Shackles of Academic Freedom

The first question that comes to mind from the topic of the article by Benjamin Mueller – John Hopkins University plans to put out its first policy on Academic Freedom –  is what exactly is meant by academic freedom?picture-3

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Declaration of Principles proposed that academic freedom is not the absolute freedom of utterance of the individual scholar, but the absolute freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching.

William Van Alstyne (1990) defines academic freedom as a “personal liberty to pursue the investigation, research, teaching, and publication of any subject as a matter of professional interest.” (Van Alstyne, 1990).

In what could be described as a seminal case in the US in 2006 – that of Garcetti v. Ceballos an expanded definition for academic freedom was formulated. Academic freedom was defined as the freedom to teach, both in and outside the classroom, to conduct research and to publish the results of those investigations, and to address any matter of institutional policy or action whether or not as a member of an agency of institutional governance. Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence.

Donald A Downes (2009) in his paper on Academic Freedom – What it is, What it isn’t and How to know the difference, defines academic freedom as the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of inquiry. This freedom, Downes further indicates applies to institutions as well as scholars, and to students as well as faculty (Downes D. 2009).


The article by Mueller cites two distinct occurrences involving academics sharing publicly their views on a particular issue.  The example of Benjamin Carson brings back to mind the 2014 case involving the University of the West Indies and Professor Brendon Bain, the then director of the Regional Co-ordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network).

Dr Benjamin Carson’s, renown professor of neurosurgery, public comment comparing those who advocates for gay marriages with those who promote bestiality and paedophilia, led to a withdrawal by Dr Carson to speak at the John Hopkins University’s medical school commencement under pressure from students.  While, Dr Bain, which one local newspaper stated is regarded as a pioneer in clinical infectious disease practice in the Caribbean and a leading medical authority on the HIV epidemic in the region, had developed a formidable reputation for caring and devoted service to the HIV/AIDs community, lost his job following news reports that a coalition of lobby groups called for his head because of expert testimony he gave in a constitutional challenge brought by a gay Belizean man against that country’s criminal code in September 2010 (Jamaica Observer, March 2014.

Mueller’s article also gave the case of the criticism of a national state strategy by John Hopkins’ cryptology researcher Matthew Green.  Green described a government agency strategy on surveillances as aggressive.  John Hopkins initially had the blog commentary taken down, but later that decision was reversed.

It may be that we now live in a society and a world, where sharing publicly an opinion that goes against the views and opinions of groups that are considered a minority (based on sexual orientation or practice) is a certain ticket to a sentence of silence and removal.  Holding and expressing views like those of Dr Carson and Dr Bain may be fast becoming the views of the minority and if shared would be subjected to intolerance, dissent, and outright rejection.  Was there discrimination against either men because of their discriminatory comments against particular sexual orientations and practices? Are the tables turning? This may be for another discussion.

picture-1  Academics may need to understand that they operate within a reality of limitations and restrictions to their freedom (an oxymoron).  With freedom comes responsibilities and consequences for how one use or exercise that freedom.  While one may still be free to have an opinion, expressing that opinion publicly one may not be free so to do.

Using the definitions and explanations of academic freedom in the case of Gracetti v. Cellabos, questions that come to mind are – was the opinion shared by Mr Green, Dr Carson and the expert advice given by Dr Bain, based on truth coming out of research into the respective matter to which they each spoke?  Would their comments or advice provide any benefit to the society? Were they addressing matters of social, political, economic, or other interest? Were they sharing their views as free academics irrespective of institutions of employment or association?  One could reasonably expect that these men, renowned for their work and research, would not have spoken glibly, but with a sense of responsibility and honesty, with concern for benefit of society, to provoke meaningful, open and discussion.

The students of John Hopkins in the case of Dr Carson, those in the case of Mr Green and the lobby groups in the case of Dr Bain, certainly enjoyed some freedom to share their opinions on what should happen or not happen to the related academics.  It could be said that John Hopkins University acted in interest of their students who may have been offended by the utterance of Dr Carson.  What though would have happened, if a small group of student wanted to still have Dr Carson – would their voices be heard, or do we err in the interest (or fear) of the majority?  Did the pressure from the students in the exercise of their freedom result in academic freedom taken away from Dr Carson?   Would not this speaker with opposing views be ideal for the students as they prepare to commence formal careers in a world differing views, views which does not in themselves take away from the value that each person have to bring a discussion or the intellect of the person – can we not learn from each other?

Downes (2009) argues that the principle of academic freedom is not as simple as many of its advocates assume. It involves both rights and responsibilities in a professional context, and it has both individual and institutional dimensions that can sometimes be in tension (Downes, 2009).  Maybe, like professional athletes who have a list of banned substances, that should be checked regularly for updates before taking anything into their body, there should be a checklist of ‘banned public opinions and views’, for academics to check regularly for updates before engaging the public speech.

Some questions raised in the editorial column of The Jamaica Observer (March 2014), comes into focus again – Must all academics of the University now subscribe wholly to the lifestyle of the various communities they serve? Was it in Dr Bain’s job description, as well as that of the other academics at the UWI, that he must hold no public opinion against homosexuality? How far must the university go in censoring and muzzling its academics to suit interest groups? Is this the end of scientific freedom and freedom of expression in the academic community? (Jamaica Observer, March 2014).  The same questions could come up for Dr Benjamin Carson, was it in his invitation to be commencement speaker that he shall not make any public statement of his views of those who advocate for gay marriages?

The heart of academic freedom is the protection of the right of teachers, students, and picture-4researchers to express their ideas with intellectual honesty and without fear of reprisal. But professional responsibility requires that instructors and researchers abide by basic standards of intellectual integrity (Downes, 2009).   If this position is to be taken, then it could appear that neither Dr Carson, Mr Green nor Dr Bain acted out outside the heart of what academic freedom intends or allows when they shared their views publicly of what they believe to be true– however all three were met with some form of reprisal. In the case of Mr Green, his ‘academic freedom’ was restored.  This seems to imply that the topic or issue at hand may determine the level of freedom, allowance and tolerance extended within the framework of academic freedom.  There seems to be intolerance on both sides for contrary views.

Controversies involving academic freedom often arise in gray areas, requiring practical wisdom if they are to be resolved. In such cases, it is wise to make freedom the default position, because an enlightened citizenry depends on honesty and courage in teaching and research (Downes, 2009).   Arthur O. Lovejoy and Austin S. Edwards  (1933) in their book- Academic Freedom and Tenure: Rollins College Report, states that research is rendered impossible to find new truths if the work of the academic/researcher is shackled by the requirement that his or her conclusions shall never seriously deviate either from generally accepted beliefs or from those accepted by the persons, private or official, through whom society provides the means for the maintenance of universities (Edwards and Lovejoy, 1933).

On whose side, should the Institution stand? It appears that honesty and courageousness to share what one may believe to be true was not met with acceptance or tolerance by the “enlightened” citizenry in the cases sited.

I think the real issue at hand in the article by Mueller was nicely summarized by Downes (2009) when he indicated that, in the past, the academic freedom of the institution and the individual were largely in harmony. The contemporary university, however, is torn by a cultural clash between traditional notions of individual freedom and recently emergent ideologies that stress the need to be sensitive and caring, especially toward members of historically oppressed groups. Many institutions have adopted speech codes and related policies that restrict what faculty members and students can say about matters relating to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the like (Downes, 2009).  This may be where the short fall lies for John Hopkins University, there may not have been clear policies, codes and restrictions on academic freedom.  John Hopkins is to come up with its policy on academic freedom. All Universities should have one of their own policies to protect themselves, their students, faculty and staff.

Academic freedom, may not be so free after all depending on the shackles of what may be the current views or prevailing opinions of the time.  We may have to return to the primitive and restrictive definitions of academic freedom, such as 1915 AAUP’s definition and that of William Van Alstyne in 1990. To extend the meaning of academic freedom beyond seems to lead to more shackles of controversies and gray areas.



AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles. Retrieved from

Downes, D. A. (2009).  Academic Freedom, what it is, what is isn’t and how to tell the

difference. Retrieved from

Mueller, B. (March 2014).  John Hopkins U. Plans Its First Policy on Academic Freedom.

Shackles of Academic Freedom

13 thoughts on “Shackles of Academic Freedom

  1. shenzhem says:

    Tann-Tann in reading your blog – it immediately resonated with me- as a student- even in undergrad, there were lecturers who preferred when you wrote a particular way and speaking his/her language and thoughts, anything beyond that, would jeopardize your grade.

    We are told, taught and believe that HEIs are to develop critical thinkers and create new knowledge but as you rightly put it, in the 21st century we still struggle with the issue of persons being entitled to writing on thought provoking topical issues or twisting the truth. You rarely have disciplines promoting this, with the exception of Philosophy or Trends among others.

    As HEIs, institutions of knowledge, we must indeed encourage persons to debate topical issues, how then will we be able to find solutions to some of the challenges we face? It is useless to be taught in a box, everything has to be linked. When WWI OR WWII were taking place they did not just affect the areas that the physical wars took place but affected the entire world – socially, economically and politically.

    Why hire lecturers to conduct research, if you are not open to hear their findings whether or not they sit well with you? Funders eagerly support research that will unearth new findings, new solutions, new thinking! The proper protocols should be followed but we are not be silenced.

    The nature of higher education is changing, many are now moving away from traditional thinking to more radical and realist mentality (I HOPE). Universities must move with the times or students and staff will opt to go elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kerjfra says:

    Is there really true academic freedom in HE anywhere? Going by the definition given in your blog by both Van Altyne & Cebellalos, there are many components of academic freedom to consider. I would say that on the aspects of teaching; conducting and publishing research; addressing institutional policy and governance are areas where academics have the most freedom. Academics are hired to do these very activities and are usually encouraged to research and publish their work with many getting sanctions or termination if not done to the standard of the institution. One could argue that even with the freedom to teach, research and publish academics still may not have true freedom as they are doing these activities as prescribed by the course content and objectives as in teaching or along the mission and vision of the institution. Even with research findings and conclusions of an academic may be called into question by others. I have heard academics within this university argue with each other about findings and conclusions of research since they have their own biases and frame their research according to their own interests and leanings.
    I would say that the areas where I think academic freedom face the most challenge are comments on social, political and economic aspects of their community and society. In the Jamaican context where the academic community is small and where politics can be so tribal, many academics are cautious about commenting on issues in the public sphere or even in their institutions for fear of sanctions. I a recent news report I watched on Television Jamaica (TVJ) about the increases in Hall fees at UWI with recent housing developments, the news reporter indicated that many of the academics did not want to speak about the issue in camera for fear of sanctions. It must be noted however that one academic was interviewed and willingly shared her views on the issues but also reinforced the perceptions that others may be afraid to speak out.
    As cited in your blog, I agree with Downes on the issue that academic freedom involved both rights and responsibilities. Academics have to operate within the dictates of ethical norms, principles and accountability. I can see that there will be controversies where there are issues with “grey areas” or sensitivities within institutions and countries. I would say academics when speaking on any issue must know their audience! They may to stifle their true opinions for the sake of the many. In the end, I would say there is no real/true academic freedom.


    1. verinica5 says:

      Verinica 5
      Interesting but what is ‘freedom’ freedom does not mean one is free to do or say as one pleases. Freedom is not an absolute term. This is not a time defined concept. You gave three examplse of persons who gave their opinion in matters they felt they should voice their opinion One was vindicated. The other two you feel was unjustly treated. Am I correct that was what i gleaned from your spin on the issues.
      Alstyne,(1990) defines academic freedom as “personal liberty to pursue the investigation, research, teaching, and publication of any subject as a matter of professional interest.” You said It is important to Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint.

      Of note is that as defined by Downes (2009) academic freedom carries with it an expected professional standard that must be adhered to. Citizenship education is taught in schools in an attempt to produce citizens who are cognizant that speech that expresses intolerance of other personal beliefs not acceptable. Consequently regardless of the persons’ office it cannot be ignored. I am a fan of Mr. Ben Carson but the fact is that when one is in a public office it becomes even more critical to be aware that academic freedom must be tempered by wisdom.

      The institution valued the semiprofessionals’ contributions but the university had to take a holistic view on the issues in all cases to ensure that academic freedom is respected in the global space we now live in. Grey area you call it but life is filled with grey areas not black and white and the unsaid is important as the said.


  3. shanique101 says:

    Every time I type a comment, I erase it with hopes of formulating a better one. (Did that four times) I guess it is my fear that the shackles exist in the world of academic freedom.

    I wholeheartedly believe that there is NO ‘Freedom of speech’ in the world of academics. For every action, there is a reaction and we must be cognizant of that. The moral, religious, political and social views that we were accustomed to a decade (I am too young to remember past that 🙂 ) ago have changed drastically. The once minority voices, opinions, groups etc. now have a POWERFUL voice. If we try to speak against their beliefs, even if we have sound arguments, we put ourselves at risk to be MUZZLED. At times, I am afraid to join a conversation about religion, politics or sexual preference and if I do, I showcase a nonchalant’ approach. In fact, I really do care about these issues but I do not think we have academic freedom in those three areas.
    There is a Jamaican proverb that reads, “talk and taste yo tongue.” It means that one must think before they speak. I think Dr Bain should have talked and tasted his tongue. Several persons in similar positions have made utterances similar to his in the past, and they were the subject of public lynching. Hence, I would have expected him to learn from others. On the other hand, if his utterances were solely based on scientific evidence then he was given a ‘cold blow.’ But, Can a man not share his thoughts without being muzzled? Is freedom of speech for the minority alone?
    I chuckled at first but I agree with your suggestion that ‘a list of banned topics’ must be made available for persons in academics. I doubt it can work for the ordinary Jamaicans on the ‘corner’ who are unapologetic when they share their views on any controversial topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I support your arguments wholeheartedly Shanique. On whose side does the institution stands? Can the issues involving academic integrity be resolved? How? These are questions that played in my mind as I read the article. There should be no controversies or gray areas when it comes to freedom of expression especially where academics is concerned. Too often people are subject to ridicule and criticism fr sharing their gut feelings on controversial topic. Many individuals remain silent to maintain popularity and be politically correct. It is call injustice. That is exactly what it is and it is a issue not only in higher education but in our society at large.


      1. tanneice says:

        I suppose freedom is illusive as democracy. I never thought of it as injustice, but I can see your point Vestinao.
        One of the things I continue to grapple with as Shanique shared is whether or not to say anything in certain setting or any setting at all when it comes to matter of religion, sexual orientation or politics….I figure I should just hold my tongue. It is not fair though, just as how others are free to have an opinion and share it – all of us should – we don’t have to agree, but we should be free to share it. If academics and researchers and those who seek truth are to make any change, ignite any thought and expand the way we think – then there must be freedom to discuss any issue. I think we lack the maturity to respect the views of all. Sometimes I think each side want the other to shut up and disappear. Not fair! I really think there is no such thing as academic freedom and we should just take off the word freedom and maybe call it ‘academic allowance’ or ‘academic permisisons’ – something else but freedom. Or really have a list of banned substances’ that academics can consume or share – such as sharing an opinion that goes counter to the view of others! That means , precious little should be said in public.


  4. realchez says:

    Academic freedom as the author put forward depends on which side of the divide you are on and which topic you are addressing. Some persons believe that you should leave your beliefs at the door when you decide to put pen to paper or sit in front a computer. Persons lose friends because the position taken might not be similar to theirs. Hence, ‘academic freedom’ is not really ‘free’ at all.

    Furthermore, we also have to look at persons who have their own agenda and under the ‘academic freedom’ banner try to bully the populous into a mindset that fits into their plans. While we have to respect one’s view it actually goes both ways that they must respect another. Yet, some persons expect to speak freely but as soon as you do not agree there is a big issue. Professor Brandon Bains is a typical example as was stated. There was also the same sex union book ‘saga’ that ‘accidentally’ made its way in our schools which to some persons was the “broadening of the traditional definitions of a family structure” and that “when two women or two men live together in a relationship as lesbians or gays, they may be considered as a family”. Isn’t that ‘academic freedom?’

    Who are the gatekeepers of our children? Who decides what is ‘academic freedom’ and what is not? These are the questions among a host of others that can be raised from this article. Jamaicans are known to be outspoken and sometimes we take this for granted in our supposedly democratic society, however, we can debate the number of persons that have been thrown in jail, loss their jobs, killed, or threatened because they have spoken out or written an article that is unpopular. No one should be hindered in the enjoyment of academic freedom as through this there is a lot of researches that has materialised, a lot of policies that have been introduced that have placed us in a better position than we were 20 years ago.


  5. Tan tan, Your blog is very interesting. But at the end of the day it seems to me that there is really ‘NO ACADEMIC FREEDOM’. As my colleague Saunches posited “Academic Freedom is not really free at all. Tell me, how can academic not have the right to discuss at any level related aspects to which they are placed in charge. For example Dr Bain after speaking about the gay Belizean man lost his job from the University. Question? “is there is code of ethics for academic to follow before engaging in a discussion about their related area?” “Was Dr Bain wrong to speak any at all.?” then truly there is no academic freedom.

    My colleague Shanzem asked, “Why hire lectures if they are not allowed to discuss their findings?” i share the same sentiments. In fact why do we take grants to do research if lectures and researchers are not allowed to discuss at length?

    It seems however that the game of hypocrisy is played here to its highest level. Been vocal come with a price to pay. Dr Bain paid his price. Downes (2009) asserts that the principles of Academic freedom is not as simple as many as its advocated assume. He further went on to say it involves both rights and responsibilities in a profession. As Vestinao stated “Too often people are subject to ridicule and criticism from sharing their gut feelings on controversial topic. Many individuals remain silent to maintain popularity and be politically correct., but the moment you open your mouth it comes with a price.

    I agree with my colleague this is injustice.There is no Academic freedom.


    1. tanneice says:

      You have said it Pat!

      In a class on the weekend, a colleague said – which I support – not sure if these were her own words, or she was quoting someone: “freedom without boundaries is anarchy – which is not freedom”

      I am wondering if freedom without boundaries is CHAOS (or anarchy) and freedom with boundaries is no different from being shackled – what are we left with?


  6. elsaceline says:

    As an individual without connections to a specific organization you can say and do as you please. To be honest even with connections to an organization you should have a measure of liberty to express your views.However speaking as a manager of a Higher Education Institution it would matter greatly to me that the academics who are employed by my institution speak and act in a manner that is consistent with the institutions views and mission.I could consider providing a list of topics and expressions that are taboo for employees of the institution in an exaggerated attempt to protect the institution but that would inevitably infringe on the rights of the individuals.

    Ultimately that is the conflict with the debate about academic freedom. At what point does the individual’s freedom of speech become an albatross to the institution to which he/she is connected. It is my view that academics have a role to play in promoting the public good and that will sometimes require them to speak on matters that are somewhat controversial. However in such instances it is important that these individuals speak in a manner that separates their views from those of their institution. Sometimes it will be difficult to do so and in those moments the individual must decide if becoming embroiled in such discussions is worth the possible repercussions. Should there be repercussions though? Maybe not, but we do not live in a utopian society. On a daily basis we are judged by our associations and the positions that we hold in society. The only persons who are free from this shackle of responsibility are those who are unemployed or employed in such situations that keep them out of the public eye. Are you such a person? Do you have the scarce commodity called “freedom of speech?”


  7. On the matter of Academic Freedom, it is always important to watch the money trail. The saying “He who pays the piper plays the tune” is no less relevant in this topic than any other. In some instances, academic institutions are only as free as the boundaries of the main donors’ agendas and beliefs go. In as much as we have commented that grants are given to do research and that persons should have the freedom to conduct their research without “shackles”, these shackles are sometimes already imposed by said donors who only want research to forward their political agenda. In a time where resources are scarce, institutions may opt to bend their knee to those who provide most of their funding and as a result impose certain restrictions on academic freedom. Persons have mentioned that it is better to “shut up” or hold your tongue in order to survive….did John Hopkins and UWI not do the same thing? However the mold needs to be broken and persons and institutions will need to be like the revolutionaries of past and risk all (if necessary) for freedom and a greater good to prevail. A question still remains though, “Is academic freedom the greater good?” I guess it will boil down to what value institutions, other individuals and ourselves put on academic freedom.

    I’ll end with this quote that may help to guide us:

    “I do not choose to be a common man, It is my right to be uncommon … if I can, I seek opportunity… not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.
    I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole;I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment
    to the stale calm of Utopia. I will not trade freedom for beneficence, nor my dignity for a handout.
    I will never cower before any master, nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, to enjoy the benefit of my creations, and to face the world boldly and say: This, with God’s help, I have done” – Dean Alfange



  8. judsbloggy says:

    Take the shackles off my feet so that I can dance”.
    Is it that easy when it comes to academic freedom?
    Who dictates the level of academic freedom one is entitled to? Do certain disciplines get more freedom than other?
    To be shackled is to be fastened and freedom means release or liberation. If the definition stands true, then Academics freedom, I believe, describes, their opportunity to search freely for the truth and share their views without being sentenced to silenced or even removed.
    In a world like this, one can only have freedom to talk if you do not offend anyone. You must pick your words wisely or you will find yourself ostracized or blacklisted. It may even result in the loss of a job and disassociation.
    Is this worth it?
    They should show restraint and realize that although they have the forum to speak they must remember that everyone is entitled to make his or her own choice or decision, and it should be respected.
    Probe or investigation by faculty members is fundamental to the mission of the institution as well as the principles of academia, however, Individuals must be careful to avoid contentious matter.


  9. wkeisha says:

    Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It holds that an individual should be able to freely express him/herself without the fear of censorship or punishment (at least in democratic societies).

    American writer and editor, Stan Lee once said, “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” That is true for any writer or researcher whose work is non-fiction. In the fantasy world of fiction, writers have the freedom to let their imaginations run wild.

    In the scholarly world, true academic freedom allows writers to share knowledge with the world, while being sensitive to the issues around them. Writers are freely able to speak their truths, grounded in evidence and not conjectures. After all, certain ‘freedoms’ come with restrictions. In the academic sphere, where repercussions do not only affect the writer, but any affiliates, restrictions are necessary.

    Mr. Carson should have known better than to use his ‘freedom’ of speech to hurt and degrade others. This is no random blogger, but a respected and notable member of the scientific community. So, he knew that whatever he said would resonate with others. It is unfortunate that this time he chose to use his ‘power’ of the press in a negative light.

    Freedoms, even academic freedom, comes at a price. If Carson had been deprived of the opportunities he had at the start of his career, it would not now be a voice for his generation. Because he has that responsibility, he should ensure that what comes out of his mouth is worth being said. Being an ‘expert’ in any area, does not allow for hateful or defamatory remarks. In some authoritarian countries, writers have been killed or imprisoned for free speech even when it is grounded in facts.

    Scholars have a duty and care to present facts to the world, not fiction and certainly, not our own unfettered opinions.


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