President addresses conference on academic freedom

Tue 8th Jun, 2021 | 17:00

‘On Academic Freedom’ - Address at the Scholars at Risk Ireland/All European Academies Conference

Tuesday, 8th June 2021

Until recently, we have lived through a period of extreme individualism, a period where the concept of society itself has been questioned and redefined narrowly and pejoratively, when the public space in so many Western countries, even the human body itself, has been commodified, where it is as calculating rational choice utility-maximisers, rather than as citizens, that we have been invited to view our neighbours.

May I thank the event organisers, Scholars at Risk Ireland and All European Academies (ALLEA) for the invitation to join you all today and discuss what is a fundamental element of democracy – academic freedom.

We are honoured that one of the great thinkers, public intellectuals and political activists of our time, Professor Noam Chomsky, is with us at this conference and will be providing a keynote address. Noam Chomsky, we are privileged to have you in our midst today at, what must be, due to pandemic conditions, a virtual gathering, at which we discuss conceptual, ethical and empirical questions relevant to the important subject of academic freedom. 

Universities under siege

Today’s conference takes place at what I believe to be a perilous juncture in the long history of the academy. Universities, as sites, sources and experiences of learning, have, for several decades now, been under continuous attack from a variety of sources, some overt, others covert, have suffered an attrition of range and depth, loss of interdisciplinary exchange, leading in too many cases to a degradation of the very scholarship and teaching for which they were established. Such adjustments have usually been rationalised as an inevitable search for relevance, often in the name of market forces and the inexorable drive towards a utilitarian reductionism that is now so pervasive.

Any adequate discussion of our present circumstances must now consider not just the loss of academic freedom at the level of the individual scholar, but, I suggest, the loss of the institution of the university itself, even of the space of university discourse.

It is not an overstatement, I believe, to make the argument that the ruination of the university tradition, by a process of attrition, surrender to the quiet hegemony of that which is really unaccountable, is at hand. Indeed the very raison d'être of the university, I believe, is at stake. Academics all over the world should be concerned that future generations may weep for the destruction of the concept of the university that has occurred in so many places, which has led to little less than the degradation and debasement of learning, the substitution of information packaging for a discursive engagement or search for knowledge.

The crisis we face is an intellectual one within a moral context. It reflects, for example, how in the subjects now taught as economics, we have passed from moral economy through political economy to a technical training in measurement of that for which we have neither a theory nor an adequate scholarly methodology.

Decades of Keynesianism have given way to decades influenced by the theories of such as Friedrich Von Hayek, to unrestrained market dominance. A new, largely uncontested paradigm has emerged triumphant, a paradigm which has profound consequences for all institutions including universities, a paradigm that makes assumptions and demands as to the connection between scholarship, politics, economy and society. As a consequence, the public world is now again a space of contestation, as Jürgen Habermas has articulated so well, but less well served than when he first wrote because of our further surrender to technos at the cost of anti-intellectualism. It is a space that sets that which is democratic in tension with that which is unaccountable.

So much ground has been lost in terms of what Habermas coined “the public sphere”, the public world, the shared essential space of an independent people free to participate and change their circumstances, to imagine their future, be it in Ireland, Europe or at global level. Intellectuals are morally challenged, I believe: whether to drift into, be part of, a consensus that accepts a failed paradigm of existence, or to offer, or seek to recover, drawing on their rich scholarly tradition, at its best moments of disputation and discourse, alternatives that offer a stable present, and a democratic, liberating and sustainable future, with potential emancipatory outcomes and human flourishing.

The universities are challenged in the questions that are posed now, questions that are beyond ones of a narrow utility. Will the universities seek the space, the capacity, the community of scholarship necessary to robustly defend the university tradition, and to challenge, for example, paradigms of the connection between economy and society, ethics and morality, democratic discourse and authoritarian imposition that have failed so demonstrably?

The academy is now in a “winter”, as Max Weber, the great 19th-century social theorist, foretold. He spoke of the threat of a “spring that would not beckon with its promise of new life”, but would deliver instead “the threat of a winter of icy cold”. Weber prophesied “an iron cage of bureaucracy within which conformity would be demanded” to that which no longer recognised its original moral or reasonable purpose.

He was writing at a time when technocratic rationality had succeeded reason as the central concept in the political writings, including those of Herbert Marcuse, who argued that rational decisions to incorporate technological advances into society can, once the technology is ubiquitous, change what is considered rational within that society. Thus, technology and industry became the dominant controlling force within the structure of the economy thereby influencing intellectual pursuits.

Such writings now appear, sadly, eerily prophetic. Weber’s nightmare of an extreme rationality that, in time, would counter the original purposes of institutions, that would evolve into an irrational form, is difficult to reject as an account of the university in our modern times. The effect of a new half a century of reduction of the influence of the State as a partner in the defence of what might have been the ‘public commons’ in terms of education meant that a market characterised by unrestricted range, acquisitive concentration, and accumulation to a tiny minority, could come to dominate.

Academic courses are now viewed as economic units whose success is too often judged in terms of arbitrary quantitative outputs of graduates, as opposed to the quality of the courses and the standards of academic excellence achieved by those participating in them. Indeed, university provosts, presidents and rectors now often describe and introduce themselves as CEOs of multi-million euro enterprises rather than as academics first and foremost whose main responsibility might be to defend and cultivate the intellectual life of their academic institutions, facilitating an enriching learning environment for staff and students alike.

Relatively expensive science-based courses, and those in arts that are not seen as obviously utilitarian or lead to a direct route towards financial gain, are sometimes under threat, while the rise of business courses continues unabated, as does the establishment of campus companies, all of which reflects the increasingly market orientation of the modern university.

The quality of university degrees, too, continues to be a source of great concern, with evidence of grade inflation that, alas, does not reflect improved standards of scholarship, but rather an ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure, sourced internally and external to the university, to report the achievement of continually higher ‘outputs’. 

Are individual scholars passive bystanders of this ongoing degradation? If not theirs, whose responsibility is it to adequately defend the great traditions of scholarship and their settings, which, while defective in so many ways in terms of inclusivity, have served us for centuries, that have over these centuries spearheaded new movements of thought, new paradigms of existence? Are the great universities of the world, rather like the stones of the monastic sites visited today, to become like them, in time, merely the tourist attractions of the future?

I often wonder, as tourists tramp through the cloisters of abbeys and told of where vespers were sung, will we have tales of where lectures were once given, disputations, brilliant expositions encountered, or books consulted?

Academic freedom at individual level

It may sound rarefied now, but it is important to acknowledge that in the history of universities, the finest of individual scholarship was achieved within what such scholars identified as a ‘community of scholarship’. The role of academics, and particularly those involved in the public sphere, has always been to test assumptions, provide a range of alternative explanations, to seize moments and have the courage to provide reaction, to be subversive of received thought, hidden assumptions, misconceptions and fallacies. 

An intellectual’s mission in life, Edward Said told us, is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission so often means standing outside of society, apart from the dominating ethos of its institutions, and actively disturbing the status quo. It is notable and telling how the cultural sphere does this so well in ways that academia often does not.

A strong emphasis on intellectual rigour, and clarity in the presentation of ideas, are also, of course, fundamental to Said’s vision of the public thinker. As Immanuel Kant put it,

“Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”

It follows, therefore, that a core enabling feature of academia has been that of academic freedom,  a moral and legal concept expressing the conviction that the freedom of enquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts, including those that may be inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities, without facing repression, job loss, or imprisonment. However when the freedom being lost is not just the individual scholar, but the concept of the university itself, we are at a new level. Could it be that scholars in their individual pursuits failed to save the institution beneath their feet?

Michael Polanyi, in his 1958 book, Personal Knowledge, argued this so well, stating that academic freedom was a fundamental necessity for the production of true knowledge; that a structure of liberty is essential for the advancement of science; and that the freedom to pursue scholarship for its own sake is a prerequisite for the production of knowledge through peer review and the scientific method.

Academic freedom is formally guaranteed in all western democracies, and to various degrees. The guarantee in the Irish Universities Act 1997 is comprehensive:

“A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities, either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged or subject to less favourable treatment by the university for the exercise of that freedom”.

This effectively guarantees that academics may engage in curiosity-driven research that has no obvious near-term practical applications but expands understanding of the natural world. Yet we know that this guarantee is under severe pressure from forces, including those of a narrow, market-driven and utilitarian nature. For example, the lion’s share of Government research funding, indeed funding from EU and international sources, currently supports applied research. This limits scientists’ academic freedom to choose their research areas and damages the overall health of scholarship.


A core tenet of academic freedom relates to security of tenure, ensuring that faculty can be dismissed only in extreme cases such as gross professional incompetence or behaviour that evokes condemnation from the academic community itself. Tenure, as we know, is now a burning, divisive issue.

As I say this, I am so deeply aware of the lamentable precarity of so many scholars, young and not-so-young who, without security of tenure or protection, continue to wrestle within a system that, far from realising their intellectual and moral potential, is sometimes a source of disaffection, allowing a limited, distorted resonance with the joy and agony of life as it is lived. 

It seems to me that the processes of decision-making in relation to modern tenure systems represent the migration into such systems of models that have been derived from business practice where they are not open to empirical test as to assumptions or consequences. These are models that diminish academic freedom, forcing those seeking tenured positions often to profess, and demonstrate, conformance to a level of “matter-of-factness”, as Thorstein Veblen put it, or orthodoxy, such as that held by those awarding the tenured professorships.

‘Groupthink’ tendencies abound in many institutions, but ‘groupthink’ in academia is perilous, even ruinous. The desire for a harmony or conformity that simply masks quiescence in an academic context will likely result in a sub-optimal, irrational, dysfunctional outcome. Access to tenure in conditions that respect the integrity of the scholar and the discipline remains scholars’ best defence against groupthink, of free enquiry and heterodoxy, especially in our times of heightened polarisation, lost cohesion and internet outrage. The more entrenched orthodoxies become, the less likely a heterodox scholar will be tenured.

Tenure is, thus, essential because it protects academic freedom, not only in cases in which a scholar’s politics may run counter to those of their department, institution, or funding bodies, but also, and perhaps most importantly, in cases when a scholar’s work innovates in ways that challenge received wisdom and orthodoxy in the field.

We need more heterodox ideas to flourish, gain credence, given the manifest failure of the orthodox paradigms of connection between economy, society and ecology, for example, which have endured for too long. I am heartened, for example, by the growing number of brave new scholars in the field of heterodox economics advocating a new eco-social paradigm of existence that represents our best hope of sustainable, inclusive, ethical economy and society. 

Impacts of loss of academic freedom

Academic freedom is not a trivial matter on the fringes of elite society, a matter merely for discussion in university common rooms. When academic freedom is seriously undermined, in extremis, scholars may find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death in parts of the world. However, and even more relevant now in post-pandemic conditions is the slow attrition of critical capacity.

Those who employ violence to repress academic research, teaching and writing seek to suppress, or even eliminate, the spaces in which citizens are free to think, to share ideas, and challenge the status quo. Such authoritarian abusers of freedom see the open, pluralist space of intellectual enquiry as a threat to their power, or, more accurately, their stranglehold and their projects, which invoke a distorted and hateful version of religion and faith, or an authoritarian conception of the state – or perhaps both, for that matter.

Such, however, constitutes the extreme form of attack on academia itself and those who teach or study within it. There is, however, the more subtle form of authoritarian oppression against new, different, or intellectually subversive scholarly work.  Some of the best known, and funded, institutions have engaged in bureaucratic practices of such a type that has resulted in an attrition of morale among such scholars.

Third Level’s problems, then, must be seen in the context of all of the parts of education and its relation to society. Education as a means to adequate participation has to be valued as that, rather than as a commodity.

Recent years have also seen a profoundly disturbing resurgence of attacks on girls and women in particular, in an attempt to prevent them from accessing education. In her acceptance speech of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, the Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai described how things changed in her “paradise” home of the Swat Valley:

“Education went from being a right to being a crime. Girls were stopped from going to school. […] When my world suddenly changed, my priorities changed, too. I had two options: one was to remain silent and wait to be killed and the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one; I decided to speak up.”

Old ignorance and practices of exclusion, now more violent in their assumptions and practices, remain a great cause for concern, but new forms of harassment have emerged and are being regarded right across the university system.

Academics everywhere should be alarmed at the ongoing corrosive attack that faces the university, even at its core conceptual level, that has already occurred and continues to occur in so many places, and which has led to little less than the degradation of teaching, learning and scholarship.

Such attacks often amount to subtle, or at times even not-so-subtle, forms of repression, conflating intellectual inquiry and critical discourse with “disloyalty”. This does not simply endanger academic freedom. It has consequences for the freedom of all citizens. Indeed, it endangers democracy itself, in those countries where it exists, and the possibility of democracy in those countries where there is none.

Towards a model of freedom

Edward Said, speaking to an audience at the University of Cape Town, offered the example of John Henry Newman as an argument against the downside consequences of over-specialisation. He suggested that the model of academic freedom should be the migrant or the traveller:

“[We should be free] to discover and travel among other selves, other identities, other varieties of the human adventure. But, most essentially, in this joint discovery of Self and Other, it is the role of the academy to transform what might be conflict, or contest, or assertion, into reconciliation, mutuality, recognition and creative interaction”.

Said’s model, founded on the concept of the scholar as explorer in pursuit of knowledge and freedom, allows for a contrast of the academic model of the professional who seeks to be “king and potentate”, with the traveller who is dependent, not on power, but motion, willing to enter different worlds,

“[to] use different idioms, and understand a variety of disguises, masks, and rhetorics.”

The traveller, free in spirit and unshackled, embraces novelty, and abjures pre-determined paths, crossing over to the space of the ‘Other’. This paradigm is the cultural idiom of academic freedom, but it also embodies the emancipatory essence of a genuine, inclusive and democratic society.

German example

Germany can provide us both with an exemplar of academic freedom and its benefits to society, as well as demonstrating the intrinsic fragility of even the most entrenched tradition of academic freedom. We can think, for example, of the University of Göttingen, where the basic principles of ‘freedom to teach’ and ‘freedom to study’ were firmly established in the 18th century, becoming a model that inspired other universities throughout Europe and the Americas. The foundation charter of the University of Göttingen, in 1736, stated that university teachers were to be free from censorship and to have “complete and unlimited freedom, access and right to teach publicly and specially for all eternity”.

In keeping with the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, the university faculties were founded as equal entities, with theology no longer taking precedence. The libertas academica that characterised the University of Göttingen thus played a significant role in enabling the transition then taking place in European science.

The teaching of jus publicum (public law) provided at Göttingen attracted many notable students, such as Klemens von Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who later established the University of Berlin, as well as, more surprisingly perhaps, the great romantic poet Heinrich Heine. In 1809, Arthur Schopenhauer became a student at the University of Göttingen, where he studied metaphysics and psychology.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, social sciences and the humanities continued to flourish at the University of Göttingen, where Max Weber studied and Edmund Husserl taught for 15 years. Such rich scholarly tradition came to an abrupt end, however, in 1933 when the university became a focal point for the Nazi crackdown on “Jewish physics” as represented by the work of Albert Einstein, and when more than 50 professors and lecturers were forced to leave, among them several of the 45 Nobel laureates whose names are associated with Göttingen.

Returning to the image of the intellectual as migrant, we can note how, during the Second World War, networks of international solidarity were organised to respond to the persecution of scholars, such as at the New School for Social Research in New York, which was renamed the Graduate Faculty during the War, and which played a role not dissimilar from that played today by the Scholars at Risk Network. The New School’s Director of the time, Alvin Johnson, managed to obtain funding to provide a haven in the United States for scholars whose careers and lives were under threat in Europe.

This influx of new people with fresh ideas had a long-lasting and positive impact on the American academy. The refugee-scholars from Europe contributed to the transformation of scholarship in the United States by bringing theoretical, empirical and methodological approaches to their fields that had hithertofore been less well represented in American universities.

I can think of no better example of this phenomenon than Hannah Arendt who had a profound influence on intellectual debates about revolution, totalitarianism and democracy. Another refugee-scholar, Max Wertheimer, challenged behaviourism, the dominant paradigm in American psychology at the time, with his cognitive psychology. The work of Hans Jonas was virtually ignored when he first came to the Graduate Faculty after the war, but it now frames much of the scholarly writing on bioethics and the environment.

Many other German scholars associated with the Graduate Faculty have had an influence on American scholarship, including philosophers such as Alfred Schutz, or economist Adolph Lowe, who developed his institutional approach to the study of economics and his concurrent critique of classical economic theories at The New School.

Thus, beyond the tragedy of persecution and exile, the free movement of scholars across continents is one that never fails to yield a cross-fertilisation of ideas, a renewed flourishing of knowledge. Universities across the world that have provided a safe haven to the persecuted scholars of our times will undoubtedly continue to experience the immense benefits that flow from such cross-fertilisation of ideas and intellectual traditions.

COVID and academic freedom

As to the public world in which the public intellectual must engage, it must now become, as it was before in human history, a space of contestation as to its future and purpose, yet one that respects the essentials of discourse, indeed that might hold some echo of the grace of exchanged view that was the ‘disputatio’.

It must be a space that sets that which is democratic in tension with that which is autocratic, unaccountable, but doing so with humour and its resources as much as reason. That is where the eccentricity, as it was often called, of idiosyncratic scholarship, with its vulnerable humanity, was so much part of the university experience.

Until recently, we have lived through a period of extreme individualism, a period where the concept of society itself has been questioned and redefined narrowly and pejoratively, when the public space in so many Western countries, even the human body itself, has been commodified, where it is as calculating rational choice utility-maximisers, rather than as citizens, that we have been invited to view our neighbours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has galvanised a widespread, recovered recognition of both the overt and covert consequences of the uncriticised assumptions of our failed paradigm and of the State’s positive role in managing such crises, how it can play a decisive, transformative role in our lives for the better. The erosion of the state’s role, including publicly funded third-level institutions, the weakening of state bodies, and the undermining of the state’s significance for over four decades has left us with a less just and more precarious society and economy. The citizens of the world desire and deserve radical change.

Universities will be, no doubt, placed under significant strain arising from the financial damage that the COVID-19 pandemic will inflict on the sector, including declining international enrolments. It is up to governments to come to their aid within a model of public education that is democratic if we are in any way serious about the concept of third-level education and scholarship. This will be a test which will require significant resolve in order to rebuke the predictable chants from certain quarters to hasten the demise of a distinctive academic institution with its core tenet of academic freedom: tenure.

We must, beyond all borders, come together now as we slowly emerge out of the pandemic, as we rebuild our societies and economies, merging the insights and power of consciousness of ecology, human need, dignity, respect for sources of truth and consolation, reasoned and revealed. We must combine in co-operation for such a recovery of the public world.

Academic freedom to contribute to global challenges

I make this point because behind the transitions that western economies have made, transitions embedded in principles of utilitarianism and marketisation, lies an insidious intellectual collusion that unfortunately masks a rationalisation. Standing in support of under-regulated markets, of unaccountable, often speculative capital flows, are scholars, many of whom are so-called ‘high-flyers’ with prolific research track records, who frequently invoke the legitimation bestowed by a university which itself is placed under pressure to demonstrate its utility, often using dubious metrics, within the political economy hegemony that prevails.

It requires no small degree of courage, and in many cases nothing short of a paradigm shift in the focus of scholarship and teaching, but universities could lead a new paradigm of engagement with the world, contribute meaningfully to the discourse on the pressing challenges of the day, be it the humanitarian crisis or the crises of democracy or ecology.

From where will the energy come? Will universities be permitted to do this?  Will universities seek the space, the capacity, the community of scholarship necessary to challenge such paradigms of the connection between economy, ecology, society, ethics, democratic discourse and authoritarian imposition as have failed? Will universities challenge the corrosive models of functional utilitarianism that pervade the core ethos of so many once-great seats of learning? Will universities, drawing on their rich scholarly tradition, at its best, recover moments of disputation and discourse, seek to offer alternatives that propose a democratic, liberating and sustainable future?

I myself recall the desire to be inside the walls of a university before I had the capacity to do so. I recall the power of collective disputation and action as a student, the sheer privilege of being a university teacher to curious students, so many of whom went on to remain friends, colleagues.

Am I hopeful then? I am being driven back to Adorno’s pessimism. It is the essay of 1941 of Herbert Marcuse that I reach for – ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology’.

I believe that a university response, which is critically open to originality in theory and research, committed to humanistic values in teaching, is open to heterodoxy, has a unique opportunity to make a global contribution of substance to the great challenges and crises we face; that such a university can be and will be celebrated by future generations as the hub of original, critical thought, and a promoter of its application through new models of interconnection between science, technology, administration and society.

Is it too late? I hope not. It will take such a release of emancipatory energy to turn matters around, to save the university experience as one of originality, wonder, performance, awe and the shared joy of scholarship.

I believe, too, that such an outcome would facilitate a rich connection between the sciences, humanities and culture, facilitate learnings from the interstices between disciplines where, as Said put it, the most exciting ideas emerge, representing a paradigm shift away from the strict, sometimes arbitrary, divisions that have on occasion impeded academics to realise their best work, and which have perhaps fuelled the decline in interest in the public intellectual.

The change for which I advocate is the recovery of the right to pose the important questions, such as Immanuel Kant did through the development of his form of transcendental realism in his time:       

“What might we know? What should we do? What may we hope?”


These first-order questions are surely the very essence of what should comprise a free academic’s enquiries, not any narrow, pre-defined, perhaps even on occasion pre-determined investigations funded by insatiable corporations that are in turn the slaves of a financialised version of global economy that serves the few and who seek to justify their actions by receiving the approving stamp of academia.

May I conclude with a very modest proposal that could be easily implemented: teach a module on the nature and role of the university, including the cornerstone of academic freedom, to every incoming university student, raising awareness of the importance of such freedom and the critical, now precarious, position of the university in contemporary society.

For those of us then who have had the privilege of being university teachers, and those who still are, the university is, I suggest, a space from which new futures have always emerged, and must make that possible again with the greatest of urgency. It is time to recover the diversity of scholarship, the unity of scholarly support, to strike out for originality, to seek as comparative standards the great moments of intellectual work from around the world.

Out of a struggle for the recovery of the public world, the possibility of the emergence of truly emancipatory paradigms of policy and research are visible on the horizon. From all of this can come the joy of living better, having come to know more together.

We have an opportunity in the wake of the COVID pandemic, with all its personal, social and economic consequences, to reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge; unbiased study that can yield insights that may be applied for the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition, and enabled to address our great challenges. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be squandered.

Beir beannacht.