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Dispatches on academic freedom

In the face of dangerous questions, turn to core values

To defend the values at the heart of the university, we must first understand them. Here’s a resource that can help.


Last spring, I took a free MOOC (a massive open online course) called “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters.” The MOOC is the creation of non-governmental organization Scholars at Risk (SAR), together with its Academic Refuge project partners, the University of Oslo, UNICA (Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe), and the University of Ljubljana. I’m telling you about it now because the MOOC is running again, in its second iteration. (It started April 15, but there’s still time to join.) The course is an amazing resource for anyone who wishes to better understand academic freedom – and understanding academic freedom is more urgent now than it has ever been.

A university’s five core values

One of the most striking things about the course is that, while the topic is academic freedom, the course situates academic freedom within a system of five core values that animate the modern university: academic freedom, social responsibility, institutional autonomy, accountability and equitable access. SAR emphasizes the importance of better understanding all five of these values in order to both prevent and resolve conflicts over academic freedom. SAR does not regard any one of the five core values it lists as more fundamental than the others, or as trumping the others. Rather, it treats all five of them as jointly necessary as a foundation for healthy higher education communities.

When core values clash

While none of the values trumps the others, they can sometimes be in tension with each other. SAR illustrates this point with several hypothetical examples, but one from recent years: any instance of a campus speaker with allegedly anti-LGBTQ+ or racist views being met with protest by queer or racialized campus members and their allies. These now familiar cases involve a clash between the value of academic freedom and that of equitable access (and in particular, access to higher education for minoritized students and scholars). SAR suggests that campus communities that have been well-educated about the core values and have a history of trusting conversations about them, are in a better position to do the difficult work of navigating such tensions.

It is worth illustrating this with another example – and one less connected to current flashpoints like controversial speakers. Consider a possible clash between academic freedom and institutional autonomy of the following type: Jones is hired by a dentistry school to teach dentistry, but over the years becomes fascinated by issues of jurisprudence, and insists on their academic freedom to focus their teaching and research on the law. One could argue that academic freedom taken to this degree conflicts with the right of a dentistry school to remain a dentistry school, and hence with institutional autonomy.

The above example is not outlandish. Scholars’ research and teaching areas sometimes change over time. (Notoriously, psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson first shot to fame by theorizing about a change to the Criminal Code of Canada.) But it is appropriate for universities, faculties and departments to have specific goals and programming.

SAR says these tensions cannot be resolved by insisting on the non-negotiable character of the values at play. Jones’s academic freedom is important, but so are collegial decisions about curriculum. Once we recognize that both are important, and why both are important, the difficult work of balancing values can begin. The process won’t always produce a happy ending but starting with a healthy respect for the core values that intersect in each case can help produce an outcome that preserves both values to the greatest extent possible, and that lays the foundation for favorable outcomes in the future.

External pressures on core values

SAR warns (PDF) that undue external influence on postsecondary institutions can squeeze out core values, as can “structural and competitive pressures arising from globalization, commercialization, commodification of knowledge, so-called disruptive technologies, and more.”

One of the reasons that commercialization, for instance, can squeeze out core values is that the values themselves, and the relationship between them, are complex, and generally poorly understood outside of academe. Thus, partners in the private sector and in government can become frustrated by the demands placed upon them by a university proceeding according to its core values. The kind of difficult conversations required to negotiate the tensions between the core values can seem too complicated and time-consuming for external partners unused to collegial governance. (A similar frustration is sometimes experienced even within scholarly communities, as evidence points to increasing faculty disengagement from university governance.)

SAR recommends that university leaders cultivate ongoing conversations with members of their campus communities about the five core values in order to encourage greater understanding of the values and to build buy-in for the difficult, ongoing task of defending them – including in examples of campus controversy and the creeping effects of commercialization and commodification.

Further, SAR argues that internal campus conversations and negotiations about balancing core university values supports the academic mission of the university. Punitive, external measures imposed on universities, however, compromise that mission.

In recent years, such punitive, external measures have notably taken the form of campus free speech legislation, or non-legislative campus free speech directives from government, such as the one issued by the Ontario government in 2018. Not only does this political statement incorrectly identify free speech as the freedom most central to the university’s mission (that would be academic freedom), it also weakens all five core values – especially institutional autonomy.

That said, some legislators cast campus free speech legislation in the language of another core value – accountability. For instance, a senior White House official characterized U.S. President Donald Trump’s March 21 executive order on campus free speech as “making higher education more transparent and holding institutions more accountable.” However, in violating the tenet that accountability must be balanced against academic freedom and institutional autonomy, such arguments are little more than caricatures of genuine scholarly accountability. Thus, the latest campus free speech culture wars are leading to a diminishment of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, a warping of academic accountability, and a concomitant diminishment of universities’ ability to pursue their scholarly mission.

It is urgent that we defend these values. To do so, we must understand them. The Dangerous Questions MOOC is a good first step.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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