Protect Academic Freedom at University College Dublin!

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UCD’s management has proposed an addendum to its “Statement on Academic Freedom” which amounts to a serious weakening of this crucial academic value (the text of the addendum can be found below; a link to the current policy is also provided). According to this proposal, Academic Freedom would be relativised, downgraded from a basic principle of academic life to a legal nicety that needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and can be sacrificed if it stands too much in the way of the desired “internationalisation of higher education”. Yet either UCD has principles or it has not, and they can’t be limited by geography. If it has principles, then these will not be available for negotiation whatever the circumstances. Academic Freedom is a core principle of UCD, and UCD should, no matter the cost, live by its principles. We therefore request UCD’s President, its Management Team and the Academic Freedom Working Group to retract the proposed addendum to the “Statement on Academic Freedom” and commit themselves to holding up the values and principles expressed in that Statement in the strongest possible terms.
This petition is supported by the UCD Branch of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT).

UCD’s existing Academic Freedom Policy can be accessed here!W_HU_MENU.P_PUBLISH?p_tag=GD-DOCLAND&ID=189

Proposed Addendum to UCD's Statement on Academic Freedom

It is important for UCD, as a university with a large international footprint, to consider and appraise the risk of tension arising between the obligations regarding academic freedom and the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education.   As UCD continues to develop and strengthen its international engagement and commitments, its exposure to other jurisdictions increases. This requires UCD to maintain operations where the Universities Act 1997 is not the primary legislation and where different traditions and cultures of scholarly enquiry are established.

Although Academic Freedom is referenced in many policies and pieces of legislation across multiple jurisdictions there is little firm ground (including case law) on which to rest an agreed definition of what academic freedom means. Whether it should be interpreted widely or narrowly, the cohorts it should protect, and what provisions are essential and what provisions are optional are all contested points. Therefore, while one may reference a given definition of academic freedom, it will be specific to the context from which that reference is taken. It might not translate into another context, or its translation might be contested.  The different origins underpinning distinct traditions of academic freedom, and separate influences on the concept in different environments, help to explain why the definition of academic freedom varies. This is particularly important as the Universities Act 1997 is explicit that academic freedom should be exercised by faculty ‘within the law’, and interpreted by a university in a manner that promotes the ‘ethos’ and ‘traditions’ of academic freedom.

UCD is committed to upholding the right of academic freedom enshrined in the Universities Act 1997 and, while respecting other legal frameworks, endeavours in its teaching, research, and other operations to promote the tradition and ethos of academic freedom as articulated in the UCD Statement on Academic Freedom. It is important to be aware that different interpretations of academic freedom may arise in other jurisdictions where Irish law does not apply, particularly in countries which have different academic traditions to Ireland. While the provisions of the Universities Act 1997 are enforceable in Ireland they are not enforceable in other jurisdictions, and an academic teaching in a foreign country is subject to the laws of that country.

Academic freedom in Europe can be seen to have developed in the Socratic tradition where ‘Dogma and hypothesis are incompatible, and the concept of an immutable doctrine is repugnant to the spirit of a university’.  The Magna Charta Universitatum, which is recognised and cited as a touchstone in several Council of Europe and European Universities Association statements on academic freedom was issued in 1988 on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest university, and in anticipation of the ‘definitive abolition of boundaries between the countries of the European Community.’  The emphasis on the European context is further underlined by its statement that ‘A university is the trustee of the European humanist tradition’.   In that respect, the history of academic freedom in Europe is important in understanding that academic freedom, as commonly defined, has a specific historical context.

European universities emerged in the high middle ages as scholars organised themselves into guilds or corporations dedicated to advanced learning. When such corporations of professors and students were granted academic liberties (or institutional autonomy) by a supreme authority, such as the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope, over and above local rulers they became universities. The first three universities in Europe were thus recognised in Bologna (1088), in Paris (1231), and in Oxford (1254). Therefore, the autonomous, self-governing higher education community and institution was a creation of political and religious developments in medieval Europe. It stands to reason that higher education developed differently in other contexts, giving rise not only to alternative legislative frameworks, but also different ethoses and traditions of academic freedom and scholarly enquiry. 

The European university was predated by higher education institutions in other regions, such as mahāvihāras (great monasteries) in Buddhist India and madrasahs in Islamic Africa. Located outside the political and religious developments of Europe the culture and tradition of institutional autonomy and academic freedom that developed around these institutions in response to their own regional context differed from that which developed in Europe. Nevertheless, many characteristics we consider essential to the university were observable in these earlier examples, such as the vindication of ideas by critical argument and public disputation, and a commitment to steward and spread knowledge. This presents a challenge to any claim that European concepts of academic freedom form the ideal of academic freedom, as this privileges European history and is insufficiently sensitive to concepts of academic freedom that evolved independently, and prior, to Europe’s earliest examples.

In building educational partnerships involving two or more distinct traditions, while it is important to protect and share one’s own tradition of academic freedom, learning about and engaging with other traditions of academic freedom is a valuable component of such international partnerships. The essential question, therefore, is not necessarily of either party preserving or surrendering aspects of their own traditions, but rather establishing in partnership negotiations whether divergent approaches to academic freedom can be reconciled or accommodated.   This question, together with relevant examples, should be shared with potential partners during negotiations and used as a guide in the development of agreements involving UCD in the provision of higher education internationally.

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