The international fight to defend academic freedom

June’s Scholars at Risk conference highlighted the threat of authoritarian rule, neoliberal policy, and other less obvious issues

In March, College fiercely defended its autonomy as an academic institution in the face of Government plans to reform the governance of colleges and universities. College officials voiced fears for Trinity’s institutional independence and the academic freedom of its scholars. It was not the first time in recent months that alarms were raised over the state of academic freedom in Ireland. In the past year, both multinational corporations and foreign embassies drew criticism in separate incidents for making formal complaints against Irish academics when the content of their work was perceived as unfavourable to their commercial or political interests, going so far as to write to Irish government officials.

In other parts of the world, the threat to academic freedom is far greater still, with individual scholars targeted and persecuted for their work by authoritarian governments, particularly in regimes such as Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

In June, a conference to address these growing threats was organised by the Ireland Section of Scholars at Risk in conjunction with international network All European Academies (ALLEA), which represents over 50 academies from more than 40 countries in Europe. Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network which protects and advocates for academics whose lives, liberty, and well-being are under threat.

President of ALLEA Antonio Loprieno opened the event with a short keynote address on the concept of academic freedom, describing ALLEA’s work to promote and defend the freedom of scholars to express ideas without fear of censorship, vilification, or threat to personal safety.

Loprieno’s opening address was followed by a panel discussion which featured academics from institutions across Europe, including College’s own Dr. Roja Fazaeli, Associate Professor of Islamic Civilisations.

Recurring themes included the dual threats of authoritarian rule in illiberal countries, and the commercialisation and marketisation of third level education in liberal ones. Professor Maeve Cooke of UCD added to this list the growing threat of “cancel culture”, which she said was facilitated by social media, as well as “in general, a culture hostile to dissent.”

The issue of cancel culture was raised more than once at the conference, though with an interesting degree of reluctance to employ this precise term. Cancel culture has become a contentious phrase perhaps due to its prevalence as a buzzword in right-wing media such as Fox News.

However, Professor Cooke rather expressed the usefulness of the term in calling out a new articulation of a long-standing form of censorship. Cooke told Trinity News that cancel culture is “a distinctively new manifestation in our digitized age of the complex, and often not readily discernible, ways in which advanced capitalism blocks dissent and represses the free development of agency in ways that serve to reproduce capitalism, for example by commodifying dissent.” Speaking as a scholar of philosophy, Cooke explained that she sees this as nothing new, citing the work of Foucault and his concept of “disciplinary power”, a “characteristic of capitalist modernity…which he evokes so vividly in books like Discipline and Punish.”

In fact, the conference was enhanced in many ways by scholars’ ability to express perspectives uniquely shaped by their own academic background, such as Dr. Roja Fazaeli. Fazaeli is Trinity’s Scholars at Risk representative, and an outspoken advocate for academics whose lives and livelihoods are threatened because of their work, a situation faced by many scholars from Fazaeli’s home country of Iran.

Fazaeli’s contribution emphasised the danger of self-censorship which can have hidden consequences for academic freedom that cannot be as effectively countered by the work of organisations such as SAR. Although an academic might appear to have full freedom to express their ideas, they may be inclined to suppress their own ideas in order to avoid possible repercussions by powerful actors.

“The most dangerous element of [self-censorship] is its invisibility… self-censorship silently threatens academic freedom while giving the impression that the academic sphere is entirely free from interference.”

In fields of study such as Fazaeli’s own of Islamic Civilisations, this may be because a European-based scholar needs to retain their ability to travel for field work without fear of persecution, or even “where there is fear of reprisal towards family members or colleagues within a state of origin whose lives remain more regularly exposed to authoritarian policies or weak rule of law.”

The most dangerous element of this phenomenon is its invisibility; while the external persecution of scholars for their work is an injustice which can be somewhat protected against by positions of sanctuary in European universities, self-censorship silently threatens academic freedom while giving the impression that the academic sphere is entirely free from interference.

Following a brief intermission, the floor was then handed to President Michael D. Higgins, who called for a more morally guided and principled approach to science and scholarship. Higgins spoke resentfully of the increasingly market orientation of the modern university, and condemned academic leaders who continue to push third level education in this direction: “Indeed, University provosts, presidents, and rectors now often describe and introduce themselves as CEOs of multimillion-euro enterprises, rather than academics first and foremost.”

“When the best and brightest thinkers of our society are silenced in such a way, the personal freedoms of all are at risk… When intellectual dissent is quelled, democracy is quietly eroded.”

President Higgins subtly denounced the anti-intellectualism of recent times, and reminded attendees that “academic freedom is not a trivial matter on the fringes of elite society, a matter merely for discussion in university common rooms.” When the best and brightest thinkers of our society are silenced in such a way, the personal freedoms of all are at risk, as the ideas and dogmas of authoritarian rulers become the only ideas available, unchallenged by a silent majority too afraid to speak out. When intellectual dissent is quelled, democracy is quietly eroded.

The conference closed with a keynote address from veteran intellectual dissident Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s speech, entitled The University in a Time of Crisis, echoed President Higgins’ in its criticism of the growth of market influences on third level education. He then spoke about recent moves in some US states to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in classrooms, a testament to authorities’ desires to control historical narratives.

“That’s the new demon,” said Chomsky, explaining that CRT has become the new political scare phrase, succeeding communism and Islamic terrorism as scapegoats which allow the US government to control an unchallengeable historical narrative. “What actually happened for 400 years, and is very much alive today, is to be presented to students as a deviation from the real America.”

Chomsky, a lifelong critic of the Israeli regime, drew a parallel between this whitewashed narrative of American history and the continual suppression of the experiences of the Palestinian people. He quoted the British Medical Journal’s use of the word “epistemicide” to describe this fabrication of historical narratives, citing a recent instance where threats of boycott from US physician’s led to the retraction of an article which condemned Israel’s medical apartheid from peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet as a single example of the censorship which critically endangers academics’ capacity to present facts and empirical research.

“Without the underlying optimism which all participants shared, there would have been none of the passion, urgency, and utmost dedication displayed by all.”

In his closing remarks, Professor Chomsky optimistically noted that in the midst of highly polarised politics and hyperbolic right-wing media, the academic sphere in the US remains “an island of relative sanity”, something worth fighting to retain and expand.

Indeed, optimism was at the very heart of the conference throughout. Without the underlying optimism which all participants shared, there would have been none of the passion, urgency, and utmost dedication displayed by all; a belief that something can be, and is being, done. In the fight for academic freedom, like any other, optimism is an essential weapon.

The closing remarks of President Higgins’ speech summed up best how apparent crisis can be turned into unique opportunity: “We have an opportunity in the wake of the pandemic 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 enable us to address our greatest challenges. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity that should not be squandered.”