Academic Freedom is Not Just a Generic Human Right
In spite of the frequent use of the concepts of academic freedom and university independence in debates about higher education in Egypt, the overlap of the two concepts without identifying what exactly they mean diminishes their true value.
During the drafting of the new Egyptian Constitution, which was adopted in 2014, the participants specializing in higher education did not have a clear common vision about the two concepts. This could partly explain the weakness of the constitution when it came to establishing university independence, and the absence of any constitutional reference to academic freedom.
On the other hand, those concerned with higher education usually fall into the trap of confusing academic freedom with general human rights, which should be enjoyed by any Egyptian citizen who expresses interests outside or inside the university gates. Those human rights include the right to protest, assemble peacefully, engage in political activities, and organize a strike or a sit-in. The blurring of the concept of academic freedom increases the difficulty in identifying the nature of violations to which academics are exposed as citizens outside the universities or through any activities unrelated to their academic capacity. Some believe that when professors’ names are placed on a travel ban list because of their political work, such restrictions are an infringement upon their academic freedom.
For example, two American University in Cairo professors, Emad Shahin and Amr Hamzawy, were subject to unfair court rulings. Shahin was sentenced to death because of his stance opposing the current regime, and Amr Hamzawy was banned from traveling because of his criticism of the judicial authorities when he was a member of the Peoples’ Assembly. But I believe the political activities of both professors are not related to their academic positions.
Imposing restrictions on students and preventing them from protesting or organizing any political events inside the university campus is not related to the academic aspect of higher education, and thus is not an infringement upon academic freedom.
At the same time, we cannot turn a blind eye on defending the rights of academics as Egyptian citizens and ensure that they are not academically penalized because of their political activities.
In contrast, there have been clear, recent violations of academic freedom in Egypt. On February 19, 2013, Mansoura University banned the discussion of the master’s degree thesis of a researcher, Mohamed Al-Dakroury, because of the objection of some nurses at the university to the subject of his thesis. The thesis included a survey on the sexual harassment of nurses in the workplace. This incident did not receive any media or academic attention, like several other incidents related to master’s or Ph.D.’s theses and the prevention of researchers from tackling certain political or social issues. These interferences with researchers’ goals are clear infringements of their academic freedom.
I believe a clear definition of academic freedom is needed. I prefer the definition drafted in the Academic Freedom Declaration in 2005 issued at the Global Colloquium of University Presidents at Columbia University upon a call from the U.N. Secretary General, who thought that academic freedom is not a mere extension of freedom of thought, opinion, assembly, and organization, which is granted to all people in articles (18, 19, and 20) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.. Academic freedom means the freedom to research, teach, talk, and publish in accordance to the criteria of scientific research without any intervention, penalty, or restriction to what this new research or understanding might lead to.
The concept of university independence includes the structure of higher education institutions and its relationship with the state and other societal powers. This independence should guarantee the presence of a proper environment conducive to academic freedom. Thus, we cannot consider academic freedom part of university independence.
University independence means running universities through governance and involving academics in in decision making, drafting general policies for the university, and setting budgets. This should also include accountability and transparency, especially in financial matters.
What is the importance of understanding the correct meanings of academic freedom and university independence?
I believe that understanding the right meaning of academic freedom will first lead to more support for freedom in teaching, research, and publishing. Faculty members and students would become more aware of the violations to their rights to research, teach, and learn. The attention of officials and followers of the educational scene in Egypt would be directed to the real meaning of academic freedom instead of focusing on political freedom.
Second, a better understanding of academic freedom would lead to a constitutional article on academic freedom and laws related to universities, and ensure that the state and society would not restrict academic work.
Third, efforts would intensify to monitor administration, ensure sound governance, organize different university structures, select university leaders and set funding plans. Doing this would require debates by those concerned with higher education in Egypt to set up a work plan to achieve university independence.
Fourth: The correct understanding of academic freedom and university independence would provide a better chance for professors, students, and officials to engage in discussions and actions to learn, research, and produce academic work freely without any restrictions, instead of misunderstanding academic freedom as being only about political freedom.
* Mohammad Abdel Salam is a researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Egypt.