Universities in the United States have a long tradition of academic freedom.
Robert Quinn, executive director of the U.S. nonprofit Scholars at Risk Network, calls it “the freedom to preserve truth and share information” and says it’s as vital to society as a free press.
Most schools follow principles formulated by the American Association of University Professors in 1940. They are, in brief:
- Professors and students are free to research and publish findings on anything that meets the standards of their field.
- Professors are free to decide what they teach and how to teach it within the relevant bounds of their subject.
- As experts in their fields, academics should be free from censorship or discipline for fulfilling their professional duties.
Academic freedom applies to students as well. In fact, the same association released a statement on the rights and freedoms of students in 1967. It defends the students’ right to learn because, as Quinn argues, societies advance through the process of teaching and learning.
“Academics are the doctors,” he says. They conduct an in-depth examination to diagnose issues brought to public attention. Scholars at Risk’s reporting on violations of student and scholar rights often uncovers a government’s soft spots.
Recently, Scholars at Risk reported that an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University in China had his teaching credentials revoked for his lecture critiquing an author venerated by the Chinese Communist Party.
Another report tells how the Iranian government did nothing when activists tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attacked students peacefully protesting the University of Tehran‘s requirement that women wear a hijab on campus.
“There will always be a tension between power and people asking questions,” says Quinn.