16 May 2018
by Marit Egner

Dangerous questions: Why not keep quiet?



International relations officers might choose to be careful and diplomatic in their interactions with partnering institutions, not wishing to offend and scare away partners with differing view points. Academic staff, on the other hand, has the right and responsibility to ask critical questions and disseminate results. How can higher education institutions safeguard their academic freedom and at the same time consider other legitimate concerns? The Academic Refuge project is raising such dilemmas in a new massive open online course (MOOC) Dangerous Questions-Why Academic Freedom Matters. Read more to find out whether some questions are too dangerous to ask.

Are some questions too dangerous to ask?

In all societies, there are sensitive topics, where questions are not encouraged by the government or other powerful groups. In Norway for example, it could be on the environmental consequences of oil production or on the value of life. In the USA, it could be on climate change, and in many countries, it could be power, politics, corruption, minorities, religion or gender issues. There are many other sensitive topics, depending on the context and country. The role of research and higher education is to ask questions and investigate them according to scientific standards and research ethics. The production of new knowledge and the progress of society are dependent on critical thinking around societal challenges, as well as researchers and students questioning established facts.

What happens to those who ask dangerous questions?

In most cases, critical questions and unpleasant findings are accepted in research, but those results aren’t necessarily disseminated too widely. Some consequences can be very subtle, such as not being invited or published, not being asked into a partnership again or not getting renewed funding. More serious consequences include open censorship, harassment and loss of position. Among the most serious consequences are imprisonment, kidnapping, torture and death. Currently a scholar and permanent resident of Sweden connected to Karolinska Institutet, Ahmadreza Djalali, is facing a death sentence in Iran. In the 2017 Free to Think Report, the Scholars at Risk network documented 257 serious attacks on higher education and academic freedom over the last year. In the Academic Freedom Monitor you can find updated information on attacks on higher education in regions where you are involved or considering initiating cooperation. How does that influence your plans for international cooperation?

Self-censorship can be a secondary consequence. By silencing one scholar, one can scare hundreds of others into stopping themselves from asking sensitive questions, teaching controversial topics or cooperating with a controversial partner. The consequence of which is missed opportunities of new solutions to societal challenges.

The role of research and higher education is to ask questions and investigate them according to scientific standards and research ethics.

How can you promote higher education values?

Academic freedom is one of several interrelated core higher education values. The other values include institutional autonomy, accountability, equitable access and social responsibility. All of these are important to a well-functioning higher education sector, but how to act in a specific setting or situation might differ depending on which of these you focus on. You need to find the right balance. You might be faced with dilemmas, such as how to deal with a controversial speaker who speaks against other values in your society or against minority groups on campus. What do you do if your partner institution uses its autonomy to refuse access to your female students?

It is important that we remain proactive in order to avoid challenging incidents, whether on the institutional level, the departmental level or in your international project group. Questions to ask could be: What are our core values? Based on these values, how should we handle different situations? Stating the values and communicating them is a first step. Discussing them and putting them into practice is a next step. Are norms or guidelines relating to different activities and scenarios drafted? Is there anything that should be included in the templates for memoranda of understanding or student exchange agreements? How can we ensure that all invited speakers must be open to taking critical questions from the audience? How do we make sure recruitment of students from partner universities gives equitable access across gender, social or ethnic background, etc.

Even if your institution has prepared beforehand, there will always be unexpected value incidents coming up. You need to assess the situation carefully and choose how to act. Working on values in higher education is very similar to risk management. We must assess who are the stakeholders, what is the role of our institution, how many people are implicated, what is the academic component and what are the consequences of the incident? A wide range of implications may suggest a graver incident, but also an attack on one person can have very serious consequences.

Join the discussion

The EAIE is an Associate partner of the Erasmus+ project Strategic Partnership to Promote Core Academic Values and Welcome Refugees and Threatened Academics to European Campuses (Academic Refuge). In this project, the partner organisations aim to collectively create tools that will serve to encourage higher education institutions to defend academic freedom and values and provide them with the information necessary to host at-risk scholars. In June, the three-week Academic Refuge MOOC, will begin with explaining and discussing definitions of academic freedom and other core values and discuss where to draw the line between academic freedom and freedom of expression. It will then look into the various consequences of threats to academic freedom. The third week will address how to be proactive and go through how to assess concrete incidents and choose how to act both at home and in partnerships. The course contains video lectures, animations, polls and discussion forums, so that you can discuss the dilemmas with your fellow participants.

The Academic Refuge project will launch the MOOC with a special launch event on 13 June at the University of Ljubljana, one of the project partners. We will present the MOOC, discuss the situation for academic freedom in Eastern Europe and also how universities can contribute to welcoming refugee students and scholars at risk to campus.

In September, we will continue the discussion with a workshop at the EAIE conference in Geneva, which will focus particularly on values in international partnerships. It will feed into the last year of the Academic Refuge project where we will make a handbook on putting values into practice.


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