June 27, 2017
by Alice Neffe
In 2017, within only a couple of months, academic freedom has come under pressure in several countries. In Turkey, over 4000 academics have been dismissed, in what some called a ‘Nazi-style’ purge of academia. Controversy has also spurred around the Central European University in Hungary when a law passed in the Hungarian Parliament that could effectively lead to the shut-down of the institution. In both cases, the meddling into university affairs by the State has been largely described as a violation of academic freedom.
Academic freedom is a fundamental right of both academic institutions and individuals. Academic freedom is not a privilege but a means for the development of democratic values and pluralism. More importantly, it is a human right protected by such provision as the Article 15(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Through its case law, the European Court of Human Rights recognizes the importance of academic freedom, which must “guarantee freedom of expression and of action, freedom to disseminate information and freedom to conduct research and distribute knowledge and truth without restriction”. Academic freedom is also essential for the enjoyment of the right to education, which “shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”, as stated in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2006, the Council of Europe Recommendation 1762 emphasized that “violations of academic freedom and university autonomy have always resulted in intellectual relapse, and consequently in social and economic stagnation”.
In light of its importance, we are rightly alarmed when States interfere with academic freedom. History proves that universities have been the ground for dissenting opinion and resistance, which makes them at times the target of the governing elites. Therefore, monitoring State’s actions towards higher education institutions (HEI) is essential in order to ensure that the State fulfills its duty to ensure the independence of HEI and their personnel, and to react to any violation of academic freedom.
However, pressure on academic freedom is generated increasingly from within the universities. Recent events in the United Kingdom and Belgium beg the question about whether new and less obvious sources of pressure against academic freedom have emerged.
Two universities canceled guest lectures by the co-author of the UN report “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid”, which concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state” imposing “racial domination”. The reason invoked in support of these cancellations were security concerns. In fact, pro-Israeli activist groups interrupted Professor Falk’s lecture at London School of Economics earlier in March 2017. As controversial as Professors Falk’s stance may be, the remedy cannot be to ban it from academic discussion. Freedom is tiresome and more difficult than its contrary. It requires the effort to convince the audience with well-founded arguments and research, rather than to keep it away from a controversy all together.
On the other side of La Manche, a different, not less controversial issue generated a grave attack on academic freedom from within. In February 2017, a philosophy lecturer at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) developed a philosophical argument against abortion in his course. A month later, a journalist reported through social media the course and its content starting a public witch-hunt in the media. In his course, Dr. Mercier argued for the embryo and fetus to be a stage of development of a human person. Therefore, he compared abortion to murder. In response, the leadership of UCL took disciplinary measures towards the philosophy lecturer, whose courses have been suspended and whose contract will not be renewed. Belgian and foreign professors criticized these measures as attacks on the academic freedom of teaching personnel.
Certainly, these two examples are not equivalent, yet in both cases, media, parts of public opinion, and even some members of academia called universities to act against the scholars. In response to these pressures, universities were ready to cancel events and even dismiss lecturers. Certainly, HEIs seem increasingly cautious in playing their role of a platform for debates, but they don’t seem equally concerned about safeguarding the fundamental academic freedom that allows them to exist.