You'd better make some noise while you can

February 11, 2005

It's time to take risks in the name of academic freedom, argues Frank Furedi

Academic freedom is so crucial to the integrity of academic life that even those politicians, bureaucrats and administrators who are by temperament hostile to it feel compelled to affirm it. The flourishing of university life needs individual risk-takers who are ahead of their time and prepared to search for the truth, wherever it may lead and whomever it may offend.

Historic breakthroughs in intellectual and scientific thought inevitably challenge the prevailing order, which is why those who question the conventional norm frequently face repression. Since the 19th century, the ideal of university autonomy and the liberty of those involved in higher learning to teach, research and express their views have been formally upheld in many societies. It helps to promote the development of science and knowledge, which benefits all of society.

Sadly, contemporary academia takes academic freedom for granted and implicitly treats it as no big deal. Yet a closer look suggests it is threatened from both within and outside the university. Paradoxically, direct attacks often come from within the university. There is a mood of intolerance towards those with unconventional, unpopular opinions. Some academics do not simply challenge the views they dislike, they seek to ban them and prevent those who advocate them from working or speaking on their campus.

Take, for example, the campaign to ban Tom Paulin, poet and Oxford University academic, from speaking at Harvard University for allegedly being anti-Semitic, and Durham University's memo to arts and humanities academics telling them they will have to gain approval from an "ethics" committee if they want to give lectures and tutorials on subjects that could offend students.

Such censorship is the inexorable consequence of an academic culture that is increasingly prepared to censor itself and others. For some time, so-called ethics committees have pronounced on what kind of research is ethical and what kind is not. Extending their role to censoring academics' opinions is the logical next step. Academics who privately treat ethics committees as a minor nuisance need to realise how much their freedom is under threat.

Although the Durham memo put matters rather bluntly, its premise- that words that offend students must be banned - is widely institutionalised in higher education. Virtually every UK university has adopted codes of practices that convey the message that "the student must not be offended".

That academics are expected to live with a code that explicitly demands that the pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas and arguments be restrained by the need to spare the feelings of others is a symptom of our time. What is more disturbing is that there is no serious opposition to such policies.

Of course words can offend. But one of the roles of a university is to question conventional truths. A good university teaches its members how not to take hateful views personally and how not to be offended by uncomfortable ideas.

Another threat to academic freedom is the growing auditing ethos, which has fostered a climate in which academic freedom is compromised by bureaucracy. Lecturers, for example, now need to ensure that their teaching is consistent with "learning outcomes" that meet the requirements of externally imposed benchmarks. In many ways, the erosion of academic freedom through quality assurance procedures is more insidious than the more overt crusade against offensive speech. Such systems help create a climate of conformity where the freedom to express one's views and teach what an academic sees fit is bartered in exchange for a quiet life. We should speak out against it.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology, Kent University.

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