Defining academic freedom

Nieuws | de redactie
25 oktober 2011 | What is academic freedom? The higher education leader, Canada, answered this question in a public statement outlining how academic freedom distinguishes itself from other rights of freedom.

The declaration was approved by all Canadianuniversity presidents during the last meeting of the ASCC(Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada). It underlinesthe major importance of academic freedom for the functioning ofsociety and what university leaders and faculty need to do tofoster it.

“Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct researchin an academic environment. Academic freedom is fundamental to themandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students anddisseminate knowledge and understanding.

In teaching, academic freedom is fundamental to the protectionof the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn.In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge.Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledgeand the results of research and scholarship.

Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academicfreedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorousstandards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allowsuniversities to set their research and educational priorities.

Why is academic freedom important toCanada?

Academic freedom does not exist for its own sake, but rather forimportant social purposes. Academic freedom is essential to therole of universities in a democratic society. Universities arecommitted to the pursuit of truth and its communication to others,including students and the broader community. To do this, facultymust be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversialsubjects in their teaching, research and scholarship.

For Canadians, it is important to know that views expressed byfaculty are based on solid research, data and evidence, and thatuniversities are autonomous and responsible institutions committedto the principles of integrity.

The responsibilities of academic freedom

Evidence and truth are the guiding principles for universitiesand the community of scholars that make up their faculty andstudents. Thus, academic freedom must be based on reasoneddiscourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peerreview.

Academic freedom is constrained by the professional standards ofthe relevant discipline and the responsibility of the institutionto organize its academic mission. The insistence on professionalstandards speaks to the rigor of the enquiry and not to itsoutcome.

The constraint of institutional requirements recognizes simplythat the academic mission, like other work, has to be organizedaccording to institutional needs. This includes the institution’sresponsibility to select and appoint faculty and staff, to admitand discipline students, to establish and control curriculum, tomake organizational arrangements for the conduct of academic work,to certify completion of a program and to grant degrees.

Roles and responsibilities

University leadership: It is amajor responsibility of university governing bodies and seniorofficers to protect and promote academic freedom. This includesensuring that funding and other partnerships do not interfere withautonomy in deciding what is studied and how. Canada’s universitypresidents must play a leadership role in communicating the valuesaround academic freedom to internal and external stakeholders. Theuniversity must also defend academic freedom againstinterpretations that are excessive or too loose, and the claimsthat may spring from such definitions.

To ensure and protect academic freedom, universities must beautonomous, with their governing bodies committed to integrity andfree to act in the institution’s best interests.

Universities must also ensure that the rights and freedoms ofothers are respected, and that academic freedom is exercised in areasonable and responsible manner.

Faculty: Faculty must becommitted to the highest ethical standards in their teaching andresearch. They must be free to examine data, question assumptionsand be guided by evidence.

Faculty have an equal responsibility to submit their knowledgeand claims to rigourous and public review by peers who are expertsin the subject matter under consideration and to ground theirarguments in the best available evidence.

Faculty members and university leaders have an obligation toensure that students’ human rights are respected and that they areencouraged to pursue their education according to the principles ofacademic freedom.

Faculty also share with university leadership the responsibilityof ensuring that pressures from funding and other types ofpartnerships do not unduly influence the intellectual work of theuniversity.”