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

Academics are often attacked for having the audacity to pursue their research wherever it leads. But engaging with difficult, challenging ideas is a large part of what academia is about.

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.

  • Academic expression is neither free expression nor political, though it is connected to both. Because of this misunderstanding, academic expression is often attacked, not because of the quality of scholars' ideas, but because of scholars' audacity in sharing them.
  • The Scholars at Risk network is working to ensure that academics of all stripes have the academic freedom they need to pursue their work. In this video, Robert Quinn stresses that this is not a left/right issue, nor is it something that's only happening halfway across the world, and he explains why it's so important to defend academic freedom.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.