Forget values statements. Universities need to support academic freedom

In Hong Kong, as elsewhere, managers should support faculty and students to engage in inquiry whatever their personal values, says Carsten Holz

November 16, 2022
A man with a megaphone on a rooftop, symbolising free speech
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Universities these days talk a lot about their “values”. But they rarely act on them – especially in totalitarian settings.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “values” are “principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life.” In a broader, sociological definition, “values” are “the ideals, customs, institutions etc of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard”. What these definitions have in common is that it is individuals who hold values.

The values to which all members of a democratic society subscribe may be codified by elected representatives and given life in laws that embody these values. For example, Article 2 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty lists the EU’s six values: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights.

A university, too, could have values if all its members agreed on them. But even if that were possible, what would be the point of every university having its own, private set of values distinct from those of the institution next door? That is particularly true when so few academics can reel off their university’s values anyway. It is farcical to believe that the institutional values declared by some university manager will thereby be internalised and acted upon by staff, as if they were cult members. Indeed, even managers ignore their declared university values at will. Enforcement mechanisms are missing. And who would want morality police anyway? Wouldn’t that contravene academic freedom?

Here we come to the core of the matter. Scholars will probably agree that academic freedom is the central value of our profession. This is clear from the fact that the moment it is taken away, there is an outcry. In that sense, everyone becomes a moral police officer. Managers are forced to respond on pain of internal strife and external ignominy.

For instance, the Social Science Division at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST) has seen more than half its faculty depart within little more than a year. The departures coincide with the imposition on Hong Kong of the National Security Law by the Chinese Communist Party in June 2020. Faced with the threat of life imprisonment in mainland China for exercising one’s profession, academic freedom suddenly takes centre stage.

Academics in mainland China equally value academic freedom. The issues they raise – from research limitations to having to seek administrators’ approval for their syllabi, exams and international conference participation – all reflect its absence. Without academic freedom, a university is no more than a research and teaching factory of directed labourers.

So rather than abstract institutional commitments to “justice”, “understanding” and so on, what universities need is a set of good governance principles (or “organisational values”) that shape how they are run in support of academic freedom. Such principles may include transparency, accountability and academic self-administration.

For example, transparency would have prevented HKUST managers blatantly ignoring issues of academic freedom (a proclaimed HKUST core value) when they decided to open a second campus in mainland China. Accountability would force HKUST deans to abide by university regulations stating that “sabbatical leave with full pay may be granted to eligible academic appointees” rather than to redefine “sabbatical leave” by requiring faculty members to “make up for their teaching duties” (also violating HKUST’s core value of “integrity”). Academic self-administration might have prevented a HKUST president declaring “1-HKUST” another core university value; “the entire HKUST family work[s] together as an integrated and holistic team” is more reflective of a manager-directed production line than of academic freedom.

Academic freedom needs to be defined. I like Cary Nelson’s 2010 list of what it does and does not include. For instance, it “does not protect faculty members from non-university penalties if they break the law”. That is precisely the stance taken by a spokesperson for the University of Hong Kong in September 2019: “There are no boundaries to research and studies, provided that they are within the law.”

The trouble is that nobody knows what is “within” the “National Security Law” – and some academics have already been arrested or prevented from leaving Hong Kong for breaching it. But instead of pushing back, university managers in Hong Kong have replicated, as one recent paper puts it, “a well-known reflex of officials in all dictatorships: working towards the Führer. Rather than wait for instructions to be delivered from on high, university authorities anticipate them, or invent them, hoping thereby to curry favour with the new boss.”

In the face of the “National Security Law”, academics are advised to simply present the facts but not evaluate them. This misses the point: Already the choice of topics taught and the choice of facts covered is shaped by values. And any discussion of the Hong Kong independence movement, no matter how “factual”, might yet fall foul of the National Security Law (which, furthermore, applies worldwide).

Personal and social values make particular research meaningful. Policy recommendations – to improve particular individuals’ well-being or to make the world a better place – have meaning only in the context of our (typically implicit) values.

Nobody will be thinking of some particular set of university values when choosing a research topic. No journal article concludes “In the light of my university’s values X, Y and Z, the findings of my research imply...” Managers’ focus should instead be on safeguarding academic freedom so that researchers and students can freely engage in inquiry and intellectual debate, whatever their personal values, without fear of censorship or retaliation.

Carsten A. Holz is professor in the Social Science Division, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. In the academic year 2022/23 he is a visiting professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Well said!