Academic Freedom versus Academic Licence

Here is a thought provoking article by Geoffrey Alderman, highlighting the differences between Academic Freedom and Academic Licence.

Alderman states that “Devotees of academic license (I am not one of them) believe that an academic should be free to say more or less anything on more or less any subject. The concept seems to me to be deeply flawed.  To begin with, no academic is above the law. An academic who – shall we say – incites violence can expect both criminal and institutional penalties – criminal because of the law of the land and institutional because an academic who incites violence brings her or his institution into disrepute. Even for those with tenure, the charge of bringing the employing institution into disrepute can customarily result in dismissal. And quite apart from this, there is the issue of defamation. Can an academic legitimately claim that he should be able to – say – libel or slander a colleague without hindrance? Of course not! So academic freedom is not academic license.

In 1988, the British Parliament defined academic freedom as the freedom for academics “to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs.”  To those of us who took part in the discussions that resulted in this statutory formulation, the wording was not ideal, but I think most agreed that the formulation could only be applied to a peacetime situation. 

In peacetime, an academic should indeed be free to criticize, castigate, chastise and/or condemn not just the government of the country in which he lives and works, but the country itself. This freedom cannot be claimed when the country is at war and its very survival is at issue.”

Alderman describes the restrictions including on academics in Britain during WWII and continues “ISRAEL IS at war. Muslim states, both Arab and non- Arab, have made it crystal clear that they wish to destroy the Jewish state. Even as I flew out to Israel from London, dozens of rockets were slamming into Israel from Gaza – to say nothing of the Jerusalem bus station bombing. In this deplorable situation I would have thought it the duty of every Israeli academic – no matter his/her party-political outlook – to think very seriously about whether anything they say or do is likely to give comfort to the many enemies of Israel.”

I must also point out that the BDS movement is itself at odds with the very concept of academic freedom, since it seeks to make the espousal of a particular set of political principles the price for entry into that academic dialogue which is at the very heart of what we mean by a university.  “Agree with my views” – it says – “or I will boycott you and freeze you out of the academy.”  In this sense I believe that the movement is essentially totalitarian, and indeed fascist in nature. It has no place – none at all – in a true university environment.  Argue by all means. But boycott and betray at your peril.”

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2 thoughts on “Academic Freedom versus Academic Licence

  1. Talking about academic licence, historian Stephen Norwood has written a book called “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower” which documents how much admiration and support for the Nazi regime there was in the elite American universities of the 1930s. Just because you’re an academic doesn’t mean you know anything. See Walid Phares’ book “Future Jihad”, where he describes the “mollification” of the American mind. Saudi funding of universities around the western world for 40 years has churned out graduates who know nothing that the Saudis don’t WANT you to know. And if you read Mitchell Bard’s book “The Arab Lobby” you’ll find out how many in the State Department pander to every whim of the Saudis and Gulf States in order to land themselves well-paid jobs doing PR for these countries when they retire.

  2. Thanks for this comment, Adele. I agree with your observations. Those who vehemently decry the “Jewish Lobby” may well be indebted to the “Arab Lobby”.