A comparative view of academic freedom. Part II: the risks of defining freedom’s limits.

Jack Heinemann · University of Canterbury · March 2015

This is the second 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 doesn’t have academic freedom?

Prof. Cruz believes that academic freedom is reserved for “[o]nly tenured professors in a university, who have doctorates, who have published in peer-reviewed academic journals, and who follow non-academic school policies.”

The New Zealand Education Act extends academic freedom to all tertiary education institutions, not just universities. Because we don’t have a tenure system, a distinction between academic and other kinds of staff cannot be made based on tenure. Furthermore, the Education Act does not define ‘academic staff’. This seems to me to be an area that is worth examining in more detail.

What is the activity that makes staff ‘academic’? Is it research, teaching, research and teaching, learning or the arbitrary title on an employment contract? If the latter, how do students differ from general staff since students also don’t have ‘academic’ contracts?

As a starting point, I’d suggest that academic staff are those whose predominant and characteristic activity was described by the main criteria that define the institution (and there are, for example, five for universities[2]). The first defining characteristic of a university is that they: “are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence.” Those who participate in the main activities in my view are academic staff and students. This would make it easy to include lecturers, and would be consistent with what we perceive of as being engaged in scholarship. Furthermore, the principal pursuit of intellectual independence perhaps is not the duty of administrative or infrastructure maintenance roles.

Because academic freedom is conferred specially on those within tertiary institutions, academic freedom would be extended to those with adjunct or emeritus relationships and visiting scholars.

What topics are covered by academic freedom?

Here Dr. Cruz expresses a highly restrictive view of academic freedom. His interpretation is that “academically free professors should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it is in the area of their expertise” (emphasis mine). This is where I differ perhaps philosophically or as a result of different legal and cultural environments. First, the New Zealand Education Act does not put this restriction on academic freedom. If it were a restriction in New Zealand, it would have to have come from somewhere else, such as case or common law. I’m not aware of it being from either. Second, any attempt to define expertise quickly becomes problematic and in my view inconsistent with the UNESCO Recommendations.

Dr. Cruz believes that academic freedom should be absolute but only for a very few in the tertiary sector. In part, he argues that only those with doctorates may be eligible.

Why are doctorates required? Because only the doctorate is the final, objective proof that a scholar has mastered everything that has to be mastered in a field. A doctoral dissertation includes what is known as a ‘review of the literature.’ This is proof that the scholar has read everything previously written about his area of specialisation.

However, if arbitrary definitions of expertise such as these were adopted, then most of us could not exercise, for example, the “freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work…”, as protected by UNESCO.

At what point does a ‘molecular biologist’ like myself become an expert on the system in which I work? Who would evaluate my expertise in this area? Provided that I am within the institution, I meet the standard to express an opinion about the institution without further demonstration of qualifications or review. Furthermore, my doctorate is no more obviously relevant than the Masters degree held by a colleague or PhD student working beside me.

As soon as we attempt to define or restrict the subject matter of academic freedom, we risk harming academic freedom. The argument over who has the expertise to participate in a debate suppresses the ability of academic staff and students to contribute to the debate, or can be used to retrospectively punish them for having exercised academic freedom.

How should academic freedom be managed?

Restrictions imposed on the subject matter covered by academic freedom are generally a response to the fear that academic staff or students will damage the institution or his or her colleagues under the cover of academic freedom. In my view, the best way to respond to this possibility is through scholarship rather than censorship.

Academic freedom and the role of critic and conscience has been neglected in the tertiary sector by far too many of us. Consequently, we have vague and highly individual understandings of what it means. We hear it as an ideal, but precious few of us were taught — and we rarely if ever teach our students — about it. We elevate all other aspects of our jobs above it just about all of the time. When asked, we frame some of our many other activities as contrived examples of being a critic and conscience of society.

This leaves academia vulnerable to the fear of a rogue. It is a symptom of the absence of a community. Our tertiary institutions are rapidly transforming into places people of different disciplines work. The discipline defines us and the institution pays us. That is our trouble.

An institution working as critic and conscience of society must have staff and students with the ability to speak across arbitrary discipline boundaries and address real and complex social issues. If our institutions don’t have those people, then the answer is not to silence staff and students but to address their need to become that kind of scholar.

And it would be a mistake to think that this is a problem we can leave to those who manage our institutions. They must be part of the solution, but so must we all. As academic staff we need to rediscover the role of being an academic, not just a Professor of Biology, or Linguistics or Engineering who works at a university. Our identity as a community of interacting scholars is what makes each institution different and that difference is what Parliament and UNESCO hope to protect by making each institution Autonomous.

In rediscovering our identity as academics, we will build a more inclusive workplace where students engage with us in the important work of serving as critic and conscience. We’ll all learn and we’ll all improve.

When the New Zealand Parliament said “It is declared to be the intention of Parliament in enacting the provisions of this Act relating to institutions that academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced;” they did not say we could leave it to others to do so. It is our right, and our responsibility.

What have you done today to enhance academic freedom?

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.
  2. s162(4)(a) of the New Zealand Education Act 1989.