The vital role of academic freedom in creating a world-class university

William Tierney and Gerard Postiglione say if scholars and scientists are not free to pursue the truth, it can have a devastating effect

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 July, 2015, 8:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 5:48pm

The international race to have a "world-class university" in Hong Kong has been in full swing for more than a decade. Whether you use the QS ranking, Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, or the UK's Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the vast majority of the top 100 are in the US and Europe, with the former having the lion's share of the top 25. Not surprisingly, other countries are trying to ape what they think of as the "American model".

Many observers think fiscal and organisational structures enable universities to be world class. Some of the best universities - Harvard, Stanford, the University of Southern California - are private and do not rely on government largesse. Even so-called state universities in the US get little funding from government any more. The implication for other countries is that their universities should be more entrepreneurial. Universities in many countries have begun to sing the praises of entrepreneurialism as never before.

Others look at private philanthropy in endowing positions for academic staff and erecting buildings on America's campuses. Of consequence, many aspiring universities have begun to create or expand their development offices. The University of Hong Kong's medical school accepted its renaming as the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine. Many libraries at China's universities are named after Run Run Shaw.

Central governments also have a role. Federal spending on the research infrastructure of America's best universities contributes to their excellence. The result is that other governments, including Saudi Arabia and China, now invest heavily in building facilities and providing the funds to hire academic staff so that some of their universities might be considered world class in research.

US universities are not consistently atop the world rankings because of their funding streams or organisational models, but rather their ability to drive excellence in teaching and research. The role of academic freedom cannot be underestimated, as it allows professors to speak their minds, search for truth and not worry that they will face sanctions in their work. Eliminate that and US universities drop in the world rankings.

Before the end of the 19th century, Harvard University's Charles Eliot counselled John D. Rockefeller that 200 years and US$50 million (about US1.4 billion in today's money) would be required to create a world-class institution. After the turn of the century, and with Rockefeller's US$50 million-plus, the University of Chicago needed only 20 years to attain top standing. At the same time, however, the idea of academic freedom became enshrined as the raison d'être of academic life in the US, and protected by a system of academic tenure. Shared governance came about to ensure that academic freedom remained a core value of the university. By 1960, virtually every university in America offered tenure, shared governance and a commitment to academic freedom as its core value.

Recently, the state legislature of Wisconsin voted to eliminate tenure and reduce shared governance at the University of Wisconsin - ranked 29th in the world in the Times' rankings. At an emergency meeting of its university senate, hundreds of academic staff in attendance signed a statement that protects academic freedom. Meanwhile, other universities that espouse a commitment to shared governance, tenure and academic freedom are perched to poach Wisconsin's faculty.

Wisconsin is not an isolated example. A new special report on the Index on Censorship offe. Academics in Turkey are forbidden to write this sort of article. In Ireland and Britain, the rise of corporate research threatens the objectivity of a scholar's work. China has taken issue with Western values in college textbooks. At the University of Illinois in the US, a job offer to a scholar was rescinded based on tweets he had sent about the situation in the Middle East.

Challenges to Hong Kong's universities are becoming more complex in an increasingly divided society. Never before has Hong Kong's leading university been so hog-tied. The hold-up in appointing a vice-president leaves the senior management team and the university at a serious disadvantage. The outlook for future council business will be of increasing interest with a probable new chair appointee who recently berated the university's academics and, as education minister, proposed merging two University Grants Committee institutions prior to the row over alleged government interference in academic freedom.

Some believe there are valid arguments to restrict academic freedom. However, if the goal is to create a world-class university, then there is no better way to compromise the integrity of the institution than to create an atmosphere that promotes self-censorship. Just as Lehman Brothers placed its principles at risk, resulting in a freefall that presaged a global economic meltdown, a leading university can bring down a system of higher education if it compromises core academic values for economic or political gain. A change of atmosphere carries potential risks for a university that has consistently been in the world's top 50. Considered an oak of academic freedom in Asia, HKU's situation will have implications beyond the Pokfulam Road campus.

A 2001 World Bank report noted that Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's rocket rise to world-class standing after it opened in 1991 could not have occurred without providing academic freedom to attract and retain top scientists. Academic freedom is a necessary condition for excellence but it requires a sustained commitment by all those who share in the governance of university. The unfettered search for truth by scholars and scientists is essential for excellence in the world's top 25 universities.

William G. Tierney is university professor and director of the Pullias Centre for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. He is a visiting research professor at The University of Hong Kong. Gerard A. Postiglione is associate dean in the Faculty of Education at HKU