A crisis of academic freedom is looming in Europe.
Usually, when academic freedom comes under fire in the West, people assume that it is a marginal issue, confined to countries like Hungary that have become increasingly authoritarian.
However, an honest reckoning would show that the problem is far more widespread than Europeans and Americans would like to admit.
Yes, things are bad in the country of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, where constitutional protections for academic freedom have been erased, gender studies has been denied accreditation as an academic course, and a former military colonel has been appointed chancellor of the Budapest University of Theatre and Film Arts.
However, consider France, where French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation Frederique Vidal has accused the country’s universities of promoting “Islamo-leftism,” and launched an investigation into the entire academic field of postcolonial studies.
The threat is not confined to the EU.
In the UK and the US, which have long represented the gold standard for academic freedom, lawmakers appear to want to join ranks with Hungary’s illiberal regime.
Republican-controlled US state legislatures are drafting bills to prevent “critical race theory” and other academic fields from being taught in public schools.
Meanwhile, the British Department of Education released a white paper titled “Higher education: free speech and academic freedom” that appears to call for radical restrictions of academic freedom in universities.
In a truly Orwellian gesture, London wants to install a “Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion” in the British Office for Students.
While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will probably not go so far as to appoint a former military officer to the post, he will doubtlessly choose someone with strong partisan credentials.
The crisis of academic freedom is partly political and regulatory, featuring threats and legal restrictions on research and education.
These are, in essence, attacks against the very notion of knowledge as a public good, although they are more disguised than is the case in countries like Turkey or Russia.
However, there is also an intellectual dimension to the crisis, born of the absence of a shared understanding of how academic freedom should be adapted to the present.
Academic freedom is a global challenge, but Europe has a particular problem with it.
In Europe, university education has been transformed by the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), a process that started in 1999.
Comprising 49 countries, the EHEA has created a common space for higher education with shared models and standards, intense exchanges, and joint regulations and institutions, which transcend national jurisdictions and academic traditions.
Yet, despite these remarkable changes, the work of developing a shared concept of academic freedom, suited to the present, has not kept up. Instead, academic freedom has simply been neglected, with scant agreement about what it even means.
Whether one looks to higher-education policies or within universities themselves, there simply is no shared definition of the concept, nor any common recognition of why it is needed.
The enemies of academic freedom have profited from this vacuum, exploiting it for political benefit.
When the European Commission in 2017 sued Hungary for infringing on academic freedom, it pointed to the fact that the Central European University had been forced out of the country.
However, the Hungarian government maintained that the EU had no jurisdiction, because there was no European definition of academic freedom — legal or otherwise — upon which to base its case.
In the end, what should have been a clear-cut landmark case about academic freedom turned partly into a dispute about the delivery of commercial services under WTO rules.
In France, Vidal justified her attack on universities not only with political and legal arguments — namely, that restrictions on some disciplines are necessary to protect the rule of law and to prevent terrorism — but also with her own tendentious definition of academic freedom.
Adopting a familiar tactic from the far right, the French government has tried to package its assault on postcolonial studies as a research project, as if it is simply exercising academic freedom for itself. By framing the issue in this way, Paris can pretend that it is not cracking down on postcolonial studies for political reasons, but rather conducting its own “study” into the issue of “Islamo-leftism.”
There is a recent precedent for this strategy in the UK.
In 2017, British lawmaker Chris Heaton-Harris demanded that all major universities in the country submit course syllabi and the names of any instructors teaching their students about Brexit. In response to the inevitable backlash, his excuse was that he “was doing research” for a book.
Universities should not be political institutions, but protecting them from attack nonetheless requires political action, because academic freedom is a political issue.
The free and open pursuit of knowledge as a public good is necessary to the proper functioning of democracy.
The crisis of academic freedom demands intellectual resistance, starting with an effort to develop a modern, common understanding of the concept in Europe.
Academics could profitably work with their allies in the European Parliament, where there has been strong support for the Central European University in its struggles with the Orban regime, and for freedom of research and education more generally.
The question, of course, is what a pan-European concept of academic freedom might look like.
Can we draw inspiration from the European tradition of a rationalist, “colorblind” epistemology, or do we need new, more sophisticated perspectives?
After a long delay, initiatives to explore such questions are now underway. It is my profound hope that these efforts are not coming too late.
Liviu Matei is provost of Central European University and director of the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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