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Image of Rogers Hall at the University of North Georgia
In Georgia, the Board of Regents has given its universities the power to fire tenured professors without faculty input. Now some fear that academic freedom is threatened. (Zach J. Beavers), CC BY-SA

Universities: The often overlooked player in determining healthy democracies

We’ve been hearing recently about the possibility that the United States — assumed to be a prime example of democracy — is in real peril of collapse. Coming into 2022, we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide democratic recession.

Democracy is vulnerable and fragile. It requires maintenance, participation, vigilance and constant re-assertion. If left unattended, it can drift, or be pushed, towards illiberalism and ultimately authoritarianism.

When discussions turn to the pillars of democracy, folks will often name the free press, the legislature and the judiciary as the institutions that serve as a vital check and balance on power. Named with much less frequency is the academy.

A country’s institutional commitment to academic freedom is a key indicator of whether its democracy is in good health.

Democracy in danger

If we look at the United States as an example, the warning signs are clearly present and add to a growing body of evidence that the country’s democracy is in danger.

In a new twist on the McCarthyist Cold War era — when there was little tolerance for dissent, suspected communist ties and many academics were forced to sign loyalty oaths, interrogated and even terminated — the Brookings Institute reports that at least 29 states have or plan on passing legislation banning entire areas of study, like critical race theory.

Some legislatures, like Oklahoma are pushing even further to eliminate discussions of gender, implicit bias and intersectionality.

To add to that, Georgia has recently eliminated tenure, none of which bodes well for the once shining example of democracy.

You may be wondering how eliminating tenure relates to democracy. It’s an earned permanent appointment and is required to help ensure that the principles and protections that fall under academic freedom are not an empty promise. Without tenure an academic could be silenced by threat of termination. But yes, academics can still be fired for just cause.

An older white man sits in a suit while raising his hand up into the air.
Sen. Michael McLendon was the chief lawmaker who sponsored a bill that would ban schools from teaching critical race theory, which led to a walkout of the Black senators in protest and the withholding of their votes on Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

What is academic freedom?

The definition of academic freedom remains largely unchanged since the American Association of University Professors first issued their 1915 declaration defining it as comprising three elements “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.”

Within healthy democracies, academic freedom, if not always respected, is at the very least, tolerated and protected. There’s an understanding that it may be invoked to inform public policy, disrupt inequitable power structures or act as an unpopular corrective on the very governments, structures, institutions and cultures that are asked to defend and support it.

In return for defending a robust academic freedom, a country’s university faculty are enabled to speak truth, act as a check on government and help foster critical and creative, participatory citizens whose formation prepares them for a lifetime of democratic engagement. But of course institutions of higher learning are one, not the only, site for teaching and learning and practising these critical skills and habits of mind.

A potential whistleblower

The academic freedom entrusted to faculty is usually described in one of two ways. The first manner aligns academic freedom with rights, privileges and freedoms. The second, brings in concepts such as responsibility, duty and whistleblower protection.

The first description is often used by critics who inevitably trot out the “ivory tower” metaphor to describe the academy. The second is found in the language used by its defenders, whose own metaphor for the university’s role in society might be “lighthouse.”

In the second concept every tenured professor is a potential whistleblower, or societal lighthouse keeper and can work in tandem with a free press for reporting on elected governments and their policies, providing transparency and accountability.

It is a delicate balance where the scales can easily be tipped in the opposite direction. It is not difficult to imagine the potential for wealthy private donors, multinational corporations, a populist mob or even the government itself, to bring it all down.

As more countries flirt with democratic backsliding, we should all be concerned. A country’s tolerance and respect for academic freedom serves as a key indicator of the health of its democracy; let’s not ignore this important warning.

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