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Five questions on why we are talking about academic freedom

On 14 February, we will discuss the role of academics in the public debate and how this relates to academic freedom. All students and staff of the university are cordially invited. Are you curious about this dialogue on issues such as Israel-Palestine, caps and gowns on the A12 and academic titles on X? Professor and co-organiser Herman Paul answers five questions.

Herman Paul: ‘To understand others you have to begin by meeting and talking to them.’

1. Why is the university’s Academic Freedom Core Team holding this dialogue?

‘First, because we like to keep our ear to the ground. What is going on? What does academic freedom mean to students and staff and how do they experience it at our university? Second, we want to find out and experience how we as a university community can start a conversation about this. It is easy to say that it’s not fitting to demonstrate in your cap and gown on the A12, or conversely that everyone should do so. It is more difficult to create an environment where people can talk about such differences of opinion. But we want to try anyway because to understand others you have to begin by meeting and talking to them.’

2. How did you come up with this theme?

‘As the core team, we’ve spent a year talking about the principles and pain points of academic freedom. If this showed anything, it was how many students and staff have an opinion about demonstrating in your cap and gown or waving a Palestinian flag. But those opinions are oceans apart and can be difficult to reconcile, and that only serves to stir up stronger emotions still. We therefore want to identify the images of “the academic” and “the responsibility of academics” that underpin this. What makes some colleagues find it important to speak out against Israel in their role as an academic whereas others think that is a deplorable mix of academia and politics?’

3. This is the second dialogue on academic freedom. What will happen with the input that you collect?

‘We are going to write our final report in the coming months, with recommendations to the Executive Board. Two types of input are most welcome here: ideas about how academic freedom is faring in Leiden and thoughts about how best to have the conversation about this − university-wide but also in smaller groups, at institutes or with a group of PhD candidates... The first session last November was definitely a positive experience! There were great group discussions and lots of sensible suggestions were made in the plenary session. These experiences with the dialogues and the input on the theme will inform our advice.’

4. Why should students in particular come to this dialogue?

‘This is your chance to have a say! The motto of our university is, after all, “praesidium libertatis” or “bastion of freedom”. I would really like to hear how students think this can be strengthened.’

5. Are you also welcome if you don’t have a very strong opinion?

‘Definitely! The idea of the dialogues is to invite everyone to provide input and form their own opinions on this. As far as I can tell, many colleagues and students are not attracted to either of the two extremes: the “ivory-tower scholar” or the “academic as activist”. I think it’s important to hear and to find out together the possibilities that lie in between. So please sign up. Hope to see you there!’

Join the conversation!

The dialogue ‘In cap and gown on the A12, titles on X? Academics in the public debate’ will be held on 14 February from 14.30-16.30 in PLNT. Registration is required. Would you like to attend? Register here.

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