Dangerous questions: Why academic freedom matters

Scholars at Risk, the New-York based international network of institutions for protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom, and the University of Oslo, Norway, have jointly developed a free online course on how to use academic freedom to ask critical questions and contribute to a democratic society.

The course is aimed first at anyone in higher education – leadership, administrators, academic staff and students. Second, the course is aimed at anyone outside the sector who has an opinion about higher education, especially critical opinions.

You can register for the course through this link.

The course, ‘Dangerous questions: Why academic freedom matters’, will begin from 4 June and is available online on FutureLearn.

Participants will learn with Dr Olga S Hünler, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative Fellow of the University of Bremen (with the initiative founded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation), in the department of social anthropology and cultural studies; and Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk.

Hünler was an assistant professor of psychology at the Izmir University of Economics, Turkey, and was forced to resign in 2016. She is one of the signatories of the Academics for Peace petition. The petition demanded an end to Turkish military operations in Kurdish civilian areas and called for a dialogue of peace – but many of its signatories have been purged from their jobs as academics.

Robert Quinn received the University of Oslo’s Human Rights Award, the Lisl and Leo Eitinger Prize, for 2012 for “his relentless work to protect the human rights of academics and for having inspired and engaged others to stress the importance of academic freedom”.

Quinn told University World News: “Higher education is undergoing historic transformation, and this adds confusion and puts pressure on academic freedom. The course aims to help members of the higher education sector better understand the values at the centre of higher education, and by doing so, offers a compass and a set of tools for navigating the current environment.

“The course argues that higher education has an affirmative social responsibility – that is, the responsibility to use the freedom and autonomy afforded to it by the state and society for the widest public good.

“But meeting that responsibility can be dangerous or even very dangerous and that means the public also has an affirmative responsibility – to defend higher education leaders, scholars and students when they exercise freedom of inquiry and expression on the public's behalf.”

The course will explore the importance of free and open research, and how it relates to core higher education and societal values. It will promote deeper understanding of why academic freedom is crucial for maintaining the quality and relevance of research in higher education; and it will teach about some of the current threats to academic freedom, and how this relates to the academic community worldwide.

Strengthen values

Participants will learn how they can contribute to strengthening core higher education values at their home institution and in partnerships, and how to assess and react to incidents relating to the core higher education values.

According to Quinn, the partners in the Academic Refuge project developed the course because they see the threats to academic freedom growing.

“These include the obvious highly visible threats in places where academics and students are violently targeted, imprisoned, dismissed from their positions or exiled. But these threats also include non-violent, systemic changes and competitive pressures on higher education, as well as indifference or lack of support for scholars and students from some members of the public.

“This can squeeze out values, which would downgrade higher education to mere job training, and academic research to mere product development.

“Of course, higher education should serve the job market and economic development, but it is so much more than that. Higher education is, and must be, an engine of culture, discovery, passion, faith, social and political critique, and personal and societal growth in every sense.

“The course aims to remind us all that higher education is at its best, and serves society best, when given the space to ask questions, no matter how difficult or sensitive.”

The course will include videos, graphics, animations and interviews and enable participants from all over the world to talk to each other.

“Beyond that, I think people will be surprised – academic freedom isn't just for a few privileged intellectuals who want to be left alone. Academic freedom is an essential condition for free, open societies,” Quinn said. “If you value the freedom to have your own opinions, to ask questions, to discuss difficult topics honestly without fear, then academic freedom matters enormously to you too.”

In line with its commitment to defending academic freedom, University World News has offered its support by promoting this initiative to its global readership.