5 Simple Rules for Using Academic Freedom

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash. Boy opening book looking surprised
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

If you want to get an academic talking, just bring up the topic of academic freedom. We all have opinions about what it is, but almost none of us have ever researched it or thought for very long about why societies provide this liberty to a select few.

Academic freedom is as old as the university. It arose in the middle ages with the first notable actions taken by staff of the University of Bologna. In modern academia, the distinction between academic freedom and the human right of freedom of expression is often lost. Burying academic freedom within the generic rights of expression endangers its unique character and then, ultimately, its purpose, use and power to protect its users.

Even more special globally is the associated legislative requirement in Aotearoa New Zealand that universities use their autonomy, the institutional form of academic freedom, to serve society as its critic and conscience. The critic component tends towards providing an unpopular view based on an area of expertise. Undue emphasis on critic narrows what academics can say by limiting which academics may speak. For example, Universities New Zealand links academic freedom specifically with their so-called ‘area of expertise’.

Conscience attends to moral and ethical imperatives. Academics are not always comfortable talking about, nor arbitrating their areas of expertise by such imperatives. Thus, the critic component, in our view, receives much more attention and weighting by academics and institutions, overshadowing conscience.

Conscience might mean to some that an academic, student or a university speaks up not because it has a kind of scholarly expertise, but because to stay silent would be wrong. We like this idea, but think that there is still something more.

The legislation says “critic and conscience”, not “critic or conscience”. In other words, conscience isn’t just a second kind of service alongside criticism. Instead, if you are one you are both.

Limited by conscience not expertise

Thinking of conscience as a boundary condition on critic provides a map for universities, academic staff and students navigating how to decide when to use academic freedom. More than this, it could be a way to transition the self-serving protection of privilege by some academics and institutions toward academic freedom for those who confront privilege within the academy and in society.

Aotearoa is a country governed by two peoples and therefore may need a concept of academic freedom and critic and conscience that recognises both governors. We are not foreshadowing that this is the case. However, to our knowledge the formal question hasn’t been asked.

Making conscience central in all activities of a critic and conscience of society might avoid some future clashes in Aotearoa. Academic freedom is the right to bring forth unpopular or controversial opinions, not to promote opinions popular with those who have social or financial privileges.

For example, white/Pākehā academics making comment on mātauranga Māori in defence of “science” don’t need to use academic freedom because the westernized institution of science already has disproportionate power and influence in any clash with indigenous knowledge systems. So when a university takes a neutral position, treating the academic protagonists and academic responders equally based on narrow ideas of a right to free speech, the institution stumbles as critic and conscience of society. Moreover, it fails to both preserve and enhance academic freedom.

Other examples include attempts to use university campuses as platforms for racially or genderised “forums”. Those without power or privilege don’t need tertiary institutions to criticize them, turn their backs on criticisms of them, or to host it. The desire of majority members of white paternalistic societies to have their ideas spoken on campus is not equal to the right of minority ethnic and non-binary groups to feel accepted and safe there.

Privilege is an asymmetry of power that marginalizes and excludes others. No history of academic freedom is consistent with the notion that it speaks privilege to power.

Therefore, not all expression that has some benefit for the speaker is disqualified as an exercise of academic freedom. For example, when a Māori woman or a transgender physicist confronts overt or ignorant attacks on what she is, her actions both benefit others without privilege and she takes on existential risks to herself.

A rough guide to conscience

We list here a gestating guide to critic tempered by conscience. It is not a weaker form of criticism. If this idea of conscience is on the right track, the guide will evolve and facilitate cross-cultural discussions about academic freedom.

When a person or institution uses its academic freedom, is it—

  • speaking truth to power? That is, is academic freedom being used to support a viewpoint that already is held by people or institutions with the differential cultural, educational, political or financial power to speak for themselves?
  • speaking truth to privilege? Is the opinion of more benefit to a CEO than to a cleaner? Will it attract more affirmation from the already privileged?
  • framing “the public” or “a public” as the problem, or is expression for a public good?
  • based on manaakitanga, paying attention to and enhancing the mana of others? Or does it sound like Judith Collins when she said: “I am a woman of colour – the colour white?”
  • using power to set the tone? Those who have institutional voice, e.g. as through a managerial role, have disproportionate influence on the rules of expression and play a role in conflicts arising from individuals using academic freedom.

What we hope is that the guide promotes actions in the name of academic freedom that are undeniably of public rather than personal good, that deserve priority and which centre the academy as the critical conscience of society.

Written By

Professor Jack Heinemann & Dr Garrick Cooper