HKEJ Column | July 19th, 2007 |

A speech delivered at the Public Forum on Academic Freedom and Institutional Reform
organized by the Professional Commons at the City University of Hong Kong, 7 July 2007.
1. A brief history of academic freedom
The concept of academic freedom began to take root with the founding of Leiden University,
in what is now the Netherlands, in 1575 and then gradually developed in Europe during the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The development of the concept of academic freedom
evolved in parallel with the “gradual development of an atmosphere of tolerance, nurtured by
the rise of religious, political and economic liberalism and the growth of the so-called new
sciences.” The steady growth during this period of commerce, which among other things,
“drew attention to the desirable consequences of competitive enterprise, together with the rise
of the liberal state, led to the emergence of a philosophy of knowledge which stressed the
basic contingency of ideas and the utility of testing the value of ideas, not in terms of the
power of those who espoused them, but rather in terms of their capacity to stand up under the
competition of other ideas.” Thus “there was a logical transition from the competition of the
marketplace to the competition of ideas.”1

In democratic societies this is now a well accepted and generally formalized concept, though
as one would expect, in states where the form of government is of an authoritarian nature this
concept tends to be observed more in the breach.

2. What is academic freedom?
So what is academic freedom? As David Palfreyman of New College Oxford observed in his
paper in March 2007, academic freedom can be a difficult concept to define in theory and one
sometimes abused in practice when inappropriately invoked.2 Palfreyman suggests that the
definition of academic freedom by the Canadian Association of University Teachers is a
useful one, which states:

The common good of society depends on the search for knowledge and its free exposition.
Academic freedom in universities is essential to both these purposes in the teaching
function of the university as well as in its scholarship and research. Academic staff shall
not be hindered or impeded in any way by the university or the faculty association from
exercising their legal rights as citizens, nor shall they suffer any penalties because of the
exercise of such legal rights. The parties agree that they will not infringe or abridge the
academic freedom of any member of the academic community. Academic members of the
community are entitled, regardless of prescribed doctrine, to freedom in carrying out
research and publishing the results thereof, freedom of teaching and freedom from
institutional censorship. Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the

1.The above short sketch of the history of academic report was paraphrased and quoted from David Fellman. 1973. Academic Freedom. In Philip P. Wiener. Ed. The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Vol. I. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 11.The electronic version of the Dictionary is available online at
2.David Palfreyman. 2007. Is academic freedom under threat in UK and US in higher education? Education and the Law 19(1),
p. 20.

individual. Rather academic freedom makes commitment possible. Academic freedom
carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly
obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for knowledge.3

Perhaps Deng Xiaoping unwittingly summed up those last few words as succinctly as anyone
might be able to in his famous phrase “Seek truth from facts.”

3. Justifying academic freedom – culture of independence and public interest4
Ronald Dworkin observes that the common and conventional justification of academic
freedom hinges on its instrumental importance in the discovery of truth.5 The premises of this
view are that final truth in all branches of human knowledge has not yet been discovered and
that new truths will “emerge best from a marketplace of ideas from which no opinion is
excluded.”6 Knowledge is best advanced when inquiry is free from controls by governments,
by church or other institutions, by business or by special-interest groups.

Dworkin summarizes the importance of academic institutions of this conventional view in
this way:

…. a system of independent academic institutions and scholars who are independent within
them provides the best chance of collectively reaching truth about a wide range of matters,
from science to art to politics. We have a better chance of discovering what is true, if we
leave our academics and their institutions free from external control to the greatest degree

Without denying the validity of this conventional justification, Dowrkin however suggests
that more than just protecting a wise environment for academic discovery, academic freedom,
together with liberal public education, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and
freedom of religion are in fact all parts of our “society’s support for a culture of independence
and of its defense against a culture of conformity.”8

A culture of independence is important if we cherish a society in which people can live their
lives in accordance with their own felt convictions; make up their own minds, as a matter of
felt personal convictions, about what a successful life for them would be; people will not be
forced to religious or moral or political declaration against their will; will not be forced to
confess what they believe to be false and can always feel free to speak out for what they
believe to be true.

Such society needs a culture of independence in which to flourish. The enemy of the culture
of independence is the culture of conformity. Dworkin explains such culture in the following

[It is] the culture of Khomenini’s Iran, Torquemada’s Spain, and Joe McCarthy’s America –
in which truth is collected not person by person, in acts of independent conviction, but is
embedded in monolithic traditions or the fiats of priesthood or junta or majority vote, and
dissent from that truth is treason. That totalitarian epistemology – searingly identified in

3 Ibid., p. 20.
4 This section was drawn heavily from Ronald Dworkin. 1996. We need a new interpretation of academic freedom.In L. Menand. ed. The Future of Academic Freedom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
5 Ibid., p. 185. 6 Ibid., p. 185. 7 Ibid., p. 185. 8 Ibid., p. 189. 9 Ibid., pp. 187-188.

the finally successful campaign of Orwell’s dictator to make his victim believe, through
torture, that 2+2=5 – is tyranny’s most frightening feature.10

Compared to freedom of speech or freedom of conscience, Dworkin argues that academic
freedom plays a special role in our efforts to protect the culture of independence because
educational institutions are pivotal to those efforts. On this, he writes:

[Educational institutions] are pivotal, first, because they can so easily become engines of
conformity, as every totalitarian regime has realized, and, second, because they provide
important encouragement and skills for a life of personal conviction. Part of the point of
education, in a liberal society, is learning the importance and depth of an allegiance to
personal rather than collective truth.11

Dworkin also argues that academic freedom is important symbolically, because in a free
academy the example and virtues of deeply held personal convictions are so patently on
display. Scholars exist for their personal conviction – to find and tell and teach the truth as
they see it, and only for that. Higher education institutions are “theaters in which personal
conviction about truth and value is all that matters,” and they “train scholars and students
alike in the skills and attitudes essential to a culture of independence.”12

Echoing Dworkin, I would suggest that protecting the culture of independence is indeed
where the public interest of upholding academic freedom lies.

In the final analysis, academic freedom is upheld or protected for advancing the interest of a
society rather than conferring privilege on academics. To paraphrase from the University of
Southern Florida’s Statement on Academic Freedom, an academic’s freedom to speak to the
community arises from the public’s right of access to current knowledge. As with judges and
journalists, the independence of scholars is crucial to the health and safety of the nation.

4. Institutional protection of academic freedom
It is interesting to note that two uses of the term “academic freedom” seem to have evolved,
which, if not fundamentally different, seem to differ in their emphasis. In the United
Kingdom and generally in those countries influenced by it as a result of its colonial past, the
term “academic freedom” generally “refers to the freedom of the educational institution as a
whole from outside influences, political or otherwise.”13 The UK tends to rely on relevant
law for the protection of academic freedom. As an illustration, in the case of whistleblowing
by an academic in respect of abuse or any form of malpractice, protection from retaliation is
provided by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, though for instance Durham University
has supplemented this with its own further protective provisions.

However, in North America there is additionally considerable emphasis on the freedom of


individual academics from interference from their own universities and institutionsand
recourse is through investigation by either the American Association of University Professors
or the Canadian Association of University Teachers and if a case of abuse of academic
freedom is found to be proven, these bodies are limited to acts of censure only.

This difference of emphasis probably accounts for the reason why invariably North American

10 Ibid., p. 189. 11 Ibid., p. 189. 12 Paraphrased and quoted from Ibid., p. 189-190. 13 David Fellman. 1973. op cit., p. 11. 14 Ibid., p. 11.

universities include specific policies or statements on the protection of academic freedom,
usually in their faculty handbooks, whereas UK and UK influenced universities tend to
merely note their adherence to the concept of academic freedom.

As far as the Hong Kong universities are concerned, the most comprehensive declaration on
the issue comes from the University of Hong Kong, which includes a list of the
responsibilities concomitant with the relevant freedoms. However, it is interesting to note that
the university does qualify its enthusiasm for academic freedom with the word “undue”, as
does the Polytechnic University. Both the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lingnan
University include their statements on academic freedom in their policies on research and
consultancies, begging the question as to their degree of enthusiasm for academic freedom in
the arena of teaching.

With regard to both our host university today and the Hong Kong University of Science and
Technology, using my rather rudimentary research tool, Google, I was unable to identify any
statement or expression of policy on academic freedom. Maybe they do have policies on
these issues, but if so they are not archived in a form transparent enough to be discovered by
Google. Perhaps in this age of digitization and electronic research we might think of using
Google as a benchmark for transparency, with any issue or fact that cannot be discovered
through a Google search being deemed to have failed the transparency test.

In closing, since there are undoubtedly forces in our Hong Kong society that are not
comfortable with the concept of academic freedom, the Robert Chung case being one such
example of this antipathy, perhaps it should be made clear that it needs to be recognized that
while academic freedom confers privileges upon academics and their institutions, it confers
responsibilities upon them too, as recognized in the University of Hong Kong’s statement on
the issue. Although in the case of certain types of abuse of academic freedom there is
recourse to the law, academic freedom should always be exercised with respect and

Finally, I would like to give my thanks to the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation’s Head of
Research, Winston Ng, for providing me with considerable assistance in putting this together.

* The End *

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