Academic freedom and university autonomy - Justin P. Thorens
The State should always remember that it cannot and must not do the university's work for it, and that it hinders that work whenever it intervenes.
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Freedom, within the law, to question, to put knowledge to the test and to seek to advance new and controversial ideas or unpopular opinions without running the risk of losing one's job or even the privileges acquired within institutions.
The increasingly rapid pace of social, economic, political, cultural, scientific and technological change in our societies has in recent decades led to unprecedented upheavals in higher education. In all parts of the world, there has been an explosion in the number of students in higher education and in the number and type of institutions devoted to education itself on one hand and to research on the other. This dual explosion has resulted in a vertiginous rise not only in the financial but also in the social costs of this level of education for society and for the State.
One of the effects of these upheavals has been to highlight the concepts of academic freedom and university autonomy, which are more and more frequently invoked, sometimes even established by the constitution and legislation, without any agreement as to their definition or their scope. The numerous international declarations made on this subject in recent years have been set in specific regional or cultural contexts. In addition, they are often unclear, combining the concepts of academic freedom and university autonomy with others that are alien to them.
UNESCO has decided to study the possibility of a universal declaration that would help universities and members of the academic community when major impediments prevent them from playing their proper role. It has asked the International Association of Universities (IAU) to examine this matter, and at UNESCO's request IAU is to organize, in the framework of the World Conference on Higher Education to be held in Paris in October, a round table that will study the desirability of such a declaration and its likely impact.
Posing the problem
I should like in this short article to leave aside the historical origins of these concepts—primarily in Europe during the early Middle Ages and in the nineteenth century—and to examine two aspects of academic freedom to which I feel insufficient attention is paid.
Firstly, I shall try to see whether there is a difference between freedom of expression and academic freedom, i.e. whether academic freedom should, as is frequently claimed, or should not be associated with human rights as such. I shall then try to show in what way academic freedom is specific to members of the academic community. Consideration of the French approach, which refers to academic freedoms in the plural, and the English, which refers to academic freedom in the singular, will give us a clearer understanding of the problem.
In fact, historically, academic freedoms in the plural (like university autonomy) relate to the privileges and immunities enjoyed by the members of guilds during the Middle Ages in Europe, whether university teachers, students or members of any other guild. Perhaps we should see whether, semantically, academic freedom or freedoms (and university autonomy) today are a modernized version of this type of privilege or whether they are based on some other concept.
I shall then look briefly at university autonomy, but more specifically in this context as one of the preconditions for academic freedom. I should like to point out that it is generally acknowledged that academic freedom applies to the individual members of the academic community and university autonomy to the university as an institution. However, these concepts can be addressed only on the basis of the university's role in society, which is their sole justification. It should be noted once again that the university does not exist for itself, or even for science, but for the benefits that it bestows on human beings and society, hence by virtue and because of its social utility. Therefore, both academic freedom and university autonomy can only be justified if they are useful, indeed necessary, conditions enabling universities to continue to play the role that society assigns to them and which they perform through teaching, research and the other services rendered to society.
The role thus assigned to the university is basically to pursue truth, i.e. to add to knowledge and ensure its dissemination in the interests of the individual and society. Directly or indirectly, society and the State create this institution, or at least make its existence possible and guarantee its viability, for the contribution that it makes to the development of humankind. It should be recalled in this context that experience shows that research, particularly at a high level, and higher education are essential to the development and the wealth of a society and of its members. That is why authoritarian societies in the developed world support them and defend them just as much and sometimes more than free, democratic, pluralistic societies.
In order to ensure the best possible development and dissemination of knowledge, society and the State must guarantee the members of the academic community the freedom needed for research and teaching. They must be able to pursue these goals without jeopardizing their careers, their independence of mind or their freedom, indeed their life. They will then discharge to the best of their ability the duties that they were appointed to perform and for which they are paid, which are precisely the development and the dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom is therefore not the privilege of a caste but a way of enabling the members of the academic community to carry out their mission. We know that the pursuit of truth, i.e. the development of knowledge, calls for a critical approach to established truths, which is not always well regarded either by society and its social, cultural or political elites or, at times, by other members of the scientific and academic communities.
It is therefore vital that society and the State should protect the members of the academic community against influences and intrusions intended to prevent them from challenging certain concepts that are accepted as true, for the critical approach is essential to the advance of science and knowledge. It should not be forgotten that absolute scientific truth—I am not speaking here about the theological truths of the revealed religions—is never acquired by human beings definitively, inasmuch as all scientific truth at a given time is relative, varying according to the era in which one lives and the stage of scientific progress reached. Members of the academic community must therefore have the right and the duty to adopt a critical approach to established truths, to pursue their research without fear or favour, and to keep their students and society at large informed of their findings.
We may add that this often poses more acute problems in the so-called social and human sciences than in natural sciences, since new and different views in the former are more easily challenged than those in the latter if they contradict the generally accepted view. Admittedly, opinions in the social and human sciences that are in open contradiction with the view of the government or the population at large are more likely to pose a threat to the social and cultural balance of a society. It has to be acknowledged, however, that if they are forbidden, all major advances become impossible and society becomes ossified and inward-looking.
The defence of academic freedom in these fields is of course particularly necessary in authoritarian societies, but it is also necessary in the so-called free and democratic societies, as witness the damage done by 'political correctness' in some of our countries. The difference between academic freedom and the freedom of an individual researcher is that in the first case it is not only a right but also a duty that society assigns to those who belong to the academic community so as to enable them to carry out their task fully.
This is not in any way to say that academic freedom is more important or more noble than freedom of expression for each member of society, whether it be a top scientist or the ordinary person in the street, but to point out that someone who is not a member of the academic community, in the sense defined above, pursues his/her research in a private capacity and without society compelling him/her to do so. It is essential to make specific provision for the protection of those expressly appointed by society to be responsible for the development and propagation of knowledge, i.e. the members of the academic community.
We can on this basis distinguish academic freedom for members of the academic community, whether teachers, researchers, teaching or research assistants or students, from the right of access to university. I would say, as does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 26, paragraph 1 in fine, that the right of all to have access to higher education on the basis of merit—unlike academic freedom—is a human right.
If it is acknowledged that academic freedom is different from freedom of expression, which is a right of each individual, and is given by society and the State to the members of the academic community so that they can discharge their duty to the best of their ability, it becomes clear that academic freedom does not apply as such, in any case within the framework of this definition, to scientists—including those at the highest level—who work for private or public companies and whose primary goal is not that of the university.
For even the highest level of scientist who is employed by a public or private undertaking aims primarily and perfectly legitimately at enabling this undertaking to expand and make a profit, and not at promoting the advancement of science as such, for the benefit of all. This distinction also makes it possible to understand why academic freedom, still in the sense that I have defined, does not apply to teachers in primary or secondary education or even to teachers in tertiary and higher education who do not fit the definition of the university proposed above.
A question to which little space can be devoted in this short article, but which inevitably arises, is that of knowing where to draw the limits of academic freedom. Have researchers, inter alia, the right and the duty to pursue any kind of research, or should limits be placed on it? In my view, the only limits should be of an ethical nature. I am fully aware that this answer is not sufficient, inasmuch as one has to agree on the nature of ethics and know precisely who defines it. I will simply say here that as far as ideas are concerned, and as long as they are not put into action, better a blunder than a ban.
This question is, of course, very sensitive and difficult to resolve, but it must be raised in a society which can only be democratic if it is pluralistic and enables each individual to express his/her opinion even—and especially—if it is contrary to that of the majority or the elite. This is why some of the laws passed recently against racism in various countries, although they stem from a sentiment that is in itself totally justified, seem to me to conflict with academic freedom, and also with freedom of expression to the extent that they no longer make it possible for the individual to challenge accepted truths at the intellectual and scientific level without placing his/her career or property, and in some cases freedom or life, in jeopardy. My view on this question is akin to that expressed in the famous saying attributed to Voltaire: I detest what you write, but I am ready to lay down my life to enable you to continue to write.
I believe that to use legal, judicial and administrative instruments providing for penal sanctions in order to prevent certain scientific opinions from being expressed is a serious error. It is the duty of other scientists, and indeed of the social community at large, to refute these opinions, but in open discussion and not by means of penal sanctions. We must not forget that what was regarded as the truth for centuries has turned out to be false, just as what was regarded for centuries as flying in the face of reason has turned out to be perfectly true. In my view, the only unquestionable limits to academic freedom and to freedom of expression are incitement to hatred and destruction and offences against human dignity and nature, which endanger the planet and hence life itself.
There is no clear answer to the question of university autonomy because the concept of autonomy itself is relative. Firstly, like academic freedom, its only purpose is to promote the role of the university in expanding knowledge and passing it on and in rendering other services to society as well. In fact, the limits of university autonomy have varied considerably in different periods and places, and that applies to even the best universities.
In any case, the modern university cannot be totally independent of the State and society for financial reasons. Even the most famous private American universities could not continue to exist and carry out advanced research without subsidies and tax exemptions.
Before trying to define what university autonomy is, I should like to stress that society and the State must, in their own interest and to enable the university to perform the task that they entrust to it, provide it with the necessary financial means for this purpose. This obligation is also justified by considerations of social justice, since the lack of the financial resources needed to maintain a good university means that children from underprivileged classes who do not have the means to go to another university are denied access to the university as an institution. This impoverishes the nation and encourages 'brain drain', as can be seen every day in some countries.
It must be added in this context that the university, as I understand it, cannot— indeed must not—be an economically profitable undertaking. For its aim is not to create the conditions conducive to immediate or short-term economic gain, although its existence is a precondition for the economic development of the region and the country in which it is located, as experience has shown. In my view, university autonomy is the degree of autonomy required, given the economic, political, social and cultural state of the society concerned, to enable the university to best fulfil the role that society has assigned to it, experience demonstrating that the university cannot fully play this role if it does not have sufficient independence and freedom vis-à-vis society and particularly vis-à-vis the State.
It is therefore incumbent upon the State not to intervene, and to prevent any other institution or person from interfering in a sphere that does not concern them, and not to undermine the role that the university was established for and is maintained to perform, ensuring by this restraint the degree of autonomy needed for it to accomplish its mission. The university must, however, be accountable for its finances especially and also for its role and its usefulness to society and the State, concerning which verification is not only useful but necessary.
Beyond their historical origins, both academic freedom and university autonomy are essential to enable the university, among all higher education institutions, to play fully its specific role. It is not a question of privileges for the institutions concerned or for the members of the academic community but of preconditions for the fulfilment of their mission and their duty to the State respectively.
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