THE MEANING OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM
Roland G. Simbulan
The quest for academic freedom is a continuing one, subject to continuing controversies in universities in the Philippines, even in industrialized countries like the United States, and in Europe where it is supposed to have been (well) developed. We still hear about so many cases of the stifling or restrictions on academic freedom of faculty members, even of those tenured faculty members whose ideas disturb the powers-that-be inside or outside of the academe.
Academic freedom, according to Norman Finkelstein incorporates “professional autonomy, where your colleagues are the best judge of one’s technical competence, in order to preempt outside interference by economic, political or religious forces.” Finkelstein adds that academic freedom is part of our “liberty of speech”, where the freedom of inquiry, search for truth in the university also extends outside the academe like every other citizen. (Finkelstein, 2007) In Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), we see one of the most eloquent formulations of this principle:
“If the waters of truth flow not in a continual progression, they sicken
into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition….Though all the winds
of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we
do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength.”
Knowledge is a product not only of individual academic research, but also of vigorous, sustained intellectual exchange and dialogue among scholars and non-academic experts. Discussions, publications and research dissemination are intended to facilitate that exchange. The political basis of academic freedom, in the words of J.S. Mill, stems from the freedom of thought and expression. These are freedoms which are enshrined today in the Philippine Constitution, as well as the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights. In its Sec. 5 (2) Art, XIV, the 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines guarantees all institutions of higher learning academic freedom. But how do we define academic freedom?
Academic freedom is a right that enables the community of scholars – individually or collectively – to express diverse perspectives over contentious, controversial and critical topics, free from intimidation by administration or by the political repression of the state. It is the very basic culture of a truly free university. Academic freedom is essential to preserve full, critical and fair discussion, within the university –the most important of society’s civic institutions. Academic freedom is certainly infringed when an atmosphere of censorship and intimidation exists especially in institutions of higher learning. The purpose of academic freedom is to advance free and open exchange of ideas and opinions in the academe, where theories are dissected and examined, and the conclusion left to the logic of facts, no matter where this truth leads.
Perhaps, Prof. Randy David, in his Centennial Lecture, “Modernity and the University: The First 100 Years” captured the meaning of academic freedom:
“The substance of the university’s modernity is best captured in the phrase ‘academic freedom’. This phrase defines the spirit of the university as the freedom of inquiry to be enjoyed by students and faculty. As a right to be enjoyed by the institution itself,academic freedom meant the university’s right to determine for itself, solely on academic grounds, who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study. The enjoyment of that freedom depends in large measure on the capacity of the institution to draw its sustenance from society in return for performing a role in the social division of labor, while protecting its academic prerogatives from intervention by the dominant institutions of the same society —in particular, the Church and the State.” (David, 2008)
Today, we in the academe are faced with the question on how best to inculcate institutional values of excellence, leadership and social responsibility in our programs and curriculum. Lately, many state universities including the University of the Philippines, have been besieged by issues of commercialization brought about by galloping increases in tuition and miscellaneous fees, making it more difficult for poor but qualified students from public schools to enter the state university. Their slots are taken by less qualified but more affluent students from private schools.
The state university is also pressured by those with political and corporate connections to soften its curricular and admissions standards to accommodate more of the children of the elite and upper middle class. Should the university allow itself to be pressured by the exigencies of commercialization and patronage where it will compromise its rigor and standards of excellence? Can it still inculcate very basic values of nationhood instead of a career-oriented individualism often being demanded by market-oriented administrators or external political or economic patrons?
Let me explain more about academic freedom in the context of academic life.
First, academic freedom eventually needs to be protected through tenure of professors.
Tenure isn’t just about giving people the freedom to publish what and when they want; it creates a secure environment in which professors can freely speak or write their minds, on any subject, so that they can push the envelope of thought without fear of penalty. Such freedom is the very heart of the university. There is no middle ground here.
For indeed, even today, the security of tenure of faculty members, whether in public or private sectarian or non-sectarian universities, is always under threat. Professors who have views and opinions which run contrary to certain institutions or economic, political or religious interest groups always run the risk of being terminated. Teachers, whether individually or collectively through their faculty unions have to continually defend this freedom with the right to tenure, after academic requirements and criteria are met.
The tenure system therefore protects academic freedom. Every university should have a core of brilliant scholars who have survived the most rigorous weeding out process of their technical competence or field of study that the university can devise. And then,
once someone is granted tenure, they are left alone to write and research as they see fit. Academic freedom and tenure are mutually supporting each other. This is the very point of tenure – to guarantee academic freedom and to protect professors from the zealots and politicians of this world, whether inside or outside the university.
Second, institutionally, universities should protect their professors, researchers and students in their exercise of academic freedom inside and outside the classroom.
The university must assume full responsibility for permitting its professors to express certain opinions in public, and not leave them unprotected from recrimination by public authorities. Brilliant and creative people are sometimes eccentric. In institutions whose overriding purpose is to discover and transmit knowledge, it has often seemed best to tolerate unpopular opinions and questionable behavior for the sake of giving the most talented people the opportunity to teach.
The level and quality of one’s scholarship is not based on whether a professor’s work is too popular to the public. One can both be a serious scholar and an effective disseminator of one’s works and ideas. And high scholarship can also come side by side with politics and social activism. It cannot be “pure scholarship” that is not read or does not have impact. It is in these instances when an academic’s thoughts and ideas should be given institutional protection even if those ideas do not necessarily reflect the official position of the university or research institution.
Third, academic freedom when exercised should not be limited in the classroom.
We are essentially asking here two related questions: Who exercises academic freedom? What is the relationship between academic freedom and other freedoms?
Essentially, the academic freedom of universities is the freedom of competent persons in the classroom. Teachers, scholars and researchers are the ones who exercise academic freedom, though to a very limited extent, this can likewise be exercised by students in the exercise of the quest for knowledge and truth. This freedom allows academics to address controversial issues such as stem cell research, evolution, feminism, (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transvestite (LGBT) rights, etc whether inside or outside the classroom. To restrict academic freedom will have a severe chilling effect on the production and dissemination of scholarly research in all disciplines. Its limitation or prohibition will vilify and stifle any honest critique of society. The dissemination of knowledge should also be extended outside the classroom and outside the university.
Fourth, if there is a clash between the administration and the faculty on the issue of the exercise of academic freedom internally, it is the faculty who should prevail.
Academic freedom requires that the faculty – in collegial decision making – be given primary responsibility for applying academic standards to advance and protect scholarship, standards and the quest for truth. Administration is there to implement the academic decisions collegially decided upon the professors and faculty in the university. .
Academic freedom requires that teaching and scholarship be assessed only by reference to the professional standards that sustain the University’s pursuit and achievement of knowledge. The substance and nature of these standards properly lie within the expertise and authority of the faculty as a body. Complementary to this is the collegial decision of professors and faculty members to recruit, renew and promote their colleagues based on their peer-judgment of their colleagues’ technical competence.
What is not Academic Freedom
But the right to academic freedom is not absolute, for there are boundaries to this right. When an administrator who is also a professor imposes religion such as mandatory prayers before or after classes on his or her colleagues and students especially in a secular university, this is not academic freedom, but its abuse. When faith and religious beliefs are brought into the academe, they should risk being subjected to critical examination by believers and non-believers alike. Religion cannot be treated as equal to science in the academic community especially when it is solely anchored on faith and uncritical belief. Professors can have a diversity of political, economic or religious beliefs which they can share to their colleagues and students in the academe, but these ideas – once opened in the laboratory of ideas — can and should be subjected to critical peer review. The rendering of opinions on matters related to any subject of inquiry is a freedom that is equivalent to the oxygen of life in the academic community. Without it, academic life is stifled if not suffocated.
Also, while the 1982 Education Act has extended to students the right to academic freedom where students also have the right “to freely choose their field of study, subject to existing curricula and to continue their course therein up to graduation”, such right is subject to the established academic standards laid down by the academic institution. In a landmark case, the Philippine Supreme Court resolved that: Petitioner DLSU, “therefore can very well exercise its academic freedom which includes its free choice of students for admission to its school.” (De La Salle University Inc. et al vs. Court of Appeals et al GR No. 127980, Dec. 19, 2007). In this instance also, while students do have the right to education, they cannot dictate to their professors their own curriculum and how it should be taught. Students and their parents must understand that when they apply to enter the university, they are submitting themselves not only to the standards and rigors of academic excellence, but also to the values of social responsibility which are taught by the faculty.
In sum, academic freedom is both a constitutional and academic right. It covers freedom of teaching, of research and of extramural activities, i.e. fieldwork or practicum, in search for truth and its free exposition. In 1940, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in a position paper on academic freedom and tenure. This was presented and later adopted by the convention of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It stated that academic freedom applies both to teaching and research, for “freedom in teaching and research is fundamental to the advancement of truth…in its teaching aspect, it is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the studentto freedom in learning…but it carries with it duties correlative with rights.”
( AAUP, 1940).
Ironically, it was not even a scholar or academic, but an Asian revolutionary, Mao Ze Tung who taught us the true essence of academic freedom in poetic aphorism: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and let a thousand schools of thought contend!”
It could not have been stated better.
American Association of University Professors (1940). Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Internet article: www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsrespolicydocs/contents/1940statement.htm
David, Randolf. (2008) “Modernity and the University: The First 100 Years”. Centennial Lecture, University of the Philippines. Delivered at U.P. Baguio. August 29, 2008.
Finkelstein, Norman. (2007) “On the Place of Civility in Academic Life” . In Defense of Academic Freedom Conference, University of Chicago. Oct. 12, 2007. Internet video lecture.
* Article by Roland G Simbulan – For a full professional background of Professor Roland G. Simbulan (Click Here)