Academic freedom: What it is, what it isn’t and why there’s confusion | Robert Quinn


Academic freedom is an often misunderstood
and often contested concept. But at its essence, its the freedom of research
professionals, educators to seek the truth, to follow their research, their teaching,
their ideas, and to share them in an order to pursue that truth however it leads, assuming
they’re doing it according to professional and ethical standards. It’s contested because sometimes asking questions
can be sensitive or can be threatening to people who don’t want to have their worldview
changed or depend on a certain understanding of a certain topic or a certain question. And I think it’s misunderstood because academic
freedom isn’t free expression but it’s connected to that. Academic expression isn’t political by nature
but it connects to issues that are political. And because of those two, there’s a lot of
confusion about it. But at the end of the day this space matters
so much because the world is getting smaller. The issues that are affecting all of us are
complex, and we really need to have an engine that can look at complex problems and try
to solve them together. And that is what the university is and that’s
what academic freedom gives us. I work with the Scholars at Risk network,
which is a global network of universities and administrators and staff and faculty and
students who say we share this vision of a university that serves the public good, that
uses that freedom responsibly to engage with truth and difficult questions to try to help
society. And our efforts at Scholars at Risk are to
protect the space in which that can happen. And I mean the physical space, the bodies
of scholars who suffer violence or coercion or prosecution or threats as well as student
leaders and so forth. But we also frankly mean the conceptual space. The space in all of our minds to think freely
and not worry that when we try to ask questions or we share ideas that were going to be harassed
or targeted or lose our jobs or somehow threatened not because of the quality of our ideas but
for the audacity of having them and sharing them. Different disciplines get attacked for different
reasons sometimes. There’s an — I think — very false and dangerous
perception that there are safe disciplines and there are troublemaking disciplines, and
I think this goes to a misperception about the definition and boundaries of academic
freedom. Every discipline requires the ability to travel
and engage and share ideas across borders. So we had a marine biologist from the Ukraine. He studied plankton, the tiny little stuff
that some whales eat, and he was thrown in prison for it. Why was he thrown in prison for studying plankton? Because the data that he used to study plankton,
he realized — and this was just after the Cold War — that the sonar beacons that were
all over the ocean, the U.S. and the Russians had all over the oceans to track submarines,
he realized they were so sensitive that he could use them to track plankton flows. So this data was all publicly available. It was on the internet but because the old
mechanisms of the regime said anything from that is secret. Even though it’s on the internet they prosecuted
him for using that data. So marine biology was not safe in that sense. At our founding conference people said, “Well
let’s only focus on people who are targeted because of their work, because of what they
actually work on.” And we said, “Okay, that makes sense and that
would make our mission narrower,” but we realized it would define away the problem because everybody
knew that historically one of the largest groups of persecuted scholars was physicists. They were never targeted for their physics. They were targeted because they had the standing
to stand up and say we need to travel to conferences. We need to talk to each other. And then they became public dissidents. So it’s all disciplines, it’s all countries. Anybody can get in trouble if the question
that they happen to want to ask crosses with whatever authority isn’t comfortable with. So I would say recent development politically
both in the U.S. and abroad have in weird ways made our work easier. So I’ve been doing this now 20 years and for
the first 10 years or so when I went around the world if I went to Africa or I went to
Latin America and talked about why we need to protect scholars in universities, they
got it. They got it in the first minute. They lived the politicization of the university
as an engine of state building. So every time an administration would change,
the university would be ordered to do different things and so forth. Whereas domestically in the U.S. and to some
degree in Europe where much higher levels of academic freedom were generally enjoyed,
Id have to spend the first 10 or 15 minutes explaining to people why this is still a problem. They say, “Oh, that used to be a problem in
the McCarthy years,” or “That used to be a problem in the 30s.” And I’d say, “No, no, it’s still an issue,”
and I would have to tell them some of the cases and so forth. So oddly enough some of the sort of polarizing
politics of the last few years and in particular attacks on collective understanding of truth
have made it easier for people to appreciate why this stuff matters. And it really does matter. For me an eye-opening moment was, I was invited
to give a talk, and I’ll never forget it because it really educated me. I was invited to be a visitor and give a talk
at the University of the Ozarks, which is a great small institution in northwest Arkansas. And in preparing to go give this visit there
and this talk, I studied up on the student body and I don’t remember the numbers but
let’s say roughly 50 percent came from within 100 miles and 80 percent were going to get
jobs within 200 miles and so forth and so on. I said how am I going to get them to connect
to this project that’s so all over the world. And I walked into the classroom and they got
it because 50 percent of the kids as I remember were going to be teachers. They had a big education program. And they knew as teachers-in-training the
four or five topics that could get you fired as a teacher in the United States because
they were so sensitive. So they really connected with this work. This isn’t something that’s an over-there
issue because the tension between disagreeing over ideas exists everywhere. This isn’t a right-left thing. Conservatives in different parts of the world
are the ones getting attacked and in other places liberals or leftists are the ones getting
attacked. Our program is saying that we need to have
these spaces where we collectively try to solve difficult problems and that the only
way you can solve difficult problems isn’t by force. It’s by evidence and reason and persuasion,
and that’s what the university does that you can’t do in a newspaper. They can get into deep levels of complexity,
studying problems that require 10 years to really understand them and then try to work
it out. So yes, the moment today is particularly charged
but all that’s really doing is I think exposing why this space and this work is so important.

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