Leader: Freedom trumps faith

March 16, 2007

Most of the controversy surrounding academic freedom has until now revolved around two issues: the right to offend and the right of academics to venture a controversial opinion on a topic outside their area of expertise.

The debate on page 1 centres on a different right: the right of an institution to require that its academics desist from inquiry that it deems undermines its religious ethos.

Is this fair? Both institutions incorporating this codicil in their articles of governance were originally Church of England teacher training colleges and evolved into universities relatively recently. Neither, as far as we are aware, has disciplined staff or banned research for being unchristian.

This does not mean those codicils should remain, even if they have never been or are ever likely to be used. Chester and Canterbury Christ Church are publicly funded, not private sectarian, universities. Their main function is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Inherent in that mission is a calculated risk: that the journey may prove uncomfortable and that one's cherished beliefs - Christian or otherwise - may be undermined.

It is not for university authorities to privilege certain faiths, even if they form a much-loved part of that institution's history.

Other universities with a Christian heritage, such as Chichester, Gloucestershire and Liverpool Hope, have not included governance provisions that would restrict academic freedom. Is it too much to hope that Chester and Canterbury Christ Church will eventually see the light too?

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