Examining academic freedom

By: Lucell Larawan

WE ARE facing a contentious issue that can affect the intellectual and moral upbringing of our country—academic freedom. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as “the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from the law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.”

On the positive side, this freedom’s basic element is that it allows teachers to inquire about any subject that arouses intellectual concern and to present and publish their ideas without censorship. Among students, academic freedom allows them to study subjects they are interested in and express their opinions in the process.

Why encourage academic freedom? Its proponents justify that the purpose is not for the convenience of teachers or students, but for the long-term interest of society which is best served if inquiries are free from restraints by the state, church or any entity.

Historically, the University of Gottingen in Germany became the model of academic freedom and with the establishment of the University of Berlin, the basic principle of “freedom to teach” (Lernfreiheit in German) gave other universities an archetype to emulate.

In lieu of its popularity, academic freedom also has inherent flaws. What if students and teachers follow the path of Hitler or any of those homophobic maniacs? What if the teachers choose to teach what will lead to a disdain for soundness and morals? Will academic freedom still serve the interest of individuals and society?

In such cases, institutions have the responsibility to regulate the course of our universities and colleges’ academic freedom. Like water, it should be contained in its rightful place. Leave it and the flood can destroy before anything can be done.

Academic freedom is not without restrictions. General laws like obscenity, libel, and robbery still apply. No one can invoke it to do evil.

There are individuals who use academic freedom where it does not really justify certain actions of those who profess to exercise it in higher education institutions. For instance, during my college years in the country’s premier university in the Visayas, I had encounters with professors who used such freedom to harass students who are not aligned with their beliefs—those who surprised bright students with a grade of 5.0 or 3.0. A late senator of the country was one of those. Fortunately, she challenged the professor to a debate and when she won, her grade was changed—from a failing grade to 0.75 which higher than 1.0.

In one of my subjects, I remember how the professor went out from the content of the course syllabus in the context of academic freedom. However, when I finished the subject, I felt I was short-changed because I was not able to learn the basic content that I must learn about the subject. Later, the university already regulated this practice by certain mentors. To rightfully exercise academic freedom, a mentor could have diverted to other issues or use non-traditional methods, but not sacrifice the basic content of a subject.

Our government must be guided on how to regulate the academic freedom of higher education institutions. Carry Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote some things that academic freedom does not do:

  1. Academic freedom does not mean a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.
  2. Student academic freedom does not deny faculty members the right to require students to master course material and the fundamentals of the disciplines that faculty teach.
  3. Neither academic freedom nor tenure protects an incompetent teacher from losing his or her job. Academic freedom thus does not grant an unqualified guarantee of lifetime employment.
  4. Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from colleague or student challenges to or disagreement with their educational philosophy and practices.
  5. Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from non-university penalties if they break the law.
  6. Academic freedom does not give students or faculty the right to ignore college or university regulations, though it does give faculty and students the right to criticize regulations they believe are unfair.
  7. Academic freedom does not protect students or faculty from disciplinary action, but it does require that they receive fair treatment and due process.
  8. Academic freedom does not protect faculty members from sanctions for professional misconduct, though sanctions require clear proof established through due process.