“Academic freedom” must be upheld and defended. Yet, its true significance is often overlooked. Some universities and scholars in Hong Kong seem to have misconceptions about “academic freedom”. While pursuing “academic freedom”, they should also fulfil their education mission and social responsibilities.
The concept of “academic freedom” was pioneered by Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates,“Scholars must have the right to explore an issue and trace all its leads.” Since then, telling right from wrong became the primary object of philosophical speculation and research. In particular, conventions were challenged to identify mistakes and blind spots, so as to lead society away from hereditary shackles and bigotry towards a brighter future. With this in mind, Socrates held fast to his ideology and belief, but not succumbing to social convention and pressure. Finally he chose to take his own life by poison rather than agree to stop preaching philosophies labelled as “corrupting” the youth, making himself the first martyr for “academic freedom” in western history.
“Academic freedom” has gained prevalence with thanks to the advocacy and interpretation by a group of German scholars who were influenced by Siècle des Lumières in the late 18th century. With the promotion by Wilhelm von Humbold, the founder of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - the mother of all modern universities, “academic freedom” has become a core value of all German universities since the early 19th century. The term “academic freedom” is the English translation of Akademische freiheit. The German word Akademische originates from Plato’s Akademy, the meaning of which encompasses university, institution and academic. “Academic freedom” first became a legal right in Germany in 1848, marked by the promulgation of the proposed German Constitution by the Frankfurt Parliament which defined that “scholarship and its teaching are free”. This provision was adopted by the Constitution of Prussia in 1850 and became the earliest statute enacted on “academic freedom”. As the leader of worldwide tertiary education at the time, Germany attracted large numbers of American scholars. The ideology of “academic freedom” was therefore imported into US universities and later became a universal value.
Scholarship is a Pursuit of Truth
As defined by Humbold, “academic freedom” means a scholar’s inherent freedom to engage in academic activities (including the research, presentation and dissemination of knowledge) for the pursuit of truth. To ensure that knowledge is accurate and objective, academic activities must solely observe the criteria of truth, without any influence or interference from outside pressure or interests. In other words, freedom is a prerequisite for the pursuit of truth. “Academic freedom” is mainly materialized in: (1) professors’ freedom of research and teaching (lehrfreiheit); (2) students’ freedom of learning (lernfreiheit); (3) academic institutions’ autonomy (freiheit der wissenschaft). As for the objective of academic activities, it has been defined as “scholarship for the sake of scholarship”. There shall be no religious, political, economic and secular effects. According to Humbold’s concept, the objective of study and learning is not to improve one’s living standard or social status, but purely to gain self-improvement by pursuing the truth. I think this exploration of knowledge and truth is an essential impetus for social progress.
However, the definition of “academic freedom” varies from place to place. According to Albert Einstein, “by academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true”. In many countries, “academic freedom” is protected by constitution or legislation, while individual academic groups have their own “academic freedom” statements. One example is the Lima Declaration on “academic freedom” and University Autonomy published by international educational organization World University Service in 1988.
Freedom Bound by Responsibility
Scholars and academic institutions should enjoy “academic freedom”. According to renowned US contemporary tertiary educator Burton R. Clark, “University is a venue for scholars to engage in teaching, scientific research and social services”. In other words, scholars have the social responsibility to serve society, and “academic freedom” is not an absolute freedom not bound by any duty. Even in the US where “academic freedom” is highly valued, the “academic freedom” of universities is bound by the concept of “political correctness”. If a scholar’s research is in contradiction to established national values, there is little chance that his academic papers will be published by prestigious academic journals. Such a scholar may even face dismissal. One such example was famous mathematical logic expert Bertrand Russell who was ruled by a court as morally unfit to teach at the City College of New York, because he advocated “demoralized and pornographic theory” of accepting extramarital sex. Another example was Associate Professor of English H.B. Franklin who lost his lifelong employment with Stanford University in 1972 for leading students in an anti-Vietnam War protest on campus.
As such, “academic freedom” is by no means unlimited freedom. As what the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure in 1940 suggested, “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”
“Academic Freedom” Protected in Hong Kong
Let us put this into the context of Hong Kong today. “Academic freedom” is mainly protected by the Basic Law. Article 34 of the Basic Law provides protection to personal “academic freedom”; Article 136 and Article 137 safeguard “academic freedom” and autonomy of educational institutions. The University of Science and Technology of Hong Kong is the only tertiary institution in Hong Kong to include “academic freedom” in its staff employment contracts. Some of the other local tertiary institutions have mechanisms to handle complaints and do staff appraisal, staff promotion and deployment, yet the functions and provisions of these mechanisms vary so much from institution to institution. Above all, there is still room for these institutions to better protect their “academic freedom”. Yet, I think “academic freedom” is already well-protected in Hong Kong, given its high degree of freedom of speech and press.
There have been debates about “academic freedom” over the years. Sometimes scholars are criticized for their research studies. I think this is not anything unusual and it has nothing to do with “academic freedom”. The truth becomes clearer through debate. Scholars should not arbitrarily equate criticism with interference with “academic freedom”. After all, everyone has the freedom to voice his opinion. As the cornerstone of all freedom, freedom of speech should not be overridden by “academic freedom”.
“Academic Freedom” Should Not be Abused
Local universities are getting increasingly commercialized in recent years, whereas our society is getting more and more political. I am worried that some scholars are motivated by political considerations or personal interests. Making use of distorted research findings and biased conclusions, they may indoctrinate the public with established points of view in a bid to gain social support and higher status and influence. In other cases, academic research is manipulated as a tool for personal advantage. In such cases, not only that the basic principle of “academic freedom” is abused and eroded, but academia also loses the function to criticize and reflect upon existing social values, or even undermine the role to promote social progress. We should bear in mind that tertiary institutions are great halls where knowledge is transferred, truth is pursued, pluralistic views are respected, and attainments are accomplished. They are not political asylums for waving banners of “academic freedom”. I hope that while enriching and promoting knowledge, Hong Kong scholars can participate in public affairs with a selfless and socially responsible mindset, so as to foster a free, equal, inclusive and just society.
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