SCAS News - 14 December, 2023

Detangling and Discussing Academic Freedom

Easy to use, almost impossible to oppose, and hard to define - that can be one summary of the term
”academic freedom”. Today, we see real threats to academic freedom, for example in more authoritarian
countries where certain teaching activities and research can be forbidden, and where scholars who pursue
research that is not favored by the government indeed become scholars at risk.

In order to protect and strengthen the right to freely research, teach and disseminate results, it is important
to know what we mean when we talk about academic freedom.

”A Week of Academic Freedom” was initiated by the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)  and
organized as a joint initiative with the research program Democracy and Higher Education and the center
Research as Objects of Study (HERO) in October 2023.

Discussions about academic freedom filled the entire week. Even if most liberal democracies do not at
present experience threats against academic freedom as reported from other countries, many small things
start to add up to a situation that triggers a reaction. Examples of such events in Sweden are the recent
interference of the government with the composition of the members of the boards of universities and
university colleges, and the sudden cancellation of funding for development research long after the deadline
for the call. The reasons behind these decisions, as stated by the government, were a need to respond to
the international security situation, and the need for continued support to Ukraine. But what kind of reason
might be given next?

The scientific community reacted strongly and in unison to oppose to the decisions above. Many witnessed
about the shocking surprise that the politicians displayed so little understanding for higher education and
research, and what it needs in order to function. To be able to maintain unity in defending academic freedom,
academics can gather strength from within the academic community by reflecting on basic conditions for
academic research and education. Many researchers addressed during the week how they have taken aca-
demic integrity, duties and citizenship for granted and not given these foundations for academia much thought.
But with changing conditions for higher education and research, the need to reflect on these terms also increases.
While collegiality is and has been the modus operandi of universities, other factors have as well become important
for a successful academic career. This is partly due to the change of management models, and evaluations that
tend to measure the success of a university and/or individual researchers by way of citation indexes, amount of
external funding, and number of examined students. These then influence how a university is run and valued.
Going back to core values, discussing and reflecting what they mean and entail, is essential to re-establish a
common ground for higher education and research.

What can and should be changed within the academic system to make it less vulnerable to external threats? How
keep the autonomy that is needed? The next level is to anchor this in legislation, rather than relying on a mutual
understanding between academics and politicians.

Trust and freedom are often vital factors for a thriving and creative research environment. Many successful
researchers witness that it was when they got the trust and indeed freedom to pursue their line of research,
without having to worry too much about funding or immediate output in the form of publications, that they
could do ground breaking research. Funding schemes for excellence or elite institutes promote this, but we
need more discussions about how good conditions for research and researchers are created. Furthermore, we
should trust that researchers themselves are skilled at identifying research questions that are, or may become,
of relevance to society.

In return, scholars have the responsibility to uphold academic integrity, re-invent collegiality and to play their part
in securing academic freedom. The strength of academia is to dissect problems, critically analyze the findings and
synthesize new ideas. This can also be applied to academic freedom - much can be gained by detangling what
academic freedom means, and then synthesize ideas how to best protect and promote it. Within the academic
community this should be driven by vibrant discussions across disciplines where different opinions are allowed
and welcomed, by sharing results with the broader public, and having the courage to speak up when threats to
academic freedom occur. Discussions about academic freedom should also be included in the basic and doctoral
education to give young researchers a better understanding and a voice.

The question about academic freedom is a big one, including everything from academic virtues and values to
laws and legislations. Therefore, future discussions and week-long events provide important fora for scholarly
collegiality at its best. ”A Week on Academic Freedom” provided a fertile ground for these discussions, inspira-
tion and food for thought and many more questions to be tackled.

Text: Natalie von der Lehr

Listen to a collection of voices from "A Week on Academic Freedom" in the SCAS Talks Podcast:
"SCAS TALKS Spotlight - Academic Freedom" >>

This episode of the SCAS Talks Podcast might also be of interest:
SCAS TALKS Episode 7 - İnan Özdemir Taştan: “Threats on media, academic freedom and democracy in the
post-truth era” >>

Read more about the event "A Week on Academic Freedom" >>