Humanitarian Day: Academic freedom benefits the whole of society
Scholars at Risk (SAR – www.scholarsatrisk.org) is an international organisation dedicated to the defence of academic freedom and the right of scholars to pursue their research interests free from undue political or other intervention. Founded in 1999 in Chicago, today it has more than 500 university members across the globe and proclaims itself to be ‘Protecting scholars and the freedom to think, question, and share ideas’. SAR member institutions undertake a range of activities such as lobbying, advocacy and providing learning about issues of academic freedom. At the peak of such activities is hosting of SAR scholars by universities who offer research and teaching positions to academics who have been forced to flee from their homelands. Such work obviously has enormous impact on the lives of persecuted academics and can be seen as the jewel in the crown of SAR activities, with genuine impact on the lives of those offered such positions. The University of Turku has been active in hosting SAR scholars and has also twice chaired SAR Finland
It is important to understand the context within which SAR is working. It reports increasing attacks on academic freedom across the globe with its Free To Think report for 2021 cataloguing 332 attacks on higher education communities in 65 countries and territories around the world between 1 September 1 2020 and 31 August 2021 (https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/free-to-think-reports/). This comes in a situation where it is now estimated that 38% of the world’s population lives under authoritarian regimes (https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule).
Following the end of the Cold War, many commentators expressed the hope of seeing a decline in authoritarian government, instead it is reappearing with a vengeance. It is often academics who are at the forefront of challenging authoritarianism and reminding governments of the inconvenient truths which they would rather ignore. Academic petitions against government actions in Turkey and Russia provide just two examples of this. It is therefore little surprise that it also academics who are often persecuted, imprisoned, banned and forced to flee, as examples from numerous countries show.
SAR Finland (SARF) was established in 2017 at a meeting convened by Universities Finland (UNIFI). Today all Finnish universities are members and undertake a range of activities in support of SAR, including in several instances the hosting of SAR scholars. The first SAR Finland Day was held in November 2021 (https://www.utu.fi/en/university/international-networks/SARF-Day) and members meet regularly to plan activities and share best practice. SARF is also active in SAR activities at Nordic, European and international levels. In recent months members have sought to react in various ways to the crisis in Ukraine, again including the provision of research and teaching positions for academics who have been forced to flee.
But why does academic freedom matter? It matters because free societies must allow academics the freedom to pursue their research wherever it leads without fear or favour. The job of the academic is to inform themselves about the current state of knowledge in their area and then undertake methodologically rigorous, ethical, research which may well lead to them confirming the status quo, but may equally well lead to challenges to it. What matters after the research has been carried out is that these informed experts are allowed the freedom to tell it like they see it. That is, to publish their work, to debate it with their peers at conferences and elsewhere and to seek to engage the public with their findings. Only if such things are possible case can societies be characterised as being free and thus able to benefit from the insights which the best academic work can bring. A society which turns its back on academic freedom is one which is turning its back on knowledge of itself, on critical insight and the possibility of improvements.
So, on Humanitarian Day it is important to point out the importance of academic freedom as something which benefits not only academics but the whole of society. It was once said that “If you think education is expensive, then try ignorance”. One might also say that “If you think academic freedom is not important, then try living in a society without it”. It is certainly not one in which many of us would feel comfortable in.
Professor Martin Cloonan
The writer is the Director of Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS).