Like a sword through butter

In such a volatile climate, the concept of debate needs protecting more than ever, especially in the places where it should be at its most free. 

Vicky Baker
23 June 2015
Amartya Sen. Wikimedia Commons/LSE. Some rights reserved.

Amartya Sen. Wikimedia Commons/LSE. Some rights reserved.When governments do battle with universities, they can “go through them like a sword through butter”, said Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, as he resigned as chancellor of Nalanda University earlier this year. 

The outspoken economist stepped down out of frustration as the government dithered over approving his reappointment, despite unanimous endorsement from the board. He went on to warn: “academic freedom is based on the government understanding the limits of its formal power as opposed to its actual power and what they are expected to do.”

His story is one of many in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, which is themed around academic freedom and explores all such power struggles. The worldwide report looks at numerous cases in academia where authority is being abused and autonomy undervalued. Threats to free speech on campus are coming from all angles – political, economic, religious and societal, from the restrictive nature of corporate-sponsored research, to the fear of offence and those increasingly common buzzwords: trigger warnings, no-platforming, safe spaces.

But some of the cases we have explored will be particularly shocking to those who have studied or taught in an environment where challenging the status quo was, for the most part, acceptable and even encouraged. Belarus is among the countries profiled where state loyalty takes precedence over all forms of debate, discovery or innovation. Here, a state-run body awards degrees and dissertations are marked “not on the basis of their scientific value, but according to loyalty to and personal relations with members of an academic council”, said Uladzimir Matskevich, founder of the Belarus Humanitarian Technology Agency.

Many academics in Belarus, and indeed worldwide, also find themselves in an extra precarious position by being employed on short-term contracts. If they overstep the mark with political views that are deemed unacceptable, their position could come to an abrupt end. In some countries, the situation is worsening. In Ukraine, various universities now have special committees, established last July, which seek to find out if any scholars have “separatist” attitudes. Criticising the education system is enough to put you in such a category, after which you risk being fired for “amoral behaviour”.

Meanwhile, as we’ve explored in previous issues, Thailand’s military government has become increasingly hardline on a different sort of loyalty: allegiance to the monarchy. A strict lèse-majesté law curbs all criticism of the crown and inevitably puts severe restrictions on academic work. Thai historian Sulak Sivaraksa is currently facing up to 15 years in jail for a speech at Bangkok university, when he, an avowed royalist, dared to question traditional accounts of an elephant battle featuring King Naresuan – a man who died in 1605. Last February, Somsak Jeamteersakul, an academic who had lost his job over a lèse-majesté case, experienced an assassination attempt, when gunmen opened fired on his house. He now lives in exile.

A monk supporting the "Fearlessness Walk" at Thammasat University, Bangkok. Demotix/Lillian Suwanrumpha. All Rights Reserved.

A monk supporting the "Fearlessness Walk" at Thammasat University, Bangkok. Demotix/Lillian Suwanrumpha. All Rights Reserved.Academics don’t just face the restrictions of their government, but the hysteria and mob mentality that comes from such heavily pushed propaganda. For academics to keep their jobs, avoid controversy and perhaps even avoid threats of physical attack, self-censorship is rife in many parts of the world. One of our writers in India, Meena Vari from Bangalore’s Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, told us: “Many school boards and universities have been forced to follow the path of self-censorship, and have stopped taking risks because death threats are so common.” In Bangladesh, the situation is currently even tenser, after the recent murders of secular bloggers by religious extremists. Police announced earlier this month that they are investigating threats made to more than a dozen academics, including the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University.

This appears to be the world we are living in: when someone says something you don’t agree with, send a death threat. It’s the easiest, most cowardly way to try to shut down a conversation – often even before it begins. One of the most shocking stories we have come across recently is that of a Turkish historian at Ankara University, who received multiple death threats for writing an exam question on the Kurdish movement. A newspaper accused Resat Baris Ünlü of promoting terrorism while hiding “behind the cloak of freedom of expression”.

And, of course, this is not just a problem for the developing world. In the US, Dr Steven Salaita had a job offer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrawn after posting tweets that angrily criticised Israel's actions in Gaza. This prompted him to sue, and others to wade into a hot debate about whether or not the rescindment violated academic freedom. Last week, the American Association of University Professors voted that it did

In such a volatile climate, the concept of debate needs protecting more than ever, especially in the places where it should be at its most free. Index on Censorship has issued an open statement signed by over 70 academics and writers to express concern about attacks on free expression on scholars around the world. “We feel strongly that the freedom to study, research and debate issues from different perspectives is vital to growing the world’s knowledge and to our better understanding,” it reads. 

Meanwhile, earlier this month in India, Amartya Sen announced that he will remain on the board of Nalanda University, showing he is not willing to bow down to that metaphorical sword.

Vicky Baker is the deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The academic freedom issue can be ordered here. A debate on whether universities are being silenced will take place at Birkbeck College, London on 1 July (free tickets, registration required).

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