On July 29, 2016, Roxana Pey, a professor of Biology who had been appointed rector of the University of Aysen in southern Chile, was terminated from that four-year appointment, reportedly in retaliation for her public commentary on the Chilean government’s education policy.
The University of Aysen, located in the southernmost part of the country, was founded in August 2015. Professor Pey was named rector of the university the following month. As rector, one of her major responsibilities was to create internal regulations for the new university, which would then be subject to government approval.
Sometime after she had assumed her role as rector, Professor Pey publicly opposed a new education bill being promoted by several officials, arguing that the bill would harm university students, and advocating policies that increased access to education for students with limited resources. In response to her public statements, the Minister of Education reportedly requested Professor Pey’s resignation in June 2016. Professor Pey refused.
The following month, the Minister of Education and the General Secretary of Government reportedly ordered Professor Pey dismissed, claiming that in her capacity as rector she had been unable to achieve agreement with the government over her proposed university regulations; and challenging her public advocacy in support of giving special access to the university to students with limited resources. Despite the Minister’s claim, the internal regulations that Professor Pey had proposed as rector of Aysen University were approved, and the institution was granted full autonomy, in February 2017.
Professor Pey subsequently challenged her dismissal in court, and in June 2017 the Supreme Court of Chile held that the government’s action was arbitrary and unlawful. She could not, however, be restored to her position because a new rector had been appointed in her stead, and could not legally be removed. Professor Pey was, however, granted six months of back pay.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary dismissal of a professor in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to free expression. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally. State and university authorities have a responsibility to refrain from arbitrary dismissals and other disciplinary measures to restrict the peaceful exercise of internationally recognized rights of academic freedom and freedom of expression.