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UCD Abandons Restrictive Academic Freedom Policy Following Staff Backlash

Following vocal criticism from academic staff, UCD have abandoned a proposed addendum to the university’s Statement on Academic Freedom. Academics have expressed “shock” at the addendum, calling the proposed changes “a source of embarrassment to our University,” and something that would “compromise” the existing policy. UCD revised its position following the success of an online petition which garnered almost 500 signatures.

On March 20th, UCD’s Academic Freedom Working Group circulated the proposed addition to the existing policy with an open call for feedback from faculty members. The new policy wants to “consider and appraise the risk of tension arising between the obligations regarding academic freedom and the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education.” This has been subject to harsh condemnation from academics for its apparent attempt to dilute and disregard the existing definition of academic freedom within UCD in favour of financial considerations.

Academic freedom can be defined as a right to freedom of inquiry and communication of ideas, even those that are inconvenient to political groups or authorities, without being targeted for repression.

The Working Group’s university-wide proposition claims there are different definitions of academic freedom in other countries where UCD academics are based and implicitly propose that overseas and Belfield-based researchers may not be afforded existing protections on academic freedom. The change may require academic freedom to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis to favour the “internationalisation of higher education.”

According to the addendum: “there is little firm ground […] on which to rest an agreed definition of what academic freedom means.” This has sparked a wave of anger from academics nationwide, with one calling it an “abhorrent and amoral abuse of moves towards greater interconnectedness in academia and scholarship.”

The existing Statement on Academic Freedom was adopted in November 2011 and is said to be widely respected amongst academic circles within UCD.

Prof. Wolfgang Marx of the UCD School of Music started a petition on March 30th against the Working Group’s proposals. Prof. Marx says: “Either UCD has principles or it does not, and they can’t be limited by geography”, adding that “the implementation of this policy would mean UCD’s leadership letting down its people, its core values and its ultimate mission in the most serious way imaginable.”

Dozens of Irish academics criticised the addendum online, with one saying: “This seems like a blatant attempt to ingratiate oneself with a particular dictatorial government in charge of a very large economy and population. Financial considerations should never override our basic values.”

Another professor spoke out saying: “I am very troubled by this potential limitation of academic freedom, and it seems all too typical that the university has put this forward, without transparent debate or input from all faculty, at a moment when we are absorbed in dealing with the pandemic emergency and are not even able to gather on campus. Taking advantage of the crisis?!”

Prof. Marx’s petition garnered almost 500 signatures before Prof. Grace Mulcahy, Chair of the Working Group, backed down and informed staff that they would not be proposing the addendum. In its place, new recommendations have been proposed, the first of which would mandate “UCD to develop appropriate monitoring and reporting mechanisms for potential and actual infringements of academic freedom”, reflecting the sentiments expressed from staff.

Another recommendation aims to recognise the limits of the Universities Act 1997 in protecting academic freedom, “as well as the specific context applying to academic freedom in other jurisdictions where they may be required to teach.” Prof. Marx suggests this new recommendation seems to indicate that “while there no longer is a threat to Academic Freedom in our Irish operations (that in the minds of many was represented by the addendum) UCD is still ready and in fact planning to dilute it while being active in other jurisdictions.”

Update, April 19th, 2020:

Professor Grace Mulcahy, Chair of the Working group has said in a statement to the College Tribune: “The objective of the Working Group was to provide additional protections to strengthen academic freedom. The challenge was how best to ensure academic freedom is protected in jurisdictions where university activity takes place but where the legislation that underpins academic freedom for UCD, the Irish Universities Act 1997, is not enforceable. “The Working Group recently circulated a discussion document to the entire faculty of the university. All faculty were invited to review the document and provide comments on it. All comments from faculty have now been received. The working group has revised its recommendations in response to the feedback received from faculty. The recommendations will be submitted to Academic Council for a final decision.”

 

Conor Capplis – Editor

 

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