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Bizcuits: Academic Freedom

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image Leanda Lee

It was my intention to write about something other than persecution of scholars and academic freedom; so much has been written already this last week. But the betrayal of the value that we call academic freedom and the happenings of recent times still rankle and it’s difficult to turn my mind to something else.
What has been missing from the discussion is a clear definition of academic freedom and its importance. In 2001 the New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit published a paper in their Series on Quality titled “Universities as critic and conscience of society: The role of academic freedom.” It’s difficult to express the importance of academic freedom much better than the authors in their introduction. So, rather than paraphrase, I quote.
“Academic freedom is inseparable from a university's role as critic and conscience of society. This is because academic freedom can only exist within an environment that encourages creativity, radical ideas and criticism of the status quo; and conversely, freedom is needed to express criticism. A university's performance in its role as critic and conscience of society is one aspect of its overall performance as an academic institution. […] If academic freedom is as important as generally assumed, a university's poor performance in supporting and encouraging it, will have detrimental consequences for teaching, research, and that institution's contribution to the community.”
Academic freedom is the freedom for staff and students to critique and test received wisdom, be controversial and to state unpopular opinion without fear of retribution (MDT Opinion 13th June). This definition is consistently understood across jurisdictions. UNESCO goes further to include the following: “the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.”
With rights come responsibilities: academic freedom does not proffer carte blanche to utilise expert academic critique in intellectual attacks. Some will criticise the way in which academic freedom is used by academics to comment on topics beyond their fields of expertise. We comment on topics in our well-defined professional areas and about issues peripheral to our knowledge domains but where our expertise informs our views. Outside of these areas, our opinions are aired as that of informed citizens and we cannot expect to be protected by academic freedom in these cases. The NZ paper clarifies that academic freedom differs from freedom of speech by degree, as it extends to criticism of those upon whom we depend, those who hold some power over us – including our employers, sponsors and patrons. This freedom is necessary in order to pursue knowledge but is limited to those deemed competent in their field.
Every decision made is an expression of the decision-maker’s values. In Macau this week, the community has been up in arms over the “persecution” of academics (MDT 26th June, p3) specifically because the decisions made to variously sack, not renew contracts, silence or suspend respected scholars and academic mentors appear to be based upon values other than those the community holds dear. Academic freedom should hold sway and should be protected because it permits experts to speak up thereby contributing to safe-guarding society against powerful self-interests.
We feel threatened because the value of academic freedom has not been the ultimate deciding factor in these cases. Almost to the point of vitriol, the community is demanding an explanation as to what motives, what values and, perhaps more importantly, whose values are predominating over one of the bastions of academia and our community - that bastion being academic freedom in its role as critic and conscience of society.

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Responsible Right of Expression — In the interest of freedom of expression, coupled with a true sense of responsibility to encourage community dialogue, the Macau Daily Times offers its readers the opportunity to express their opinions on new-related matters through this website. All opinions are welcome. However, we reserve the right to remove comments that are deemed to be obscene, or are merely insults written under the cloak of anonymity. MDT