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Types of threats to academic freedom

Earlier in this course we discussed what academic freedom is. We discussed the scope of academic freedom. We discussed the different standards protecting it. We discussed whether one defines the scope of academic freedom narrowly (the traditional view) or broadly (the “socially-engaged” view) has an impact on whether questions asked by academics or others are perceived as legitimate. Legitimate questions are worthy of academic freedom protection. Illegitimate questions are potentially subject to negative consequences. “Dangerous” questions are those whose legitimacy is contested, and therefore might trigger negative consequences.

In this step, we will consider how academic freedom is threatened. In other words, we will consider the different types of threats and negative consequences that are sometimes experienced when academics ask sensitive or dangerous questions. In the next step, we will provide examples of different types or threats to academic freedom, ranging from relatively mild to very severe negative consequences.

If later steps, we will consider who or what threatens academic freedom. In other words, we will consider different sources of threats and will provide examples of threats arising from different sources.

Types of threats to academic freedom

The types of threats to academic freedom include intentional actions undertaken by those determined to limit the asking of dangerous questions. The threats to academic freedom also include possibly actions designed for another purpose that have unintentional negative consequences on academic freedom. Or threats to academic freedom might result from misapplication or oversimplification of the term academic freedom.

1. Intentional threats

Often the most severe and dramatic types of types of threats to academic freedom include intentional actions undertaken by those determined to limit the asking of dangerous questions. These often include extreme violations involving violence, coercion or other physical threats.

According to Scholars at Risk’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and its annual report, Free to Think, these types of threats might include killings, violence, and disappearances; wrongful imprisonment/detention; wrongful prosecution; wrongful dismissal/loss of position/expulsion from study; restrictions on travel or movement; and other extreme or systemic threats. As the Free to Think reports show, these types of threats are too frequent and widespread.

At the same time, these severe, violent and intentional threats to academic freedom are less common in most places. They are also experienced by a smaller number of academics overall than threats resulting as unintended negative consequences of other actions or from misapplication or oversimplification of the term academic freedom. Still, the more extreme, intentional examples are important for two reasons. First, because of the severity of the negative consequences experienced. These consequences can affect not only those directly targeted, but can also intimidate a wide range of others who observe what happens to scholars who ask “dangerous” questions. This witnessing effect can severely limit the exercise of academic freedom by others.

Second, the more extreme, intentional examples of threats to academic freedom are important because they illustrate the tension between inquiry and power. In other words, the extreme examples show more clearly the fact that asking questions – exercising academic freedom – can trigger negative consequences. This tension between asking questions and power is present even in the less extreme types of examples, but it may be harder to observe.

2. Threats from systems, policies and practices

Many threats to academic freedom may not be intentional. They may be unintended, negative consequences resulting from actions undertaken for other purposes. These include, for example, changes to (i) how higher education study, teaching and research are funded; (ii) how higher education institutions are governed; (iii) how academics are hired or promoted, (iv) how students are admitted to higher education, or (v) how research or teaching topics are selected, among others. Higher education today is experiencing rapid change while working to keep up with forces outside higher education, including globalization, internationalization, “massification” of higher education, “commodification” of knowledge and research, and changes in the role of the nation state generally, and in support of higher education in particular. All of these put pressure on the implementation of academic freedom and other core higher education values, often without any specific intent to limit or otherwise harm core values. It is important for everyone in higher education and society to examine any changes in systems, policies and practices to make sure they support, and do not undermine, academic freedom and the other core higher education values on which it depends.

3. Threats from misapplication or oversimplification of values labels

Finally, some threats to academic freedom might result from misapplication or oversimplification of the term academic freedom or of other core higher education values.

As discussed above and earlier in this course, defining academic freedom too narrowly can deny scholars and others the protection of academic freedom and trigger negative consequences for asking sensitive questions. These consequences severely limit the exercise of academic freedom by those directly targeted and a wide range of others who observe what happens to scholars who ask “dangerous” questions.

At the same time, defining academic freedom too broadly can create confusion that undermines support for core higher education values. As discussed earlier in this course, even those who support the “socially-engaged” view agree that academic freedom does not cover everything an academic says or does. Some expression and conduct is not be protected by academic freedom, even it if is still protected by freedom of expression. And some expression or conduct may not be protected at all, if it involves violent or coercive conduct. When academics or others incorrectly claim academic freedom protection for these other forms of expression or conduct, it can make the state, public and others suspicious of claims by academics to zones of freedom they as non-academics do not enjoy.

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This article is from the free online course:

Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters

University of Oslo

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