Germany debates whether academic freedom is an individual or organisational right

In a managerial era, universities are challenging the traditional idea that only individuals need protecting, say Otto Hüther and Georg Krücken

May 9, 2019
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With academic freedom under siege in even the most unlikely countries, German academia may well consider itself lucky that the principle is enshrined in the national constitution.

The first 20 articles of that document are regarded as fundamental and are subject to a so-called “eternity clause” – implying that the underlying principles may never be changed. Article 5 states that “arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free”.

That is why all major German science and higher education associations will participate in the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the German constitution on 23 May. The intention is to reiterate the fundamental value of academic freedom for a democratic society.

But an increasingly lively debate has arisen about whether academic freedom applies to the individual or the organisation. For decades, it has been a core assumption that it is primarily an individual right. This derives from traumatic historical experience. After the Nazi takeover in 1933, German universities not only assisted but also actively supported the expulsion of their academics for racial or political reasons. The conclusion drawn after 1945 was clear: organisations, as well as the state, are potential threats to academic freedom.

That freedom is also a central part of the socialisation and self-perception of German professors. But there are increasing suggestions – principally from members of the newly established management “class” at universities – that universities themselves also have the right to academic freedom.

The underlying logic is comprehensible: with the formally growing autonomy of universities vis-à-vis the state – or, in Germany’s case, the 16 federal states – universities are being transformed into strategically acting, managed organisations. This is manifested in a variety of ways, ranging from increasingly hierarchical decision-making structures to the expansion of managerial capacities in areas such as research, teaching and technology transfer.

These changes touch upon the relationship between not only the state and universities but between professors and universities. The traditional governance structure in Germany, with strong state authority counterbalanced by an equally strong academic oligarchy, is now complicated by the establishment of the organisational level as a third centre of power.

Perhaps the most pronounced shift is in the selection process for new professors. Whereas the state ministries of science and education traditionally had the last word, in most states the university presidents now take the decisions without any ministerial interference.

Against this backdrop, questioning the traditional locus of academic freedom may sound reasonable. Shouldn’t managers have the freedom to manage: to make decisions and to see them enacted?

However, granting such freedom to organisations themselves could generate conflicts, especially when organisational and individual autonomy are at odds. This is because, compared with other organisations and countries, even managed German universities have traditionally been peculiarly unable to impose their goals on their academics. Changing that will entail a significant culture shift, and will have to be in accordance with the rulings of the Federal Constitutional Court, which has so far interpreted autonomy as an individual right.

In large part, realisation of goals depends on the active cooperation and participation of academics and, for managers, securing that is tedious, time-consuming, frustrating and quite often unsuccessful. One option is to apply formal incentives such as target agreements, which commit academics to long-term strategic goals such as the creation of a new study course, graduate school or research cluster.

Pressure is also imposed on academics to become involved in organisational strategy (via working groups and projects that do not always have an academic focus) by the huge number of federal and state grant schemes, which underlie the perception of German universities as hyperactive organisations, constantly trying to be successful on many fronts.

But the existing individual right of academic freedom gives scholars an ultimate right to resist all the persuasion and pressure.

The recent debates on academic freedom are, therefore, also a debate on the relationships of authority and trust between society, universities and academics. The question is ultimately about who can be trusted most with academic freedom: individuals or organisations?

Otto Hüther is a senior researcher and Georg Krücken is director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel, Germany.

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Print headline: Is freedom public or personal?

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