SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 24, 2017

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Catholic University of Louvain

Region & Country:Europe | Belgium

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 24, 2017, Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) officials ordered the suspension of philosophy professor Stephane Mercier after he assigned an undergraduate class a controversial reading.

Since 2014, Dr. Mercier has been a non-tenured professor at UCL, where he teaches introduction to philosophy courses for first-year students. During the first week of the spring 2017 semester (early February), he assigned a philosophical text that arguing against a right to abortion, including a comparison of abortion to murder.  By March 21, 2017, the text and reports of the class had been posted to and widely circulated over social and news media. 

On March 24, UCL’s Vice Rector ordered Dr. Mercier indefinitely suspended from his teaching responsibilities with pay, due to Dr. Mercier’s “pedagogical choices” and the text, both of which, the Vice Rector alleged, turned his class into a “platform for defending his beliefs, without the exchange of arguments no debate.” According to Dr. Mercier, he was not given an opportunity to appeal the order before it went into effect.

UCL disciplinary records reflect that Dr. Mercier claimed that he repeatedly encouraged the students to debate the text and his own views. Interviews with students from the same university records similarly do not suggest that Dr. Mercier restricted students from expressing their views or objections during class.

On March 30, UCL’s Vice Rector ordered Dr. Mercier dismissed with indemnity. Dr. Mercier then appealed the order to UCL’s Disciplinary Commission on Academic Personnel. On June 13, the commission ruled to reduce the dismissal order to a three-month suspension of teaching responsibilities, pending a final decision. Dr. Mercier is scheduled to attend an appeal hearing with UCL’s Rector on July 27.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a scholar in retaliation for exercising the right to academic freedom — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such disciplinary proceedings and suspensions actions harm academic freedom and democratic society generally. University officials have an obligation to uphold academic freedom and to avoid disciplinary measures that restrict its peaceful exercise.