Why Academic Freedom is Important to Everyone (Not Just Academics)

The ongoing conflicts at the University of British Columbia that I wrote about last week have caused a lot of discussion about the concept of “academic freedom”. Unfortunately, a fair amount of that discussion has criticized academic freedom as nothing more than an excuse for lazy academics to do irrelevant work, or as something that’s only important to ivory-tower inhabitants fighting over trivial issues.

Clearly I’m biased on the importance of academic freedom,  because it’s extremely relevant to my occupation. But the right to academic freedom in universities is something that is, and should be, important to everyone. Here’s why.

First, it’s important to understand what “academic freedom” really means. The University of British Columbia defines it this way:

the freedom, within the law, to pursue what seems to [the members of the University] as fruitful avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.

And my employer defines it this way:

Academic freedom includes the right of all members of the university community to inquire, discuss, speak and express themselves, study, conduct research, teach, publish, associate, create and exhibit their work without hindrance or restriction by the university or any of its representatives.

In other words, the right of academic freedom means that a university can’t tell its faculty members what topics they can research, or teach about, or discuss. So this right encourages the development of new knowledge, and supports research that might result in new discoveries in the future, by protecting researchers from intimidation or censorship. A particular research topic might seem to an observer to be pointless or far too theoretical to produce anything useful, but that can’t be known for sure unless a researcher can investigate the topic. The right to academic freedom doesn’t require the university to financially support every bit of research that every faculty member wants to do – but it does ensure that the university, and its representatives, can’t tell faculty members not to investigate something that they consider too controversial or too offensive.

Realistically, there are resource constraints affecting what topics faculty members actually do get to research. And there are informal signals in any academic field to indicate which research topics are the most valued and will most quickly advance the faculty member’s career: the topics that get supported with research funding, the topics that top researchers are working on, the topics of the articles published in the most reputable journals. But the principle of academic freedom lets faculty members use their professional expertise to choose whatever directions of inquiry they feel are worthwhile. (And even if a topic does turn out to be a dead end, there still may be knowledge gained along the way that can be used to make other research more productive.)

But the right to academic freedom is not absolute. For example, UBC’s definition of academic freedom only protects activities “within the law”. And my employer’s policy includes this limitation:

Academic freedom does not entitle anyone from the university community to promote hatred or contempt for any social, national, or ethnic group; display incompetence in teaching or scholarship; or violate the human rights of others.

An important part of this limitation is the mention of  “incompetence in teaching or scholarship”, Academics can’t claim that careless work or badly-formulated ideas are protected by their right to academic freedom – because academic freedom also includes the right of academics to debate and discuss each other’s work. And that includes debating and discussing its faults. So academic freedom actually discourages weak or lazy research, and irresponsible or indefensible opinions, by allowing criticism of research that is substandard or sloppy.

There are plenty of examples of disputes around what academic freedom means in practice. However, one dispute that occurred while I was in graduate school is an excellent example of why the right to academic freedom is important. During that time, Philippe Rushton, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, was conducting research that attempted to find links between measures of intelligence and (alleged) physical differences between members of different races.

As you might imagine, this research was hugely controversial – to the point where Rushton’s research was  investigated as a potential hate crime, because the research implied that physical characteristics of non-white people might make them (allegedly) less intelligent than white people. And many of Rushton’s critics argued that academic freedom should not protect research that promoted racism, especially when that research was being conducted by someone working at a publicly-funded university.

But while academic freedom let Rushton pursue his questionable research, academic freedom also ensured that the problems with his research – including its methodological flaws (such as implying that correlation meant causation),  its ethical transgressions, and the biased perspectives of its funders – were identified and talked about. Rushton’s work was largely discredited because of those discussions – but if he had been banned from doing that work in the first place, the connections he suggested wouldn’t have been tested and then shown to be false. And the discussions around Rushton’s work raised questions that other researchers have investigated: What factors affect intelligence, and how much effect do those factors have? Can intelligence be reliably measured? Are there unchangeable characteristics of individuals or groups that affect their intelligence? Is there such a thing as “race”? And if “race” exists, what defines it?

These are important questions, and they are examples of why academic freedom is important to everybody. Academic freedom lets those questions happen, and lets the answers be discussed – and corrected if necessary. And, yes, the right to academic freedom doesn’t directly affect most people’s daily lives. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less important for people inside and outside universities to support that right.

In an interview earlier this year, Edward Snowden suggested that privacy is important to everyone, regardless of whether an individual thinks privacy issues are relevant to them. He said:

People who say they don’t care about privacy because they have got nothing to hide have not thought too deeply about these issues. What they are really saying is I do not care about this right. When you say I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide, that is no different than saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say or freedom of the press because I have nothing to write.

Just as people with nothing to hide might not think that privacy is important, people who don’t work at a university might not care about the right to academic freedom. But ensuring academic freedom for those who do conduct research and who do teach ultimately benefits everyone. Having academic freedom at universities leads to researchers producing knowledge that affects the world everyone lives in, and knowledge about how that world works. And that’s why the right to academic freedom should be important to us all.



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