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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

What is academic freedom?

by Brenda O'Neill

Three things you need to know about academic freedom…

1. Academic freedom is the guarantee accorded to academics to conduct their research, teach in the classroom, and publicly comment and criticize free from any pressure to conform to prescribed doctrines. The concept is one that is frequently used, and yet often misunderstood, even by academics.

2. Academic freedom is not without limits, however, and must be grounded in academic integrity. Academics have a duty to ensure that their research, teaching and commentary are based on an intellectually honest search for truth.

3. Academic freedom is also limited by professional and academic standards, as well as institutional requirements. Research must conform, for example, to the codes and norms of research conduct established by professional and academic bodies such as the Tri-Council Policy on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans.  Similarly, the need to offer a program of instruction limits an academic’s ability to refuse to teach courses based on a defense of academic freedom.

Three myths about academic freedom…

Myth #1: Academic freedom isn’t really necessary in modern universities.

The reality: The pursuit of knowledge and truth is fundamental to the mission of the modern university. But truth is not self-evident, static nor discovered in democratic processes. An intellectually honest search for truth can include taking risks and challenging established orthodoxies. Academic freedom, as well as the related concept of tenure, is central to providing the job security necessary for those who push boundaries and challenge our thinking.

Myth #2: Universities must prioritize public opinion given the current funding climate.

The reality: It goes without saying that a reality for modern universities is a reliance on private funding. But it cannot and must not move the institution away from its fundamental principles and primary objective. Universities are not public relations exercises; their primary goal must be the pursuit of knowledge. A failure to defend academic freedom in the face of a public outcry, precisely when it is most necessary is a failure to defend the central role of the university in society.

Myth #3: The importance of academic freedom is self-evident.

The reality: It is incumbent upon academics to understand, explain and defend the importance of academic freedom to the public and our students given its fundamental importance. This is especially important given the high level of misinformation surrounding the concept among the public.

To continue the conversation about the place of universities in Canadian society,
visit Dr. Andrew Gow’s discussion – “Can we afford ivory towers?”.

Brenda O'Neill is Associate Professor and Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on the political behaviour of Canadian men and women, including the role of feminism and religion in shaping political behaviour and attitudes. You can contact her via email at bloneill[at] and follow her on Twitter (@therunningprof). 

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