Freedom for academia

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

November 6, 2007 Ed Cartoon

Citing the negative influence of outside groups on the internal practices of universities, five prominent academics are rallying to defend academic freedom.

Calling themselves The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University, the group is encouraging academics to resist the pressure of outside groups, claiming they are a threat to the principles for which the university as an institution stands.

Given the importance of universities as a forum for free and open discussion, the committee’s aim is just.

Universities face considerable pressure to pursue only the positions on issues interest groups find palatable. It is no secret professors who pursue objectionable positions are derided, and scholars holding unpopular views are banned from speaking at universities. What’s worse is when scholars are denied positions of merit within universities based on the pressure of outside forces.

At the center of the issue lies the debate as to whether the university should be an autonomous body or an organ of the public. Universities indeed play a role in either realm, but its ultimate service is to the free exchange and discovery of knowledge. While interest groups should be encouraged to take part in debates, they should have no influence on internal decision-making.

It can be argued, however, that universities, as publicly funded institutions with an arm in government, require public accountability. By exercising their freedom to speak on campuses, interest groups " and the public in general " participate in decision-making processes that have a direct effect on the community.

However, the consequences of potentially stonewalling open dialogue on certain subjects must be considered. New avenues of thought are generated through the criticism and development of existing research. Often the values we hold in society today are the product of research that at one time was derided. Scholars should be allowed the room to conduct their research regardless of its popularity.

An academic’s responsibility is to pursue his or her research justly and soundly so as not to compromise their commitment to knowledge. A scholar’s integrity lies in his or her adherence to this principle.

This is why peer review boards meet to determine the merits of a scholar’s work. Peer reviews base their criteria for a work’s validity on the methodology and value of a scholar’s research, as it should. Outside groups are too often guided by fear of the potential consequences of certain ideas being exchanged in the academic sphere. For this reason, their decisions are more apt to be based on their own values and opinions.

Allowing these groups to help determine the validity of the ideas being exchanged on campuses is detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, universities must place increased emphasis on academic freedom, and do everything they can to defend it.

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