Academic asylum in universities under threat once again

Five distinguished academics, among them two former education ministers and a former Greek and European ombudsman, have signed an open letter calling for the abolition of academic asylum in Greek universities, originally established to protect academic freedom from the worst excesses of a seven-year military dictatorship.

The academics called for an end to tolerance of violence on campus and described academic asylum as a “very dangerous enemy”, obstructing the creation and dissemination of university-generated knowledge.

The open letter was signed by:

  • • Historian, byzantologist and the first woman to head Sorbonne university, Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler.

  • • Thanos Veremis, a political historian at the University of Athens.

  • • Marietta Giannakou, a professor of medicine at the University of Athens and education minister from 2004 to 2007.

  • • Anna Diamantopoulou, a civil engineer, European commissioner from 1999 to 2004 and Greek education minister from 2009 to 2012.

  • • Nikiforos Diamandouros, the first Greek national ombudsman from 1998 to 2003 and European Union ombdusman from 2003 to 2013.

The academics refer to recent incidents in which students and non-student activists have interrupted senate meetings, vandalised campuses and-or threatened staff.

“Almost every higher education institution in the country has been through such a deplorable experience, without there being effective official reactions,” they wrote. There have also been threats against a philosophy professor for her views.

The politics

The five appear to have aligned themselves with the conservative party’s ‘Law and Order’ campaign which gives priority to the abolition of academic asylum, which is seen as a threat to the development of Greek higher education institutions.

It is no coincidence that Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the New Democracy party and prime minister-in-waiting, declared that his first legislative initiative when he forms a government after general elections scheduled for 7 July – which he is confident of winning with a wide majority – will be the abolition of academic asylum.

The signatories to the letter claim that “it is time to abolish today’s badly-meant academic asylum, in order to allow universities to find their stride for the unobstructed dissemination of knowledge and research activity.

“Nowadays, civilization is measured by the quality of each country’s universities and the quality of the university implies respect and [an] honest relationship with the society which created and sustains it. The greatest wealth is to share knowledge as you share bread. It is a very dangerous enemy who obstructs the creation and the dissemination of knowledge produced by the university.”

Articulate, as one would expect from such distinguished intellectuals. But ultimately they do not say how a protective measure designed to ensure academic freedom, and which prevents the police entering university areas without the permission of the rector, undermines the development of the university and the pursuit of its mission.

While the five point to some cases of student violence against lecturers and university property, they fail to mention violent behaviour against students, as recorded on 7 June at the University of Thessaloniki, where a professor was captured on video punching a student.

It is also quite surprising that all five have forgotten enjoying the protection of academic asylum during their student years. They are turning against a measure that helped enable them to establish distinguished academic careers.

Ahrweiler’s presence as a signatory of the open letter is also a little surprising, since she was associated during her early years with progressive activity and is on record as saying: “I was not made left-wing, I was born left-wing.” Now 93 years old, it would seem that the years have toned down her revolutionary spirit.

It is less surprising to see Giannakou among the signees, because as education minister she tried to achieve deep reforms including changes to academic asylum, which at the time prompted strong reactions among students, parents and even parliamentarians.

The same cannot be said for Diamantopoulou, who during her period in office staunchly supported academic asylum “as an answer of democratic Greece against the oppression of a seven-year long military junta with a particularly special symbolic weight for the youth and all the Greek people”.

It is thought by some that behind the initiative are strong business and political interests that are attempting to prepare the ground for the long-time demand for private universities in Greece. Academic asylum does not fit well with precepts of competition, the free market and profit-making.

Moreover, the free movement of ideas, political activity, student participation in university management on an equal basis, and expression of opinion over matters that concern the student population, are not in concert with the rules and regulations of a free market economy that wants universities to operate on a profit-making basis in an antagonistic environment, and students to be obedient consumers of the educational product.