Bureaucracy vs. Academic Freedom: the CEU Case

[Edited to add:

Update: News broke today (after I published this post) about the “Stop Soros” law that was just passed by the Hungarian Government. The law criminalizes any person or group who tries to help asylum claimants. This was accompanied by a constitutional amendment preventing any “alien population” from settling in Hungary. The references to Soros and to aliens are pretty clearly dog whistles for Jews. It is worth observing that George Soros founded CEU and chaired the CEU Board until 2007. So perhaps lex CEU is as much about anti-semitism and xenophobia as it is academic freedom.]


Yesterday, I shared with you some scholarship about the Turkish Government’s squashing of academic freedom. Over the course of researching that post, I chanced upon material about the so-called lex CEU and the #IstandwithCEU campaign.

Central European University (CEU) is a graduate university located in Budapest. It is based on the familiar model of being accredited in the U.S. but located outside of the U.S. It also has a Hungarian arm that accredits some of its programs in Hungary. In its 25 years in existence, CEU has established itself as a high-calibre university. Whatever you might think of university rankings, CEU does well on them.

In April 2017, Hungary’s Government — the Fidesz Party, helmed by P.M. Viktor Orbán — tabled proposed changes to Hungarian higher education law, but with some provisions so specifically calibrated to obstruct CEU’s operations that observers quickly concluded that the real purpose of the changes was to force CEU out of business — or out of Hungary.

While those provisions explicitly concern technicalities related to international partnerships, CEU and tens of thousands of allies worldwide — including the Government of Canada and the Canadian Association of University Teachers — who quickly joined the campaign to support CEU say that what’s really at stake is academic freedom.

To understand lex CEU as an attack on academic freedom rather than simply a bureaucracy run amok, it is helpful to see what else Orbán et al have been up to. Here’s a summary from Al Jazeera:

Since its overwhelming electoral victory in 2010, Fidesz has stripped lawmaking of any constitutional guarantees and made it into the mere expression of executive will. It this way, the cabinet has “legalised” large-scale political corruption, and the attack on independent NGOs and press organisations. After the attack on human rights NGOs in 2014, the government is now targeting not only CEU but other organisations related to the Open Society Foundation, an independent NGO fund also connected to George Soros. There is now another proposed law which would force Hungarian NGOs getting international financial aid to register as “foreign agents”, just like in Russia, Turkey and Israel.


…By waging a war on Brussels, NGOs, refugees, etc, Orbán is putting up the appearance that he is leading a strong nation state which is fighting one or another of these threats.

However, the strengthening of national sovereignty means only the strengthening of Orbán and his business clientele, while it leaves the rest of the country vulnerable to poor wages and punitive workfare programmes. Beside his cronies – or “national bourgeoisie” in Fidesz parlance – multinational corporations are also given extensive tax breaks and rollbacks on labour rights.

You can read more about lex CEU, and CEU’s response to it here and here. In the year and a bit since the legislation was tabled, CEU has worked to become compliant with lex CEU, but the Hungarian Government has stalled instead of resolving the matter. Orbán’s government was re-elected in April of this year, a result met with massive protests in Budapest.

Earlier this month, CEU Rector and President Michael Ignatieff (Yes! *That* Michael Ignatieff!) took part in a CEU interdisciplinary seminar on academic freedom. Over the course of the discussion, participants agreed that the lex CEU case — and the manner in which the Venice Commission and the European Commission fought back against the legislation — shows a worrisome trend in Europe of emphasizing procedural and governance matters over academic freedom:

The Venice Commission didn’t say anything about academic freedom,” Professor Renata Uitz of the Department of Legal Studies said in her introductory remarks. “We are talking about formal rule of law objections without explaining what is really at stake.”

Yesterday, we looked at the scholarship that started to emerge a year or so after the Turkish Government cracked down on signatories of a petition by academics in support of Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. The first journal article about the lex CEU case was published mere days after the Orbán Government introduced the legislation. Here is that article in full. (Make sure to click through. I promise it’s worth it.)

The top of the first page of a pdf of an article by Berthold Rittberger and Jeremy Richardson titled "What happens when we do not defend academic freedom." The page lists a single keyword: #istandwithCEU



Academic Freedom in Turkey: A New Scholarship Emerges

Before Daily Academic Freedom was a blog, it was a hashtag (#dailyacademicfreedom) that I used to tweet out information and calls to action from Scholars at Risk about scholars around the world who were facing detention or trial (or worse) by their governments. Unsurprisingly, among these were a number of Turkish scholars.

As is well known, in January of 2016, over 2000 Turkish scholars signed a petition criticizing the Turkish government’s treatment of the Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey. Now, almost two and a half years later, many of the signatories have been subject to termination of employment or prosecution.

The Turkish government’s trampling of academic freedom has resulted in a burgeoning scholarly literature on academic freedom in the Turkish context. Herewith, are three abstracts for articles within this literature that anyone interested in academic freedom should make time to read.


Tahir Abbas and Anja Zalta, “‘You cannot talk about academic freedom in such an oppressive environment’: perceptions of the We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime! petition signatories.” Turkish Studies 18.4 (2017) 624-643.

Abstract: In January 2016, 1128 predominantly Turkish intellectuals signed an Academics for Peace petition to draw attention to the conflict in southeastern Turkey. Their actions were met with outcry from the government, accusing the signatories of disloyalty to the state, even treason. This paper is an analysis of the responses of 60 of these scholars to a questionnaire sent to the entire Academics for Peace email list. Respondents, including 58 signatories, provided various perspectives on academic freedom in Turkey, as well as their own experiences of signing the petition. We contend that the responses faced by these intellectuals illustrate the homogenizing effects of power to silence criticism and ensure loyalty to the government and its ideas of Turkishness. It reflects a continuation of the suppression of academic freedom in Turkey, an issue that sees little sign of abatement or reform in the light of present challenges.

Bahar Baser et al, “’Academics for Peace’ in Turkey: a case of criminalising dissent and critical thought via counterterrorism policy.” Critical Studies on Terrorism 10.2 (2017) 274-296.

Abstract: On 11 January 2016, 1128 academics in Turkey and abroad signed a petition calling on Turkish authorities to cease state violence in mainly Kurdish populated areas of the country, which had been under curfew and an extended state of emergency. The petition received an immediate reaction from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accused the signatories of treason and terrorist propaganda. He subsequently demanded that public prosecuters launch an investigation. Criminalisation of the petition has been exacerbated by disciplinary action by universities against many of the signatories. Many have suffered insults, arrest, detention or suspension as a result of the ensuing smear campaign. This massive crackdown on academic freedom has been masked by discourses of counterterrorism, which have also been deployed to criminalise dissent more generally in Turkey as a part of a process of rapid “democratic retrenchment” since 2013. This article is an attempt to put the criminalisation of academics within the larger framework of human rights violations, increasing curtailments of academic freedom and rising authoritarianism in Turkey. It argues that the prosecution of the signatories of the petition is an extension of an established tradition of targeting academic freedom in times of political crisis in Turkey but is also a product of growing authoritarianism under the ruling party and President Erdoğan. It shows that counterterrorism laws can be extended far beyond eliminating security threats by instrumentalising them to suppress dissent in a declining democracy.

Umut Özkirimli, “How to Liquidate a People? Academic Freedom in Turkey and Beyond.” Globalizations 14.6 (2017) 851-856.

Abstract: Mehmet Fatih Traş was one of the 1128 original signatories of the declaration ‘We will not be a party to this crime’, made public on 11 January 2016. Accusing the Turkish state of violating its own laws and various international treaties to which Turkey is a party in its war against the PKK, the declaration made a plea for peace. The declaration triggered an immediate and furious response from government circles. In his address to a group of foreign emissaries on 12 January 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of the Republic, lashed out at the signatories: ‘There is this bunch, they call themselves academics, vilifying their own state which tries to protect its territories against a terrorist organization.’ Kurdish citizens of Turkey had no problems whatsoever, according to the President: ‘These so-called academics talk about the massacres of the state. You, pseudo-intellectuals, you are ignorant, you represent the darkness … You are either with the state or with terrorists, terrorist organizations’. It has not taken long for the Higher Education Council (YÖK, 2017), a body, though set up by the military junta that carried out the September 1980 coup, which describes itself as ‘an autonomous institution which is responsible for the planning, coordination and governance of higher education system in Turkey in accordance with the Turkish Constitution and the Higher Education Laws’, to release a written statement to the effect that ‘the declaration which supports terrorism cannot be defended as academic freedom’ and that necessary legal action will be taken ‘to safeguard the security of our citizens’. This is followed by a number of disciplinary investigations against the signatories which has led to the suspension and/or dismissal of some of the signatories, and even detentions as in the case of Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya, Kıvanç Ersoy, and Meral Camcı who were released after several weeks in prison pending trial (Altıparmak & Akdeniz, 2017, pp. 14-15).

Academic Freedom and Profs Behaving Badly

A few days ago, University of Rochester faculty members Celeste Kidd and Steven Piantadosi resigned their positions over the University’s handling of the Florian Jaegar case (See also UR’s own account of the case here). They communicated their resignation and their reasons in a long, jointly-signed letter of resignation that has been making the rounds on academic social media.

I won’t here delve into the Jaegar case or into Kidd and Piantadosi’s letter. However, I want to point to one brief remark in the letter. In a paragraph detailing the complicity of various senior administrators in the case, the authors remark:

Unbelievably, Former President Joel Seligman and Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department Chair Greg DeAngelis both publicly defended Jaeger’s tenure—to the media and faculty senate respectively—by an appeal to the sanctity of “academic freedom.”

I’ve been digging around, and I can’t find the appeals to academic freedom mentioned here. I believe that they occurred. I just can’t find any further text I can use to see exactly how Seligman and DeAngelis deployed academic freedom.

Still, this seems to be an instance of the regrettable and too-familiar phenomenon of profs behaving badly and justifying their — or their colleagues’ — bad behaviour via academic freedom.

I have known faculty members to use the language of academic freedom to refuse to provide accommodations for disabled students and in support of more convenient teaching schedules for themselves, among other things.

Fellow profs: don’t do this!

Just because you’re a prof doesn’t mean that everything you do or wish to do is an expression of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is precious and integral to the good functioning of universities. It is too important and too vulnerable to use as a self-serving excuse, or to exculpate ourselves when we have done wrong.

It is an abuse of academic freedom to invoke it in service of ourselves rather than in service of our scholarly mission. And when we abuse academic freedom in this way,  other folks — university administrators, students and non-professorial colleagues, members of the public, legislators — begin to think that we don’t deserve it.

We can’t defend academic freedom if we don’t deserve it. Let’s try to deserve it.


[Edit: a colleague in the U.S. just wrote to me to point out that some kinds of bad behaviour — specifically, bad or harmful scholarship — are appropriately protected by academic freedom. I agree. Alas.]

Academic Freedom, Religious Freedom, and Equity of Access: the SCC Just Ruled Against TWU

Some months ago, while we were still surveying academic freedom policies of various universities, we took a look at the covenant of Trinity Western University (TWU). One section of that covenant states that TWU “community members voluntarily abstain from …sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

This language is at the heart of a years-long legal battle that ended this morning with a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). In the case of Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), the SCC ruled that law societies may withhold accreditation from the TWU law school based on factors apart from academic qualifications:

[20] In our view, the LSUC was entitled to conclude that equal access to the legal profession, diversity within the bar, and preventing harm to LGBTQ law students were all within the scope of its duty to uphold the public interest in the accreditation context, which necessarily includes upholding a positive public perception of the legal profession.

Regular readers know that I have been taking a course on academic freedom offered by the University of Oslo and Scholars at Risk. I haven’t had a chance to blog about the course content yet. But one thing that I really appreciated from the first week of the course was its discussion of the various principles that are fundamental to universities: academic freedom, yes, but also equitable access, accountability, institutional autonomy, and social responsibility.

The TWU case is an example of one of the ways in which some of these principles can sometimes conflict with each other. For years now, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (Canada’s national union of faculty unions) has warned that TWU’s covenant violates TWU scholars’ academic freedom. The SCC decision centred not on academic freedom (which isn’t mentioned once in the full ruling) but on equitable access and social responsibility, but also, crucially, on the duties of accrediting law societies. In this case, these principles held the day over institutional autonomy (TWU’s right to decide what kind of university it is) and religious freedom.

Some time over the next couple of weeks, I’ll tell you about how the academic freedom course is going, and in that context I’ll have more to say about the various principles that are fundamental to universities. I am on this blog primarily interested in the principle of academic freedom, but I think it is clear that it is one of several really important principles, that none of these principles trumps the others, and that we need a way forward when two or more of these principles are in tension with each other.

A grey stone building with a green, copper roof. The building is monumental and symmetrical, with a wing on either side of the main building. A Canadian flag flies in front of the building. Overhead, the sky is brilliant blue.
The Supreme Court of Canada Building. By D. Gordon E. Robertson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
[Edit: A colleague just wrote to me to suggest that I make clearer that the ruling did not centre on what TWU may do in its own curriculum. The decision concerned what law societies may do, not what universities may do.]

Academic Freedom & Course/Program Design

I received a message from an individual who, choosing to remain anonymous, writes:

I teach in a cohort-based university program where ‘academic freedom’ is invoked as a cautionary against providing information and recommendations on what and how to teach in this program. While I take the initiative to communicate with other faculty members who are willing to help me understand what has gone on in the program prior to my entrance into it, I worry that this model of teaching-what-we-want-and-how-we-want-it undermines our ability to help students master the knowledge and abilities that are prized in our fields. While no one would question the value of exposing students to diverse approaches and pedagogies, I worry that the learning exercise for students becomes less about engaging in cohesive program content and activities and more about figuring out what individual faculty members want and then giving it to them. Is upholding the principles of academic freedom in teaching more important than compromising and consensus-building to deliver a consistent program that scaffolds student learning?

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the merits and limitations of the idea of academic freedom as it applies to program design and classroom teaching? When does freedom of academic instruction begin to limit freedom of academic learning for our students?

Ok, so in brief — can universities impose particular content or pedagogical practices on instructors or does that violate the instructors’ academic freedom?

I think that the answer comes down to collegial governance. Since the early days of this blog, I have discussed not only the freedoms that cluster under academic freedom but also the responsibilities that attach to academic freedom. Those responsibilities include, among other things, following accepted disciplinary norms and ethical standards. Those norms and standards are set by and ensured by the community of scholars. In research, that often happens in the peer review process for grant applications and publications. In teaching, it happens via collegial governance, at the departmental, faculty, or university level.

It is, on my view, perfectly appropriate for a university senate the majority of which is made up of faculty members to vote to adopt certain pedagogical standards. Indeed, that’s what university senates are for!

Again, though, collegial governance of this type can also occur at the local level, for instance in the design and instruction of multi-section courses. In her useful Academic Freedom Primer, Ann Franke discusses constraints individual instructors may appropriately experience in the context of multi-section courses:

Do Several Professors Teaching the Same Course Have Academic Freedom? Yes, but their rights may be somewhat narrower than if they were teaching entirely different courses. Faculty members teaching multiple sections of a course often collaborate on designing the course. The faculty members as a group may decide on the general topics they will cover in each class session. All the professors may need to use the same textbook. Reasonable requirements for teaching multi-section courses, especially requirements designed by faculty for faculty, do not violate academic freedom. Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in the content of their courses and course sections.

By contrast, I do not think that the university or any of its support units can impose content or pedagogical standards or practices on its members without a collegial process and decision. If it does, it violates instructors’ academic freedom.

Where does this leave academic support units (for instance, my university’s Centre for Teaching Excellence) in terms of setting pedagogical standards for the university? Ultimately, if the good pedagogical practices they advocate are to be requirements rather than suggestions, I think those good practices need to be endorsed by the relevant collegial governance body.

There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this broad view.

First, some professional programs, like Engineering, are bound by the standards of the relevant professional organization. This is entirely appropriate. (But note that, once again, the professionals in the organization set the standards.)

Secondly, some aspects of university teaching are governed by federal or provincial law. For instance, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act obliges instructors to teach in a way that is accessible across a range of abilities. A professor who refuses to offer reasonable accommodations for disabled students is breaking the law, irrespective of what the university senate might think about such accommodations.



100th post! (And a celebratory look back)

This is my 100th post at Daily Academic Freedom. To celebrate, I’m going to look back and link some posts from the blog I’m proud of.

Before I share my own posts, I want to remind you of three great guest posts I published here and one interview I did:

  • Computer Science professor dan brown told us that what’s important to him about academic freedom is that it affords him the freedom to wander and the freedom to fail — both of which have enriched his scholarship. (This was the blog’s 6th most-read post.)
  • Philosopher Mathieu Doucet explained why, on his view, the University of Waterloo should not have deployed freedom of expression to defend its decision to rent campus space for a white nationalist event.
  • In an interview, senior teaching developer Trevor Holmes provided some insight into what it’s like to be a staff-scholar rather than a faculty scholar, from the perspective of academic freedom.
  • And, in by far the most-read post ever published on this blog, colleagues and Indigenous students at University of Waterloo responded to the planned ethnonationalist event Mathieu discusses in the post linked above.


Here are the five most-read posts that I wrote:

I have other posts I’m proud of too, even if they rank lower by readership than these five. Here are a few that I like:


Since the launch of this blog in mid-January, I’ve written 61,000 words here. The blog has been read by over 4000 readers from 52 countries.  It’s been a ton of work, but I’ve learned a lot, and I’m grateful to my readers, my RTers, and my various guests for sharing in the project.

Tomorrow, fittingly enough, is graduation day. Well, I’m not graduating, but I’ll have a few things to do during the ceremony; so, it almost feels like I’m graduating. So, I’ll round off the 100-post celebration by taking a day off from blogging tomorrow. See you back here on Thursday!




99. So, what’s changed?

This is my 99th Daily Academic Freedom post.

I started the blog as a repository of policies and resources relating to academic freedom. Over time, though, it has evolved into more than that. Nowadays, I don’t just share resources in my posts; more often, I offer arguments in favour of my emerging interpretation of academic freedom.

Unsurprisingly, as the blog has changed, so has its author. Writing this blog has taught me tons, and has changed my mind about stuff. That’s redundant, I guess. If you don’t change your mind, you haven’t really learned anything, have you?

Tomorrow, I’ll celebrate the 100th post by looking back on some of the posts I’m proudest of. Today, though, I thought I’d tell you about one way in which I have changed my mind about academic freedom.

Before I started this blog, I took a fairly traditional view of academic freedom in that I regarded academic freedom as the freedom to engage in whatever scholarship one wishes. However, I did not think that academic freedom protects extramural public expression by professors on topics outside of their disciplinary expertise – especially when that expression communicates abhorrent, potentially harmful beliefs.

Nearly 100 blog posts into the project, I have revised that view.

In general on this blog, I have been trying to preach to more than the choir. In recent weeks, I think I’ve shown my own colours a bit more than I initially did. But overall, I try to make sure that even folks who don’t share my social values might be grudgingly persuaded by my account of academic freedom.

As I deepen my understanding of academic freedom, I keep double-checking the ideas I am developing by applying them in my imagination to both friends and foes. When I apply the “stay within your disciplinary wheelhouse” principle to friends, I find that I don’t endorse the principle.

As a feminist philosopher, I’m acutely aware that the kind of disciplinary border policing I have described can have the effect of smothering alternative (e.g., ameliorative and social justice oriented) scholarly approaches. And, as a public intellectual, I have to admit that I often stretch outside of my own wheelhouse when it comes to engaging with the media on topics of the day. Indeed, this blog was the origin of my scholarly expertise on academic freedom. In December, I had thoughtful opinions about academic freedom, but it wasn’t part of my expertise. 60,000 words later, I now consider myself a scholar of academic freedom. Our scholarship changes, and we have to allow it to change.

In the end, I don’t think there is a consistent way to protect the socially-engaged feminist and anti-oppressive scholarship that I want to see happening without also protecting the extramural, extra-disciplinary expression of scholars whose views I find pretty abhorrent. My views on this may continue to change, but that’s where I am these days.

While my new view has emerged from a desire for consistency, I am not an absolutist. I understand academic freedom as a core guiding principle for universities and university personnel, but not as the only such principle, nor as always trumping other core principles. As we flesh out the complex relationship between these various guiding principles, we may arrive at promising avenues for responding when professors publicly disseminate harmful beliefs. I’ll have more to say about this in the future.

And now, because 99 is a lot of posts, and everybody digs Toto again (Thanks, Weezer!), and I’m a huge dork, here’s Toto’s “99”.