The new Chief Inquisitor on campus

From ethics committees to ‘learning outcomes’, the threat to academic freedom comes from within the university as much as from without.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Academic freedom – which endows members of the university with the right to hold, express and teach any views they deem fit, and to research and publish their findings without restraint – is widely recognised as essential to the pursuit of knowledge.

As a 1998 report by UNESCO observed, academic freedom is ‘not simply a fundamental value’, but also ‘a means by which higher education fulfilled its mission’. Even those politicians, bureaucrats and administrators who are, by temperament, hostile to academic freedom feel compelled to defend it.

In order to flourish, university life needs individual risk takers – people who are ahead of their time and prepared to search for the truth, wherever it may lead and whomever it may offend. Intellectual and scientific breakthroughs inevitably challenge the prevailing order, which is why those who make them frequently face repression and the attention of the censor.

Since the nineteenth century, the ideals of university autonomy and the liberty of those involved in higher learning to teach, research and express their views have been formally upheld in many societies. In some countries – Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Spain, Sweden – academic freedom is affirmed by the constitution. This should not be seen as some eccentric, outdated right. Everyone benefits from the exercise of this freedom; it helps promote the development of science and knowledge, which benefits the whole of society.

Sadly, contemporary academia takes academic freedom for granted, and treats it as no big deal. Some seem to view it as a redundant privilege, not worth making a fuss about. One reason why academic freedom is not taken so seriously today is because attacks on it are rarely formulated in explicit and self-conscious terms. Although individual politicians sometimes criticise an individual lecturer, governments rarely attack academic freedoms as such. And yet, a closer examination of the workings of higher education suggests that academic freedom is threatened from both within and outside the university.

Watch your words

Paradoxically, direct attacks on academic freedom often come from within the university. There is a mood of intolerance towards those who hold unconventional, unpopular opinions, especially in the area of politics. Some academics do not simply challenge views that they dislike; they often seek to ban them and to prevent individuals who advocate them from working or speaking on their campus.

Traditionally academics, particularly social scientists, were at the forefront of defending free speech. Today, some academics actually attempt to deny their colleagues the right to free speech. The campaign to ban Tom Paulin from speaking at Harvard for being anti-Semitic, and the censoring of Israeli academics by the editor of an academic journal in Manchester on the grounds that they are Israeli, are testimony to the illiberal tendencies that prevail in academia.

Academic freedom has become negotiable. Consequently, only the more grotesque attacks on this freedom tend to provoke a reaction on campus. One such example is the recent revelation of a memo issued to colleagues in arts and humanities at Durham University, which said lecturers would have to obtain approval from an ‘ethics’ committee if they wanted to give lectures and tutorials on subjects that might offend students – including abortion or euthanasia.

This illiberal policy is not simply the handiwork of few philistine zealots. It is the inexorable consequence of an academic culture that is increasingly prepared to censor itself and others. That Durham assigned an ethics committee the role of Chief Inquisitor and Censor is not surprising: for some time now, such committees have made pronouncements on which kind of research is ethical and which is not. Extending the role of these committees from policing research to censoring academics’ views was a logical next step. Academics who treat ethics committees with derision, as a minor nuisance, should realise the extent to which their freedom is under threat.

The Durham memo may have stated its case rather bluntly. But its premise – that words that offend students should be banned – is now widely accepted and institutionalised in British higher education. Virtually every British university has adopted rules of conduct or codes of practice that convey the message: ‘the student must not be offended.’

To take a random example: the University of Derby’s ‘Code of Practice For Use of Language’. In an Orwellian tone, the code announces that ‘the use of language should reflect the university’s mission and support relationships of mutual respect’. It demands that staff and students ‘try to be sensitive to the feelings of others in the use of language’. In case academics fail to get the message and mistakenly think that being ‘sensitive’ is a question of individual preference rather than a mandatory form of behaviour, the code warns that the ‘university recognises that individuals are responsible for their own use of language but expects line managers to help staff carry out the terms of this policy’. This is unlikely to create a climate where the free exchange of opinion can flourish.

That academics are expected to work within such a code, which explicitly demands that the pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas should be restrained by the need to spare the feelings of others, is a symptom of our times. Such censorious speech codes have been institutionalised through the UK, without any serious opposition from staff or students. Once upon a time, instructions on the use of language were for schoolkids; today they are aimed at restraining the speech of the academic.

Of course words can offend. But one of the roles of a university is to challenge conventional truths – and that means academics questioning the sacred and mentioning the unmentionable. A proper university teaches its members how not to take hateful views personally, and how not to be offended by uncomfortable ideas. It also teaches its members how to deal with being offended. And it never turns to the Inquisitor or the Censor for the answer.

The indirect attacks on academic freedom

One important point made in the 1998 UNESCO report Autonomy, Social Responsibility and Academic Freedom is that universities have become subject to ‘increasing scrutiny in the name of the public’. One possible consequence of this increased scrutiny is the erosion of the kind of institutional autonomy that underpins academic freedom. As the report noted, ‘the danger is very real that the specificity of the university’s moral and civic missions become weakened’ by the imperative of auditing.

The expansion of the auditing ethos encourages a climate where academic freedom is compromised by the spread of bureaucratic rule-making. The standardisation of evaluation procedures, benchmarking, auditing and quality assurance procedures all compel academics to act according to an externally imposed script. Yet academics have barely raised a murmur about the introduction of such processes, which undermine the free pursuit of knowledge.

Today, lecturers need to ensure that their teaching is consistent with bureaucratically devised ‘learning outcomes’. One young academic was recently asked in an interview for a sociology post how his work fitted in with his potential employer’s mission statement. ‘Fitting in’ with rules and procedures – it seems that conforming to the imagination of the bureaucrats is the freedom offered to new academics.

In many ways, the erosion of academic freedom through quality assurance procedures or benchmarking is more insidious than the overt crusade against offensive speech, as exemplified by the Durham memo. Such procedures foster a climate of conformism where the freedom to express one’s views and teach what one sees fit is quietly bartered away in exchange for a quiet life. The standardisation and commodification of education restrict what an academic can and cannot do. It is a prelude to a time when the practice vetting your lecture and research will be stamped with the label of Best Practice.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is speaking at the spiked-conference Whose Choice is it Anyway? on Friday 11 March 2005. See his website here.

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Topics Politics


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