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A clear and present danger - Zoe Corbyn, Christoph Bode and David Gunkel, Times Higher Education, 11 février 2010

jeudi 11 février 2010, par Mathieu

Many scholars feel that their freedom to question is in danger of being eroded or even lost. Zoe Corbyn examines the threat in the UK, while Christoph Bode and David Gunkel consider the state of affairs in Europe and America.

There is an online retailer in the UK that sells T-shirts marketed specifically at academics. Most of them feature geek jokes and nerd humour (one sports the slogan "Chillin’ with my genomes", another a Rubik’s Cube image), but one carries an amended version of the popular short poem First they came. The original by Pastor Martin Niemoller was a rebuke to the intellectuals who stood by while the Nazis purged group after group of "undesirables" ("First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist ;"). The T-shirt makes changes to detail the lack of voices defending black people, gay people and "bleeding-heart liberals", but it leaves the final line intact : "Then they came for me and there was no one to speak up for me."

Although it may seem odd to some, the sentiment speaks to many inside Britain’s academy who feel they are in danger of losing a core feature of scholarly life : academic freedom. Barely a week goes by when Times Higher Education does not carry a complaint or a warning from an academic about threats to their cherished right to speak out. And it is not just high-profile people - there is a real sense of unease among rank-and-file academics that their right to speak truth to power, to set their own research and teaching agendas and to voice their opinions about the management of their institutions is being stripped away.

Despite the UK’s generally liberal atmosphere, there have been many instances where officials have come down hard on scholars attempting to exercise their freedom.

Aubrey Blumsohn lost his job as a researcher at the University of Sheffield in 2006 after he blew the whistle over his difficulty accessing research data on a drug from his funder, Procter & Gamble. After 30 years at the Dartington College of Arts, Sam Richards, a lecturer, was sacked in 2007 because his apology for publicly criticising his principal was judged to be insufficiently sincere. And last year, outrage greeted the decision by the University of Nottingham to vet the reading lists of politics lecturers after it was discovered that a student had downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual.

Last year also saw the sacking of David Nutt, the independent scientific adviser on drugs, after he "campaigned" against the Government’s policies - a case that underscored the broad threat to scholarly values, even if it was arguably more a crisis of scientific advice than of academic freedom (as there was no university reprimand).

Other notorious and unpleasant cases test the limits of academic freedom. Chris Brand was fired by the University of Edinburgh for gross misconduct in 1997 after questioning paedophilia charges against Nobel prizewinner Daniel Gajdusek on the grounds that his own research suggested that paedophilia with a consenting partner over the age of 12 with above-average IQ was not harmful. Frank Ellis, an expert in Russian and Slavonic studies at the University of Leeds, sparked intense debate about scholarly liberty in 2006 after he was suspended for expressing support in a student newspaper for a theory that whites were generally more intelligent than non-whites.

There are, nonetheless, academics who are rather more sanguine about the state of their personal freedoms.

Steve Fuller is not a biologist, but that does not stop him arguing publicly that intelligent design should be accorded equal status with evolution and other scientific theories. In fact, he believes it is his right to speak out as he does. According to the controversial University of Warwick sociologist and author of The Sociology of Intellectual Life (2009) : "Academic freedom isn’t simply the right to speak within your expertise : it is the right to speak about anything - but in a way that involves an appeal to reason, argument and evidence."

He regards his participation in the debate about evolution as living proof that academic freedom is alive and well in the UK. "There are people who hate my guts, but they have not been able to shut me down."

Another scholar unafraid to speak his mind is David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London. Best known as an outspoken campaigner against pseudoscience, he is also an inveterate critic of the objectionable changes he sees at universities, including his own. On hearing that his department would be restructured, he launched a blog to chart its journey to "death". "People say it is brave when you challenge your institution, but if you think things are not being done right at a place you are very attached to, you should say so."

Which examples give the true picture of the state of liberty in the UK academy in 2010 ? Are scholars being cowed ? Is the UK academy suffering a catastrophic loss of liberty ? What dangers are looming, what lines are being drawn and how is freedom being protected and defended ?

A year of reckoning

"2010 looks like being the year when academic freedom needs to be defended everywhere," claims Dennis Hayes. The professor of education at the University of Derby is also leader of Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF), a campaign group set up in 2006 to put freedom at the top of the agenda of everyone in the academy. Controversially, it also argues that a wider definition of academic freedom must include a right to no-holds-barred free speech.

"I don’t think people live in fear, but academic freedom has been lost and a lot of critical people now are moving out of universities."

His concern is echoed by a transatlantic observer, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). "It is under threat in a fairly similar way in every country that has made a major shift towards employing people without any long-term job security," he says, making clear that that includes the UK. In his book No University is an Island : Saving Academic Freedom (2009), Nelson lists 16 threats to scholarly freedom, which range from the ethos that sees higher education as little more than job training, to the claims that institutions and their managers must be afforded a free hand amid financial crisis.

A great many UK academics consider the biggest threats to academic freedom to be increasing commercialism and managerialism. Teaching has been reduced to "box-ticking" and "learning outcomes", they complain, while research must increasingly be configured around the agendas of others. But they also identify a raft of specific threats including institutional changes to governance arrangements, the Government’s research impact agenda and its approach to tackling extremism (see box page 33).

Terry Hoad, lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, is vice-president of the University and College Union. He believes that a "creeping culture" that is "mostly insidious" is encroaching on academic freedom. "All these things conspire, and whether it is to do with extremism or government priorities or threats to livelihoods, the pressures are such that they make people look over their shoulders more."

"Academic freedom has always been under threat," notes Blumsohn, who is now a hospital researcher, campaigner for openness in research conduct and co-chair of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards (Cafas), an organisation seeking to provide support to individuals whose academic freedom is infringed, which it does largely through letter-writing targeted at vice-chancellors.

"I don’t know if it is fair to say that it is more under threat than it has been in the past - we have never been able to do all these wonderful things we imagine we should - but I do think that the types of threats have changed a lot over the past decade. A lot of things that are threatening now were not really big issues on the agenda 10 or 15 years ago," he says.

Others, too, see this as a crucial time. "I think it is going to be a crunch year for academic freedom," notes Tim Horder, senior research fellow in medicine at Oxford and co-editor of Oxford Magazine, which recently dedicated an issue to academic freedom. "The impact agenda and libel laws are firmly poised to impinge on it," he says.

Like Hoad, Eric Barendt, a professor of media law at University College London and a member of Cafas, thinks freedom is slowly withering. His book titled Academic Freedom and the Law is due out later this year. "In many respects academic freedom hasn’t gone, but there is a gradual decline in academic freedom in practice. Although in the traditional older universities it is still in its main substance honoured, the anecdotal evidence from newer universities is that many more academics tread on eggshells to avoid trouble."

Enemy within ?

Such wariness leads some to argue that academics have been complicit in the restriction of freedom by not standing up in its defence.

"The real threat to academic freedom today is the failure (of the academy) to see it as something that needs defending," says Hayes.

A similar point is made by Roy Harris, emeritus professor of general linguistics at Oxford : "Academics are the chief enemies of academic freedom." Harris, who was also instrumental in establishing AFAF, accuses many in the academy of being "plodders" who just want a quiet scholarly life and who do not see it as their duty to speak up on vital issues.

Others continue the enemy-within argument. "Nobody bats an eyelid when they are told : ’This is what you are going to do research on.’ It is just accepted that people will roll over," notes Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, also an AFAF supporter. He is another controversial sociologist who has written books including Politics of Fear (2005) and Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone ? (2006).

Colquhoun, too, has noticed a timorousness in some colleagues. He laments the "self-censorship" that he sees - the people who "daren’t speak for themselves" - and he lays the blame at the feet of an intimidatory "cult of managerialism". "Whether (academic freedom) is actually reduced is hard to say. But I think the perception that it is worse is real, and the perception is quite enough to effectively gag people," he notes.

What worries him most is academics’ timidity about "everyday" matters : people won’t stand up even at departmental meetings to express their opinions, he says. "While it is easier for older academics to speak out, the younger either don’t want to speak or heavily self-censor. They are worried by the fear that it will harm their careers - that they won’t get a promotion or they will be seen as ’troublemakers rocking the boat’."

It’s difficult to say just how widespread is the intimidation and restriction of academics. Blumsohn says many institutions use gagging agreements to ensure the silence of academics they get rid of. "In the end, (some staff) get so beleaguered that they just sign and leave." The agreements prevent campaigners and colleagues from finding out just how universities deal with staff who raise unpopular matters, he says.

Perhaps most pessimistic for the future is Terence Karran, a senior academic in the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln and scholar of academic freedom. In his regular surveys of legal provisions governing academic freedom in European Union member states, the UK repeatedly comes "bottom of the pack".

Karran - whose surveys are theoretical and do not take account of the cultural protections not explicitly stated in the law - makes the point that two bulwarks of academic freedom are largely absent from the UK. Tenure (which basically ensured that an academic could not be sacked) was abolished in 1988, and the right of academics to engage in the governance of their institutions is all but non-existent (Oxford and the University of Cambridge are exceptions - see box page 32).

The list includes a third element - institutional autonomy - according to Gill Evans, professor of medieval history at Cambridge and a veteran who has long fought for academic freedom, including many years with Cafas. She argues that without institutional autonomy, which faces many threats, academics would be at the mercy of the state’s control. Although the UCU agrees, it also notes that there are plenty of powerful university groups defending autonomy, which simply isn’t the case for academic freedom.

Generational change may explain some of the reason academics could be losing their hold on this aspect of academic life, Evans explains. She says the UK is in "new territory" in the sense that in the past ten years the older scholars who retained academic tenure after it was abolished have begun to retire and leave the academy. "(Now) the vast majority of academics do not have tenure and so we are in a more precarious position," she notes.

Karran advocates a return to a system of tenure with caveats such as a probation period and some get-out clauses for universities.

As to the necessity of academic freedom to the academy, Evans does not mince her words. "Weaken it and you are in very dangerous territory for the future of civilisation. It is the best way of ensuring that knowledge moves on without being distorted by factors irrelevant to the nature of the truth."

AFAF’s Hayes agrees : "Lose academic freedom and you have not just lost a freedom, you have lost the university."

What are we fighting for ?

But exactly what is it that campaigners seek to defend ? There are almost as many different interpretations of academic freedom as there are academics, and the line between where it stops and where other rights such as freedom of speech start is as blurry as it is controversial.

In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy hearings in the US, Albert Einstein offered as a definition of academic freedom the "right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true". This right also implied a duty, he asserted : "One must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true."

But how much practical value is a statement of principles ?

For those in the UK, the law offers some solid support. The right to academic freedom is enshrined in legislation, as part of the Thatcher Government’s Education Reform Act 1988 (which is duplicated in the devolved administrations). However, notes Hayes, few academics are even aware of this protection.

The Act’s main aim was to scrap tenure but, at the 11th hour and after wrangling in the House of Lords, a section securing academic freedom was inserted to offer academics some compensation for their loss.

It provides special employment protection for academics by placing a duty on institutions to ensure that academic staff have "freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions". Strictly speaking, it applies only to pre-1992 institutions, but most post-1992 institutions have included it in their statutes or instruments of governance (except a few Christian universities).

The provision gives academics a "much greater freedom" than any other profession to determine how they work and to criticise the administration of their university, notes Barendt. Yet although it may be a particular and specific freedom that does not apply to non-academic jobs, its precise meaning and extent is unclear. The simple fact is that it has never been tested in the courts.

At a minimum, most would regard it as the right of academics to, within laws such as those governing freedom of speech, undertake their own teaching and research without interference and according to professional standards. It allows, say, a university economist to issue an evidence-based paper highly critical of the Treasury or an English lecturer to impart a certain textual reading to students without fear of reprimand. It protects the activities at the core of academia and intellectual life, for which disciplining an academic would be both completely absurd and unacceptable.

Yet it is also commonly considered to extend to giving academics licence to participate in and to publicly criticise their university’s governance. "Academic freedom (includes) the right to express one’s opinion publicly about the institution or the education system in which one works," says the UCU’s 2009 statement on academic freedom. Academics have the right to "take part in the governing bodies and to criticise the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own," states the 1997 Unesco "Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel", to which the UK is a signatory.

Understandably perhaps, universities see things somewhat differently. Prefacing his views with the proviso that he is "speaking as a lawyer more than as a head of an institution", Malcolm Grant, the provost of University College London, says : "Certainly academics may criticise their own institutions publicly, and that is a not uncommon habit. But it is not an entitlement to act with impunity. The legislation protects freedom of speech within the law. So it obviously doesn’t protect speech that is defamatory, incitement to racial or religious hatred, harassment, malicious falsehood and so on. The extent to which it is conditioned by the contract of employment remains - so far as I am aware - untested in the courts, and in particular whether it would yield to a contractual obligation to their employer not to publicly criticise the institution in ways that would bring it into disrepute."

Barendt’s interpretation is that academics "probably" do have the right to be critical of their institution. "It is clear that academic staff, by convention, have a broad freedom to put forward their own ideas as to how the university is run and to criticise the governance of the university without running the risk of losing their jobs ... The Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life said that it was a very valuable check on bad governance, incompetence and corruption in universities for academics to speak freely about how the university is run."

The ’business’ of academics

In considering academics’ rights, the UCU’s Hoad notes that universities are not commercial organisations and that they and their staff have special missions. The "whole business" of academics is to question and to challenge ideas ; the "consequence" of that is that academics "have to be allowed" to publicly question the running of their own institutions.

Evans notes that it was only after the 1988 Act came into effect that academics began to ask if academic freedom meant they could criticise the management. "It seems to me that it has to," she says, "but it has never been subsequently tested in the courts."

The area of "extramural utterance" is equally tricky and just as open to interpretation. Does academic freedom grant special protection to academics who speak outside their own subject and express controversial views outside lecture halls ?

AFAF says there is no question about it - such speech should be protected under academic freedom. "The most creative aspect of academic life is often the ability to comment on areas that are not narrowly part of your ’contracted’ area of expertise," says Hayes.

For his part, Fuller argues that it is the scholarly "mode of expression" - relying on reason, argument and evidence - that deserves special protection, irrespective of the subject.

Others counter that while it is completely acceptable for academics to speak outside their expertise, for example, stating beliefs on religion or politics, it does not - and should not - merit any special rights of protection. "It is up to academics if they speak outside their subject areas," says Karran. "But if they do so, they can speak only in the capacity as citizens. They can’t claim academic freedom."

The obvious problem is just where to draw the line. Is a sociologist speaking about evolution protected by academic freedom ?

Exactly where academic freedom ends and limits on freedom of speech and expression kick in is also hotly debated. Many believe that academic staff should not be exempt from general laws governing freedom of speech and expression. But the UCU statement argues for less freedom than the law allows, stressing that academic freedom bears a responsibility to "respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others" and noting that it expects members to refrain from "all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination". It gives a long list of grounds on which members should take care to ensure that this does not occur.

But AFAF and its supporters object. They argue that the UCU caveats and any "narrow view" of academic freedom amount to "politically correct censorship". While remaining civil, academics (and everyone else) should, they contend, have "unrestricted liberty" to be offensive to others without fear of sanction - indeed, such liberty is necessary for academics to do their jobs. AFAF would like to see the law changed to enshrine complete and absolute freedom of speech for academics. It is a provocative position that offers support for notorious cases from Frank Ellis to Chris Brand. Such individuals may be wrong-headed and voice unpalatable thoughts, but the right to say such things should be sacrosanct, the absolutists argue.

"People say I mix up free speech and academic freedom, but I just see it as a continuum," Hayes explains. "It is freedom of speech that is the core of academic freedom ... and academic freedom is the uninhibited and unrestricted right to be critical and the freedom of people to listen and make up their own minds."

Furedi takes up the intellectual argument. By engaging honestly and openly with people who have very different views, however noxious, scholars sharpen their views and make intellectual leaps, he maintains ; suppress the conversations and the quality of ideas and discourse diminishes. "Good arguments about race and racism don’t drop out of the heavens," he says. "They come about by arguing with racists - not by being offended by what they are saying but by taking their arguments apart."

Hayes paints a bleak scenario of the "subversive classroom". In it, lecturers are happy to criticise anything and everything within the confines of a classroom but never dream of raising a whisper in public. "You can still have the illusion of criticism ... (but) it is intellectual masturbation," he chides.

He detects a strain of this in the "tragedy" of a distinct lack of support for AFAF’s ideals among scholars who busy themselves with the "academic study" of academic freedom but do nothing to defend it. Not one higher education professor has signed a 1,000-strong AFAF petition supporting the ideals, he notes.

"I just don’t think we should have carte blanche to be offensive or insulting, let alone to defame," explains Barendt, summing up why he and others disagree with the AFAF view.

Karran thinks the UK must come up with an "agreed definition" of academic freedom that sets out its limits before it can move forward at all.

A little less conversation

However, more talk and discussion is the last thing a pragmatist like Blumsohn wants. He says there is a "huge gap" between the theorising and pontificating about the many and varied aspects of academic freedom, and the messy front line where individuals encounter problems. More action on the ground is what is needed most, he believes.

"We need to look at multiple individual cases and why things have gone wrong and get involved in commenting and challenging and calling universities to account ... But the (theorists) don’t seem to care."

Put simply, he thinks there are not enough places for academics who feel their rights have been breached to take their cases and find support. "In the US there are lots, but there are very few places where beleaguered people can go in the UK and it is a real problem.

"The whole atmosphere of dissent and challenge of universities needs to be upgraded. There are no effective organisations out there with sufficient gravitas and energy to call universities to account in these cases."

He says academics suffer because the UCU is more interested in defending salaries and working conditions than in pursuing universities that infringe academic freedom and because professional bodies that should engage just don’t. AFAF raises important principles of free speech, but is not very vocal in the public defence of besieged individuals, Blumsohn says. The situation leaves Cafas as just about the only organisation taking an interest, he says, and it isn’t particularly vocal either. It consists of a small group of academic volunteers who get involved in limited casework in a limited way.


Academics at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge enjoy far more freedom to participate in - and criticise - their governance than academics at most other UK institutions.

Lire la suite sur le site du Times Higher Education.