We have failed our students..

Professor Jack Heinemann · University of Canterbury · July 2021

Hey fellow academics, when you were a student who mentored you about academic freedom? Who taught you formally, informally, and by example what it was to serve as critic and conscience of society? Did you have to learn it on the street like I did?

Sure I had some role models. Nevertheless, they usually left it to me to link their activity with academic freedom. I never knew in most cases whether they were doing what they did because of academic freedom or because they would do those things regardless of a job at a university.

No one can recall actually reading a book on academic freedom or attending a seminar on it, but we all know it when we see it. Academics light up like a static discharge when it gets close. Although I am not a definitive authority on academic freedom, I’ve done some time working on its traditions, legal wordings and international context. I think that often casual assumptions about what it is carry as much validity as the static discharge from my cat creates heat.

It is failure of our scholarship to perpetuate the myth that academic freedom is whatever the holder of it says that it is. We fail the next generation of academics by not raising our standards.

There may be obstacles if we wish to do so. A few of my colleagues once tried to pressure me to remove an exam question about academic freedom. How ironic is that? I teach a formal module about it in that 300 level course on molecular biology, and I teach the formal academic freedom module for the University’s Postgraduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching. These colleagues decided that my question should be restricted to only certain topics in genetics, based I suppose on their extensive research they did on the title of my course.

My colleagues took it upon themselves to impose upon me their informal definition of academic freedom. I’m not saying that my definition is uncontestable, but it is far from ad hoc. I can defend it with such things as argument and a bibliography. In other words, I can defend it with many of the same tools used in other scholarly activities, including certain topics in genetics.

Obstacles be damned! Academic freedom doesn’t become relevant to students after they become academics. It is theirs when they are students. When we fail to help students to use academic freedom, we rob them and society of the good they can do with it.

I’m proud to work with students and colleagues to see how academic freedom and the critic and conscience role can become the new normal. I want to work with students to integrate academic freedom into all stages of tertiary life. Together we can get better at being a critic and conscience of society. We need to in order to translate the privilege of having academic freedom into benefits for the society that gives it to us.[1]

References and footnotes

[1] To some, and I hope not many, it may come as surprise that academic freedom was not their birthright.