, or is it a collective? Does everyone have to agree and how are disputes to be resolved?

Where there is ambiguity, it is useful to look to other legal frameworks for clarification. Here I return to the UNESCO Recommendations.

Higher education institutions, individually or collectively, should design and implement appropriate systems of accountability, including quality assurance mechanisms to achieve the above goals, without harming institutional autonomy or academic freedom.

The right of an individual who has academic freedom is to speak their view and express criticism or disagreement. That right is not the same as a veto when it comes to groups of staff members or the institution to reach decisions. If it were otherwise, then any and each individual could trump institutional autonomy. That outcome would be no less dictatorial than if it were done by a head of state.

What is the role of Autonomy?

UNESCO says that Autonomy should not be used to suppress individual academic freedom and individuals should not use theirs to weaken Autonomy.

Higher-education teaching personnel should recognize that the exercise of rights carries with it special duties and responsibilities, including the obligation to respect the academic freedom of other members of the academic community and to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views [emphasis added].

The Institution can intervene when a member of staff and a student, two students or two members of staff present contrary views; this in order to ensure that neither is inhibited to speak by virtue of a power imbalance. While the institution cannot censor either party, neither party can disqualify the institution, either.

Moreover, where one tertiary institution or its members may wish to prevent the legitimate expression of academic freedom (as in, for example, teaching curriculum) by another institution or its members, the latter should use its autonomy to protect the academic freedom of its members.

This role of autonomy, if it were responsibly exercised, should be reassuring to staff and students. The pressures placed on academics to conform within boundaries set by others of their ‘discipline’ (which may include people in different sectors), or within their national hierarchies (such as Royal or National Societies), can be very powerful. Likewise, the competition between institutions can temp them to either undermine the autonomy of others or to fall short of vigorous enforcement of their duty to protect their own members.

In university we trust?

Unfortunately, universities are under increasing incentive to see autonomy not as the right and responsibility to maintain active expression of individual academic freedom, but to suppress it.

I believe we as university-based researchers should at least be quite concerned when academics have to worry about being ‘off-brand.’ We should, I think, be pretty agitated when a university professor has to pay $50,000 to defend his academic freedom against his own public university. We should, I’m pretty sure, be disturbed en masse as academic researchers when one political party can essentially directly decide which research centers will be allowed to exist at a state university” said Alice Dreger, author of “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science”.

She notes that such trends

—of letting outside political forces decide for us the limits of academic freedom—is particularly troubling because it seems to be coming from all directions. The same kinds of approaches have been used by all political stripes: trumped up ethics charges, undermining of funding, and bad publicity campaigns that threaten university’s reputations.

Those forces, political, economic or ideological can emanate also from amongst our colleagues, not just our managers. Academic staff should be as cautious in imposing restrictions on academic freedom on others as we are defensive when those restrictions are imposed upon us.

The last thing we should discuss is who has academic freedom. We should be too busy using it to care. We should be too busy expecting others to use it to notice. Only those who wish to suppress it have an interest in questioning the user.

References and footnotes

  1. Disclaimer. I am not a lawyer. Understanding the legal framework requires more than just literally reading an Act. Knowing how to read the law and having familiarity with case and constitutional law are essential. Nevertheless, both Prof. Cruz and I are familiar with the environments in which we live and work. That familiarity allows us to examine at least perceptions of commonality and differences that we here in New Zealand can build upon to help academic freedom evolve