Academic freedom: locked in an ivory tower

Last week at the Faculty strategic day, among other things, we have discussed the issue of academic freedom. What is actually academic freedom? It is a necessary foundation of academia and all of scientific inquiry. In the most general sense, the idea behind academic freedom is that academics and university have a right to determine their educational and research mission free from intervention of officials and governmental bodies. This kind of freedom is often considered as a fundamental essential for producing true knowledge.

Not undermining, but supporting each other

Though fundamental, the idea of academic freedom was most of the time implicit. Explicit formulations and discussions started only in XX century as a reaction to threats from the state (totalitarian and capitalistic). This defense of the essence of academia was essential, but it has its’ dark sides. Pursue of doing research and teaching what one wants academic often locks academics in an ivory tower.

Here I do not refer to fundamental or blue-skies research – research, which does not have immediate practical application. I also do not call anyone to completely drop the old ideals of free scientific inquiry. The issue is different. In the process of defense of academic ideals, academics often distance themselves from the society – they lock themselves in the ivory tower.

University is though an essential part of society, as many scholars, including Karl Jaspers and Alexander von Humboldt, have discussed in their own way. The society has changed dramatically since the original ideas of academic freedom were developed in the 16th century. The universities have transformed also: modern mass universities are far from their elitist predecessors. These changes calls for re-conceptualizing the idea of academic freedom.

In the Faculty strategic day, during joint discussion on academic freedom our dean asked me, if we should re-conceptualized the idea of academic freedom, and what it should be. My answer was, “Yes, we should”. But what it should mean, I frankly do not know. And it is not up to me (solely) to decide. All I know, it should not be a reaction to impact from outside, as well as not imposed by governmental or funding agencies. It should be something creatively new, created collaboratively by all members of academia: researchers, teachers, students, members of administration. Ideally, in dialogue with the state and society. After all, freedom is not about being locked in an ivory tower, like a princess, guarded by a dragon. Freedom is about breaking free from the tower and exploring the world out there.


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