Why I believe academic freedom must be defended

December 10, 2004

Last week, The Times Higher reported that Richard Yuill had received a doctorate from Glasgow University for a thesis describing minors' "positive" experiences of sexual contact with adults. His work has been lambasted by "academic experts" who, like the tabloid journalists harrying Dr Yuill, haven't read it. And he has been investigated by the police and the Glasgow Senate.

Why should we care? Because the attack on Dr Yuill is an attack on the principle of academic freedom. Given the predictable "fury" over the thesis, Glasgow deserves credit for standing by the principle of free inquiry. Nonetheless, the affair highlights not only the external pressures on academic freedom from the press and politicians, but from those from within academe itself.

All UK universities bar one are public bodies, and have to dance to a tune called by those who fund them. Formally, they are accountable to the Government, and through it the taxpaying public; informally to the fictitious public whose thoughts are given voice by the popular press. The opinions of this second public are easily mistaken for those of the first.

And so "offensiveness" to public opinion, as forged in the press, provides a justification for gagging inquiry and debate.

The distinction between external and internal threats to academic freedom blurs when institutions pre-empt scandal by taking a hard line against maverick researchers. Institutions, mindful of their public image, may forestall an outcry by throwing faculty members or their work to the wolves.

Libertarians sometimes argue that privatisation would free universities from political pressures by cutting the purse strings that tie them to the Government. But this in no way guarantees academic freedom. Freed from dependence on state funding, universities would still have to compete for research money and students, and remain as open to buffeting by public opinion and consumers' whims as any other market institution.

But rather than rue the external threats to independent research, they would do better to cast the mote from their own eye. Universities jeopardise academic freedom by the formal ethical regulation now widespread in humanities as well as science departments. Such guidelines are devised by bureaucrats - often academics - whose view of free inquiry often resembles a dog's view of lampposts. One university's code stipulates that research that produces trivial results or duplicates other findings "is itself unethical", which, if taken seriously, would spell the end of much, maybe most, academic research.

Of course, the human and animal subjects on whom researchers experiment have interests that need protecting. But ethical guidelines that can be used against a researcher's methods provide a useful weapon to those who want to quash his or her conclusions. Dr Yuill, for example, was investigated after the alarm was raised about his approaches, in the line of research, to paedophiles. The best justification for free speech is that it is the best way to get at the truth. This can happen only if there is no restriction on the content that can be put into the public realm. Precisely because the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics provides a far from perfect market in information, it is essential that universities remain as insulated as possible from political pressures.

But academics are not always selfless seekers after truth. Seminars are sometimes less than pure exemplars of civility and equal access. Then there is the propensity for self-censorship, which is more effective for being unconscious. Nor is there any magic prophylactic against populism and the market. Even so, the lesson of the Yuill "row" is that universities need not only to present a robust front against external pressures, but also to keep in view the reason why they do research in the first place.

Glen Newey
Reader in politics
Strathclyde University

Dr Newey is organising the Association of Legal and Social Philosophy Conference on freedom of expression at Strathclyde, June 23-25 2005.

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