Faith threat to free speech

March 16, 2007

Institutions' rules slated for requiring academics to refrain from controversial inquiry. Melanie Newman reports

Christian universities have come under attack for restricting the academic freedom of their staff in order to prevent the undermining of their religious ethos.

Canterbury Christ Church University's articles of governance state that academics' freedom to question received wisdom is subject to a qualification: that they do not undermine the institution's ethos as a Church of England college or its code of conduct.

Chester University also asks its academic staff not to undermine the institution's ethos and social values based on that ethos.

Dennis Hayes, president of the University and College Union and a lecturer at Christ Church, said the articles sent a clear message that "there are things that must not be questioned or challenged", whether or not they are ever used to discipline staff. Restrictions could include studies on atheism and homosexuality.

"Any institution that restricts academic freedom may be many things, but it is not a university. The university is defined by freedom to debate and freedom to research, and the failure to support academic freedom turns the university into nothing more than a corporate body pursuing its business, however ethical or worthy its aims," said Dr Hayes, who founded the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom last year.

Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988 ensures that academics "have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom" and to put forward unpopular and controversial views without fear of sanction. It does not apply to post-1992 universities such as Christ Church and Chester, but most post-1992s have adopted Section 202 in full.

A spokesman for Christ Church, which hit the headlines last month over its decision to maintain a ban on civil ceremonies for gay couples on its campus, said the "contextual statement about the ethos of the institution"

had been included in the articles to reflect the university's origins as a teacher training college established by the Church of England and its continuing links with the Church.

He added: "Academic freedom is not an unfettered right. It carries obligations with it."

A spokesperson for Chester said: "The articles are intended as a reminder of the university's Church of England foundation and have been scrutinised regularly, particularly over the past five years, during the transition to full university status. This is to ensure that they continue to reflect the university's increasingly diverse nature while acknowledging its origins."

Academic freedom is perceived by some to be increasingly under threat, with staff becoming more wary of controversy. Manchester University's website explicitly warns academics against courting controversy. It says: "Some issues are extremely contentious, even if they are not unlawful.

"Academic staff should be mindful of issues that may be controversial and approach debate around these areas with care."

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