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Academic freedom report: ‘This jewel in our crown deserves better care’

What does academic freedom mean? And how do we give shape to it in Leiden? The Academic Freedom Core Team considered these questions and presented its final report on 17 June. ‘This jewel in our university’s crown deserves better care’, said Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl on receiving the report.

Bijl established the Academic Freedom Core Team in 2022. This followed various incidents at the university varying from speakers or guest lecturers being boycotted by students to a discussion session about Palestine for and by students being cancelled by the university. 

Some claimed that academic freedom was under threat in Leiden. In contrast, others countered that academic freedom should not be confused with freedom of expression and that the university is not a debating club.

Academic Freedom Core Team

The Academic Freedom Core Team comprises five professors from five different faculties: Frits van der Meer (FGGA), Sense Jan van der Molen (Faculty of Science), Jannemieke Ouwerkerk (Leiden Law School), Herman Paul (Faculty of Humanities) and Martine de Vries (LUMC). The team recently held a series of discussions with students and staff. Its final report Academische vrijheid: een Leidse lijn (Academic Freedom: a Leiden Line) was presented to Rector Hester Bijl on 17 June.

Explain what academic freedom is

In its report, the core team makes three specific recommendations. First, explain (repeatedly) – in our teaching and courses – what academic freedom means and what it requires of students, staff and administrators. In its conversations and dialogues, the team discovered that the meaning of academic freedom is fairly implicit. It has various associations for students and staff, but when asked to define it, they find it difficult to put this into words.

Ongoing conversation

The core team’s second recommendation is to make academic freedom the ‘subject of an ongoing conversation’. This will make it possible to concretise for topical issues the value the university places on this freedom. One way this can be done is in a structural follow-up to the wider dialogues held by the Core Team to discuss urgent topics: collaboration with undemocratic regimes, for example, or funding cuts and strategic choices, dignity and respect, increasing regulatory pressure and institutional autonomy.

Celebrate and exercise academic freedom

The third recommendation from the report is: celebrate and exercise academic freedom. Whenever current events warrant this, organise events where students and staff can explain the situation and reach out to each other across political divides.

‘People at the university from very different walks of life can find common ground in a shared fascination with knowledge and understanding the world’, said Core Team member Herman Paul.  He believes the university is at its best when, for example, students from Israel and Gaza can sit together in a lecture hall. ‘The university is not a primarily political arena where people with different opinions are framed as opponents, but a place where people try to understand the origins of the Middle East conflict, what is happening and what is at stake. How does the world work? That’s a university; that’s academic freedom.’

Shared responsibility

Rector Hester Bijl is pleased with the report. ‘This has taken the organisation’s temperature and made a diagnosis: we have not given academic freedom the care and attention it deserves in recent years. That has to improve.’ And that, says Bijl, can only succeed if not only administrators but also staff and students take responsibility. The report is therefore a starting point. A plan of action, which will include how academic freedom and the associated rights and duties can be brought to the attention of staff and students, will be developed in the near future.

‘Academic freedom is a big concept and we are fleshing it out together’, Bijl added. ‘We can do so in different ways. For example, there is the complex issue of whom we do and do not work with. The temporary committee that will review the ethics of collaboration will help us with this and come up with a proposal on how to do it in a sensible and achievable way. This will be in dialogue with the community. We can only figure this out if we take responsibility together.’

What is the meaning of academic freedom?

In Dutch law academic freedom is described as follows: the freedom of lecturers, researchers and students to follow their own scientific insights when teaching, conducting research and, respectively, receiving education.

In concrete terms this means students can choose their own questions and methods in their papers, lecturers are free to decide what topics to cover in their teaching and what literature to prescribe to their students. And researchers get to decide what research they wish to conduct, with whom they wish to work and where they wish to publish.

At the same time this freedom is not unlimited. Academic freedom is a principle that must be weighed against other principles, norms and interests. Researchers should not conduct sloppy, biased or fraudulent research, for example. And one person’s academic freedom should not restrict another’s. In addition, the university can set limits to the academic freedom of students, lecturers and researchers. This should be done with great care. An institution may not comment on methods or conclusions of research and teaching. But it may establish teaching programmes and research agendas within which the research and teaching of individual staff must fit.

A full description of what academic freedom is can be found in the report’s appendix.

Photo: Marc de Haan

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