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Academic freedom the very touchstone of real and rigorous debate

Growing campus culture of intolerance towards expression of legitimate opinions deemed to be on ‘wrong’ side of a range of issues is a very worrying development

Academic freedom is guaranteed to university academic staff in all western democracies and is seen as essential to a university’s mission of discovering new knowledge and teaching existing knowledge to students. It is under threat worldwide from pressures both internal and external to the academy. The latest threat comes in the form of new science journal editorial policies.

The Irish Universities Act 1997 defines and guarantees academic freedom: “A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities, either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged or subject to less favourable treatment by the university for the exercise of that freedom.”

The foundations of academic freedom were laid in Church-founded medieval European universities. The Church exerted some control over the universities until the 18th century when newly emerged nation-states became the main threat to university autonomy. Some states encouraged autonomy, and academic freedom gradually became firmly established.

Of course, academic freedom is constrained by the general laws of society, including laws concerning obscenity and libel. Academic freedom also requires individuals to use their professional expertise, employ rigorous argument and research, and make their communications in a responsible manner.


Academic freedom is justified in terms of the long-term benefits it brings to society through the advancement of knowledge, best served when inquiry is free from restraints from State, Church, or other institutions/groups. Academic freedom thrives on diversity, encouraging free contest of contrasting ideas, thereby facilitating reliable discovery of new knowledge.

Academic freedom in countries lacking democratic traditions is granted unreliably and unevenly. There was no academic freedom in German universities under the Nazis. Communist China tightened restrictions on academic freedom in 2018, suspending some professors who criticised government policy. In 20th century communist countries, academic freedom was granted only around subjects including maths, physics/chemistry, linguistics and archaeology – not in terms of social sciences, arts and humanities.

Apart from dictatorial regimes, there are many threats to academic freedom worldwide

Denial of academic freedom in the USSR under Stalin fostered the rise of agricultural geneticist Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko (1898-1976). Lysenko believed Mendelian hereditary theory was erroneous and proposed that heredity can be changed by good crop husbandry. Lysenko’s ideas harmonised with communist ideology and he was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1940. In 1948 the Politboro banned research into and teaching of Mendelian genetics. Lysenko’s ideas were disastrous both for Russian science and agriculture, contributing to several famines.

But apart from dictatorial regimes, there are many threats to academic freedom worldwide. One worrying development is the growing campus culture of intolerance towards expression of legitimate opinions deemed to be on the “wrong” side of a range of issues, for example sexual orientation/gender/transgender issues, abortion, immigration policy and religion.

Ireland has so far experienced only mild versions of this new intolerance. The latest example was the withdrawal last March by University of Limerick (UL) of an invitation to journalist and veteran Irish feminist Mary Kenny to speak on the topic of The Media and Feminism Over Six Decades. UL said it received “an absolute storm of protest” against Kenny’s visit, some protesters describing her as a “transphobe”. UL caved in to the protesters, violating the principle of academic freedom.

Universities are places where the essential civic muscles of a pluralistic society are built

The latest threat to academic freedom comes from academic journals, such as Nature Human Behaviour (NHB), which is introducing ethics guidelines “to protect groups who do not participate in research but may be harmed by its publication”. The journal proposes consultation with advocacy groups and the rejection of censorship of articles it deems offensive, harmful or containing “hate speech”.

But policing submitted articles as NHB proposes is not the proper business of journal editors. All review should be by professional peers who are well able to analyse unwarranted statements, not by editors pushing “progressive” agendas, as pointed out by Jonathan Rauch in Fire. Also, the proposed NHB guidelines are so broad and vague they would certainly have a chilling effect on any research that might find racial, sexual or cultural differences between groups.

Universities are places where the essential civic muscles of a pluralistic society are built. Academic freedom is the keystone that allows us to argue and debate rigorously with each other, while still remaining friends, instead of shouting abuse at each other from our respective bunkers.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC