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Opinion - Gospel according to academic freedom in universities

2022-01-14  Prof Jairos Kangira

Opinion - Gospel according to academic freedom in universities

Although it is undisputed in the higher education sector worldwide that academic freedom is the raison detre of university professors’ work, it is equally true that there are many challenges concerning this phenomenon in academia. In ideal situations, academic freedom is the central value of universities, the lifeblood of all core university activities centred on teaching, research and community service.

Academic freedom entails that there should not be external and internal restrictions on academics and students in the process of teaching and learning, research and community service. In this process of knowledge creation and dissemination, academics must go about their academic business without external or internal interferences or restrictions in their areas of specialisation. In other words, when professors conduct research, educate and train students and engage the community, they must do so freely without fear of arrest or other forms of repression from their governments, or undue punitive measures from within their institutions. The essence of academic freedom is, therefore, freedom to teach and learn, freedom to conduct research, freedom to engage the community, and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth.

 According to Philip Altbach’s (2001, p. 206) research findings on this topic, “academic freedom gave special protection to the professor within the classroom and the parameters of the field of expert knowledge of the professor. From the beginning, the university was considered a special place, devoted to the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. Academia claimed special rights precisely because of its calling to pursue truth. The authorities, whether secular (worldly) or ecclesiastical (church), was expected to permit universities a special degree of autonomy.”

 Similarly, Collins Awusu-Ansar (2015, p. 174) explains the “concept of academic freedom as the freedom to pursue truth in one’s teaching and research activities wherever it seems to lead without fear of punishment or termination of employment for having offended some political, religious or social orthodoxy. In the International Encyclopedia of social sciences, the concept has also been defined as the freedom claimed by a college or university professor to write or speak the truth as he sees it without fear of dismissal by his superior or by authorities outside his college or University.”

 From the above-cited scholars, there is no doubt that university professors must be accorded that special right of pursuing their business (academic work) in their areas of specialisations and freely express themselves and publish their research findings without restrictions from external and internal forces. When the opposite happens in a country – arrests, firing or to the worst extent killing of university professors because of their divergent views – then academic freedom sadly turns into a will-o-the wisp; it becomes elusive; it becomes a mirage which will have detrimental effects on academia and creation of knowledge.

Although situations mentioned above may appear exaggerated, literature abounds that documents some repressive regimes in the world that have no disregard for academic freedom. For example, university professors and students have been detained without trial for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations and debates, and for engaging in other activities viewed as being against the establishments. In this case, external forces enter the universities and snatch the valued academic freedom, the only weapon professors and students must use to defend themselves.

Unfortunately, in some cases, it never rains but pours for university professors as universities that must guard jealously against the violations of academic freedom show no disregard of this concept and trample on the freedom of expression of professors and students. The institutions’ infringements of academic freedom come in many guises with some being so subtle that they are difficult to be easily noticed.  The following observation gives an apt summation: “The intrusions introduce extraneous conflicts and non-meritocratic factors into the process of academic governance, teaching, research, and affect relations among academics. Such conflicts are often not seen as related to academic freedom. If academic freedom means the free pursuit of teaching and research, as well as decision making on grounds of solely academic criteria, the intrusion of political or other factors into decision making is a concern” (Philip Altbach, 2001, p. 208).

Issues like the imposition of curriculum models on professors without their input in the implementation of new programmes and top-down decisions must be condemned with the contempt they deserve if universities are to safeguard the fundamental principles of academic freedom. Literature shows that such authoritarian actions demoralise and frustrate affected professors and researchers who in the end have no option but to resign from these institutions. Truly, it becomes a stinking paradox when universities that are supposed to be the custodians of academic freedom arbitrarily violate the freedoms of their professors in some cases mainly for individuals’ self-aggrandisement. It becomes a blatant negation of the mission statements of universities, which usually guarantee and espouse academic freedom when it is nonexistent.

There is enough evidence to conclude that universities that have a high degree of academic freedom score high on the world rankings universities. This entails that with high degrees of academic freedom, professors are more productive in their academic work. Like I argued in my previous article on the tenets of world-class universities, the international rankings of universities are largely linked to the high quality of academic work professors from universities produce. If the professors are disgruntled because their academic freedom is compromised, the quality of their academic output is also adulterated.

As I see it, professors should always defend their academic freedom since academic work is the mainstay of their university activities. If there are restrictions or sanctions on teaching, research, community service and freedom of expression, either from external or internal forces, academics should stand up for their academic right – academic freedom.


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2022-01-14  Prof Jairos Kangira

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