Sunday, March 14, 2021

Academic Freedom and Societal Values


By John A. Akec*


Professor Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California, Berkley, has described universities in his book, Uses of University, as the ‘cities of intellect.’ The occupants of these cities are professors and students who have devoted their lives to teaching, research, and production of knew knowledge. By mid twentieth century, universities have increasingly assisted the state and served communities around them in some meaningful ways, through the application of knowledge to solve economic and social problems.


In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the justification for a university is that it preserves connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in an imaginative consideration of learning.” That over the last six centuries, universities have trained the pioneers of human civilization. Especially “the priests, the lawyers, the statesmen, the doctors, the men of science, and the men of letters.” And that the universities have been homes of those ideals which cause men and women to confront the challenges of their times.


These ideals have been preserved over the centuries by granting ‘academic freedom’ that included but not limited to freedom of thought and speech for the professor within the walls of university city. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has argued forcefully in Beyond Ivory Tower that the right to speak and write as one chooses is fundamental to individual liberty and is essential in contributing to a stimulating life. And without such liberty, no academic can participate fully in an intellectual exchange that helps in developing one’s own values and outlook of the world, and to exercise the mental faculties of imagination that are uniquely human. That human progress over the centuries has been made possible by major discoveries and advances in knowledge that appeared, at first sight, as unsettling and distasteful to prevailing order. And that only few individuals have the intelligence and imagination, and courage to openly communicate these discoveries.


By guarding against the erosion of academic freedom for the professor, universities can ensure an environment in which academics and students can be creative and most productive in expanding the frontiers and increasing the stock of human knowledge.


However, academic freedom has constantly come under attack from multiple fronts, chiefly because of the emergence of multiversity in the mid twentieth century that extended the function of university as an institution for teaching and research to include service to community.


As a result of this extended function of the university to serve as “an arm of the state” and an instrument for societal service, professors have assisted their countries in war efforts, in designing economic policies, and in solving social problems.


That in turn led to the lost of detachment often associated with the academic output. The involvement of professors with society’s affairs has raised serious moral questions when academic scientists assisted in the development of atomic bomb that was used to attack Heroshima, as well as in planning of the fire raids on Tokyo and Dresden in the Second World War.


Similarly, students and professors at Columbia University opposed the appointment of Dr. Henry Kissinger as special chair in international relationship in 1977 for his role, as the US Secretary of State, in the bombing of Hanoi, invasion of Cambodia, and lengthening of the Vietnam War. Dr. Henry Kissinger decided not to take up the appointment after all, despite the willingness of Columbia University administration to effect effect it on the principle that Kissinger’s scholarly contribution had nothing to do with his role as a political decision maker. Another case involving moral dilemmas in relation to academic freedom was the decision of City College of New York to bar the English philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, from lecturing at their college, citing his views deemed immoral as they were perceived to condone extra-marital relations.


To close, in author’s view, while universities will continue to protect academic freedom as the pillar of intellectual creativity, we must also bear in mind that as long as universities continue to get involved with societal affairs, academic freedom will come under fire from multiple fronts; not only for political reasons, but also for moral standards the society expects of the academics.


*This article was first published in Juvarsity, March 2021


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