Points on freedom

August 6, 2009

I am pleased that Times Higher Education has chosen to stimulate the debate on academic freedom ("What is freedom? Choosing your v-c", 30 July). In the spirit of academic freedom, I wish reply to the points raised.

First, your piece focused on the appointment of vice-chancellors, which accounted for one paragraph in a -page article. Second, in response to Steve Fuller's comment that letting academics choose vice-chancellors is "completely antiquated", of the 23 European Union states I surveyed in 2007, 15 used some form of election by academics.

It is only in the UK that "antiquated" procedures to protect academic freedom - such as providing academics with job security via some form of tenure and allowing them to elect their rectors - have been removed.

As for governance being a "diversion", Fuller's view is at variance with both the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's 1997 Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, which the UK Government signed, and Larry Gerber, national first vice-president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who has long argued that shared governance and academic freedom are "inextricably linked".

As for Dennis Hayes, his statement that "academic freedom will not be advanced by a 15-page definition that ... imposes restrictions on the currently 'ill-defined' freedoms academics may take advantage of, by excluding extramural utterances from its scope" is negated by the US experience, where extramural utterances - speech made by staff in their capacity as citizens on matters of public concern unrelated to scholarly expertise - aren't necessarily covered by academic freedom.

Despite this, J. Peter Byrne, a pre-eminent first-amendment scholar, has described the AAUP's Declaration on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (1915) to be "the single most important document relating to American academic freedom".

Hayes correctly surmises that I believe that academic freedom should be granted to academics, rather than being something for which they should have to fight. So does the United Nations, the EU, the Council of Europe, the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee and other bodies. A Magna Charta will not reinforce academic passivity, quite the reverse - people are more likely to speak up if they can do so freely.

The AAUP's declaration was not well received when it first appeared. It took more than 50 years to be accepted, but today it is considered to be the seminal statement of American academic freedom. So there is hope for a European Magna Charta - although, like the declaration, it may take some time to be accepted.

Terence Karran, University of Lincoln.

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