In this spotlight, we feature SAR scholar Dr. Felix Kaputu and his experiences with academic freedom both in his home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in classrooms around the world. Dr. Kaputu is a scholar of comparative literature with a PhD specializing in gender issues, religion, and university pedagogy. He has also a PhD in Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Studies. He appears in SAR’s free online course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters,” where he shares his story as an at-risk scholar. In the text below, he talks about his experience with the course, and his thoughts on academic freedom and why it matters to scholars everywhere.
Scholars at Risk, together with Academic Refuge project partners the University of Oslo, UNICA – Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe, and the University of Ljubljana, created a free massive open online course (MOOC) on academic freedom. The course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters,” explored what academic freedom is, and why it matters not only to scholars but to all of society.
“Thirteen years ago, I was teaching comparative literature. My students’ innocent declarations put me in danger. I was called a leader of a provincial organization, arrested, imprisoned in sordid condition. I came to admit that I was as much dead as I was alive,” shares Dr. Felix Kaputu in describing his experience as an at-risk scholar in “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters.” The Democratic Republic of Congo, as he explains, “is a place where all questions are dangerous, and potentially all lead to the same destination: death in different ways or exclusion from the active society. It is a place where quite often silence is preferable because it gives the illusion of a safe life.”
Despite these challenging circumstances, Dr. Kaputu is optimistic that conditions are improving, with more civil society organizations working for change. He says, “Despite the chaos, some still believe in educational values and fundamental education and human rights.” Dr. Kaputu hopes that the MOOC can help members of the higher education community to better understand academic freedom, and the positive impact it can have on the whole country, “academics would enjoy freedom and would do their work with pride remembering how it was once known as notre beau métier or ‘our beautiful work or mission.’”
Through his work in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, Dr. Kaputu has seen how interpretations of academic freedom may differ but also notes their common foundations: “academic freedom has its origin in long cultural traditions that saw people fighting for freedoms, knowledge, and a society open to all with the same rights.” In exploring the global history of academic freedom, a chapter in the MOOC, Dr. Kaputu shares: “It is so refreshing to know that from its oldest traditions found in Asia and Africa, academic freedom had undergone a significant evolution. It is so exciting to see how academic institutions have throughout the years found ways to protect academics so that they can have a safe life within the institutions and outside them. However, it is also so curious to see that the greatest threats to Academic Freedom come from the institutions and people who are supposed to protect it.”
Some of these threats emerge from a lack of understanding about what academic freedom means, and what types of expression or conduct it protects. Discussing the different views of academic freedom, a topic covered by the online course, Dr. Kaputu argues that the need for a view of academic freedom that is socially-engaged and protects academics as they use their expertise to educate and engage with both students and the broader public is essential. While the traditional view of academic freedom focuses on the context, rather than the content of the expression, with global challenges ranging from climate change to political instability and inequality, he notes that “academic freedom should adapt to meet these challenges and bring the best possible solutions to the world.” As Dr. Kaputu explains: “These definitions matter a lot, they determine the understanding of different actions and social commitments. The academic world has to reshuffle its ambitions and relations with the world. In that environment, academic freedom perceived through an engagement lens can lead the academic world to better choices and to the perception of academic freedom as a way of sharing responsibilities.”
When asked if he would encourage others to take the course, Dr. Kaputu says, “I will highly recommend this course to all academic institutions from around the world. … Discussions like the ones the MOOC generated can help academics and voice new issues. The course gave me hope for the future and in different respectful relations that would link the academic world to the political authorities, people in general and students.”
To read more about Dr. Kaputu’s experiences: https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/spotlight/sar-spotlight-felix-kaputu/.
The SAR Spotlight is a monthly series highlighting SAR scholars, partners, and network activities.