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Freedom to think

By Steven Schwartz - posted Friday, 14 January 2022

Like Groundhog Day, the contentious issues facing university presidents and vice-chancellors are never permanently solved-car parking for academics, admissions standards, insufficient funds to support all worthy projects. Perhaps the most intractable problem of all is the protection of academic freedom-a concept widely misunderstood even within universities.

Politicians, radio talkback hosts, and members of the public are often irritated by the comments and writings of academics. Hot-button topics include politics (especially Middle Eastern issues), medicine (particularly the complementary variety) or contentious social issues such as abortion. Nothing is immune. Even an apolitical subject-the best way to teach children to read-can cause passions to reach boiling point. In almost every instance, the aggrieved individuals demand that the university silence the offending academic.

In reply, university leaders typically invoke the doctrine of academic freedom. All groundbreaking discoveries begin as blasphemies, which are resisted by those with something to lose. To ensure that researchers have the freedom to challenge existing orthodoxies, universities must protect them from retribution-from politicians, unhappy donors, and influential groups determined to maintain the status quo. The logic of academic freedom seems impeccable to university leaders, but it rarely satisfies a complainant. About the best a university can hope for is an entente cordiale. Alas, rudeness is a much-valued aspect of academic life, so goodwill is often short-lived.


Like all privileges, academic freedom comes with responsibilities. Following the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, most universities define academic freedom as:

The freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry [emphasis added], without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead.

As this definition makes clear, academic freedom does not bestow an unrestricted right on academics to behave in any way they like. On the contrary, they must operate according to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry. This qualification is not just a technicality. Academics who violate the rules for the ethical treatment of research subjects, plagiarise the work of others, or fabricate evidence, cannot avoid the consequences by invoking their right to academic freedom.

The requirement to adhere to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry differentiates academic freedom from the freedom of speech available to everyone in a democracy. Unlike members of the public, who are free to voice their view on any subject, a geography professor who professes that the earth is flat cannot seek the protection of academic freedom when the dean demands an explanation.

The "norms and standards" requirement of academic freedom also exempts universities from achieving "balance" by providing a forum for every divergent view. In higher education, expertise counts. There is no moral, ethical or philosophical argument that compels universities to balance evolution with creationism, astronomy with astrology and medicine with homeopathy. Universities exist to debunk nonsense, not to disseminate it.

Legitimate scholars, who adhere to the norms and standards of their profession, should always be welcome to speak on campus. Universities should not deny scholars an opportunity to speak solely because they espouse unorthodox views. It is acceptable to criticise speakers-academic freedom does not imply freedom from criticism-but it is not consistent with the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry to disrupt or silence them. Students and academics who intimidate controversial academics, seek safe spaces away from challenging ideas, and try to "cancel" those with unpopular views are not upholding academic freedom; they are undermining its very essence.


We live in strange times. Once conceived as a bulwark against threats from outside the university, academic freedom is being chipped away from within the academy. Around the world, academics are silenced or forced out of their jobs for expressing views once protected by academic freedom.

After weeks of protests, Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor, resigned from the University of Sussex. Stock's "crime" was her view that people cannot change their biological sex. The students' union said Stock's views "threatened" non-binary students. Her colleagues criticised her "harmful rhetoric," which reinforced "the patriarchal status quo." The ensuing protests, including threats and vile graffiti, led the police to warn Stock from coming to campus. Instead of defending her, Stock's academic union called for an investigation into "institutional transphobia."

Peter Ridd, a physics professor at James Cook University, incurred the ire of his colleagues by claiming they were exaggerating the effect of climate change on the condition of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Ridd lost his position.

Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor at Portland State University, published hoax articles in academic journals to demonstrate the vacuity of gender studies and related disciplines. After an investigation, his university deemed him guilty of research misconduct. Boghossian resigned his position.

The Royal Society of New Zealand is currently investigating one of its members, Garth Cooper, a professor at the University of Auckland. Cooper criticised a proposal to give Maori origin myths the same weight as science in the school curriculum. Cooper acknowledged that indigenous history, culture and beliefs enrich the lives of all New Zealanders. He agreed that school curricula should incorporate indigenous perspectives, but Cooper did not consider these traditional ideas equivalent to physics, biology, and chemistry.

Thousands of academics, students and others signed an "open letter" condemning Cooper and some of his colleagues for causing "untold harm and hurt." The New Zealand Association of Scientists, the Royal Society of New Zealand, even the academics' union denounced Cooper's views. When a small number of members of the Royal Society complained about him, the Society appointed a committee to investigate him.

In an email to university staff, the vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland noted that Cooper's ideas "caused considerable hurt and dismay among staff, students and alumni." She claimed to have discovered "major problems with some of our colleagues." The vice-chancellor has since moderated her rhetoric, acknowledging that defending science is what the public-and universities-expect scientists to do.

It seems that the biblical injunction, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind" (Proverbs, 11: 29-31), is entirely apposite to modern higher education. Universities are allowing academics and students to chip away their moral foundations. And everyone knows, without a strong foundation, any structure will eventually collapse.

Inherit the Wind is also the name of an allegorical movie based on the famous Scopes "monkey" trial in which an American school teacher faced prosecution for teaching evolution. In the film, the teacher on trial begins to buckle under the strain. His community and family have turned against him; even his fiancé wants him to reject evolution and accept the biblical version of creation. The teacher's lawyer, played by Spencer Tracey, tells his client how easy it would be to put the entire matter to rest. All you have to do is give in, he says. Tell your accusers that you will think the way they want you to think, and say what they want you to say. All of your problems will vanish.

The teacher is morally unable to comply. Rather than abandon his beliefs, he decides to fight. His lawyer explains his client's decision to the court. He says that the trial is not only about evolution; it is about the freedom to think. If a school board bans topics from the schools today, it could be a crime to write about them tomorrow. Books may be banned and newspapers censored; independent thinking would become illegal.

Universities face a fatal choice. They can acquiesce to the demands of censorious staff and students or reject intolerance and bullying by reaffirming their traditional enlightenment values.

Author Flannery O'Connor admonishes us to "Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you." Let's hope our universities share her view; the future of higher education depends on it.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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