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Executive Board column: Academic freedom under pressure

Academic freedom is something to be cherished. The freedom to conduct research, design courses and publish research findings as we see fit is crucial to the quality of our work. But that freedom is under increasing pressure. What does this mean for our university? Come and discuss this at our dialogue sessions.

In this column Annetje Ottow, Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos give a peek behind the scenes at the Executive Board of Leiden University. What does their work involve? What makes them enthusiastic? What challenges do they face? Building a healthy and engaged learning community begins with sharing what you are up to. This time it’s Hester Bijl’s turn.

Direct infringement

Unfortunately, academic freedom is under pressure, in Leiden and elsewhere. Take the plans of outgoing Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf of Education, Culture and Science to make it compulsory for non-Dutch language programmes to include Dutch language subjects in the curriculum. These plans are a direct infringement of our freedom to organise our own education, and they consequently impinge on the autonomy of our institution. 

Academic freedom also plays a role in the debate on whether or not we should break our ties with the fossil fuel industry. We have to ask ourselves whether academic freedom truly exists if particular collaborations are banned or certain questions may no longer be asked. This seemed to be the case in our debate on 27 September when the question ‘Under what kinds of conditions could you work together’ was boycotted to loud jeering by a group of those present at the debate. But even questions like these warrant space for discussion in an open academic setting. Fortunately, others in the hall still felt sufficiently free to express their opinion, because discussing these kinds of difficult issues is the only way you can move forward.

Academic freedom takes active engagement and discussion

There are many other examples of the definition and scope of academic freedom being up for debate. The lack of time and resources for independent research, the hateful discourse on social media and the armed conflict and ongoing violence in Israel and Palestinian territories are just some of these.

This is also clear from the different reports on the subject, for example by The Young Academy, the KNAW and the League of European Research Universities. These have all considered academic freedom, what it means, its limitations, the opportunities and threats and the dilemmas involved.

Academic freedom is something you actively do, that isn't optional and that is the responsibility of us all. 

Personally, I believe that the report by the Stolker Committee and the book Academische vrijheden in Nederland (Academic Freedoms in the Netherlands) make an excellent contribution to the discussion. Whereas the Stolker report says academic freedom is something that you actively do that is the responsibility of us all – students, staff, managers, administrators and government – the book focuses on the dilemmas academics face. Such publications show that we must continue to debate academic freedom, what it encompasses and how it should be defined.  

Freedom in the Leiden community

With this in mind, last year I set up the Core Team Academic Freedom, a team of five professors who engage actively with this issue. They have been tasked with examining what academic freedom means exactly for our university as a bastion of freedom. They are also looking at how academic freedom is experienced by the Leiden academic community and whether it is under threat.

The team have had many valuable discussions, from which they have distilled different dilemmas. These will be the focus of a number of dialogue sessions that we will be holding. The sessions are open to all our students and staff and will offer a calm space and a safe environment to explore these issues further with one another. The first dialogue session will be held in Leiden on 10 November and will address the issue: ‘Are there questions that may not be raised at the university?’ There are still places available, so, please do register!

Share your thoughts or experiences by sending an email to h.bijl@cvb.leidenuniv.nl.

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