Spotlight on “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters”

Posted November 12, 2018

In this SAR spotlight, we present an edited interview with SAR scholars, students, faculty and administrators who have taken “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters” to hear firsthand what they learned. These participants include SAR partners as well as those new to our work, and represent a range of knowledge and experience working on topics related to academic freedom and other core higher education values.

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,” explores what academic freedom is, and why it matters not only to scholars but to all of society.

The course content spans three sections which cover the history and definitions of academic freedom, threats to academic freedom, and how you can help promote academic freedom on your campus. What did you find most interesting about the course? 

Radwan Ziadeh, researcher and SAR scholar from Syria (RZ): The way the course looks at the university and academic institutions is quite interesting and new. The historical definitions of academic freedom and views of academic freedom – historical and contemporary – put the whole course in context.

Animation featured in the online course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters”

Shannon Dea, Associate Professor; Vice-President, Faculty Association, University of Waterloo (SD): I really appreciated the way the course situated academic freedom in the context of other core university values – such as institutional accountability and equal access. And I loved learning about the emergence of these values in the history of higher education. Most of us know the German and American history; it’s also really important to recognize the steps towards the modern university that were taken in pre-twentieth century Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. The course gave me a much better understanding of that history.

Cynthia Tilden-Machleidt, freelance lecturer; leader of a SAR advocacy seminar (CTM): I learned to focus on my impressions of academic freedom in my own backyard!  I was reminded to think more about intentional and unintentional threats to academic freedom. I agree with the authors that the study of intentional threats help us to recognize what negative consequences there are when academic freedom is indeed lost. Embedded in our higher education cultures as we are, we do not often see clearly what changes in funding, governing, hiring policies, admission policies, or even how course descriptions are written may add negative pressure to a culture of critical thinking and ultimately on universities‘ core values, including academic freedom.

Aušrinė Pasvenskienė, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Law, Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania (AP): Even for those who are familiar with the concept of academic freedom and the values of higher education in general, the course suggests an original view on traditional and socially-engaged academic freedom and a valuable assessment of its features.

Viviana Fernandez, Assistant Director, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa; Steering Committee member of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network – Canada Section (VF): The importance of sharing a common language across academic institutions was one of the aspects I appreciated the most. In a context where most institutions seek to expand their international footprint, strengthen and develop research linkages and attract international students and faculty, having clear and shared values is critical.

The MOOC asks you to consider your higher education institution and its statements on core academic values. Did you learn anything new about your institution’s relationship to higher education values?

Andrew Bonnell, Associate Professor, Director of Research for the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland; branch president, National Tertiary Education Union at UQ (AB): We don’t face the more extreme dangers that some of our international colleagues have had to deal with – at a SAR conference I met inspiring colleagues who had faced physical violence as well as the deprivation of their livelihood at the hands of repressive regimes. But we have to make decisions about academic freedom frequently, especially as underfunded public universities come under pressure to be more responsive to the interests of outside corporate donors and partners.

CTM: My impression is that our values and mission statements are on the web pages but not necessarily regularly put into practice. My institutions’ management knows and, I think, cares about values, but perhaps we devote little more than lip-service to the discussion of these values, and we do not always walk the talk. Is it sufficient to say that all members of the university are free to join in a discussion? Should our convictions be sent out more strongly?

Animation featured in the online course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters”

Asli Telli Aydemir, SAR scholar; Phillip Schwarz Research Fellow, Universität Siegen, Germany (ATA): For me, the roles and responsibilities of an academic with respect to his/her colleagues, students, as well as his/her surrounding has always been part of personal ethics and in line with higher education values. However, the input in the course made me think of certain boundaries even in the case of expression of scientific truth. That is, if that scientific truth causes violence, discrimination or damage in society, certain political boundaries might have to be drawn.

We created the course, in part, to serve as a guidepost for higher education institutions when faced with values incidents. We know values incidents will arise and want to help universities appropriately assess and respond to them. What lessons from the course will you take with you? How will it help you in your work moving forward?

VF: The course can add useful arguments to SAR champions in prospective institutions to join the network and to explain why academics’ work is fundamental to democratic societies and the protection of our rights, especially in the current rise of autocratic leaders.

AB: I was familiar with some of the material in the course, but that was partly because I had attended a workshop on the topic at a Scholars at Risk conference. Nonetheless, it was still very useful to practice thinking through the various scenarios and to have the exercises in applying the relevant frames of core academic values to different situations. It was good to have the opportunity to test your own understanding of these issues in a structured and well-organized way.

CTM: Before the course, I was kind of intuitively aware of the different ways of thinking about academic freedom, but I didn’t know that they were two distinct models, or what those models are called. Understanding the two models, and that people might have a different model in mind than I do when they refer to academic freedom, has helped me to better understand some thorny academic freedom debates.

One of the main features of the course is the room for discussion between participants. Learners have an opportunity to engage with people across the globe and can learn from one another. What did you take away from your discussions with the other learners?

ATA: I had the chance to engage with other academics, teachers, mentors and students taking the course. The most interesting side of engaging conversations is getting to learn specific cultural cases and personal stories. I also enjoyed disagreements and hot debates when harder questions were asked.

CTM: I was very interested to read the thoughtful comments made by participants especially because they helped me to identify gaps in support for academic freedom and value standards at my home institutions.

AP: An opportunity to participate in the discussion is without a doubt worthwhile. Discussions among the participants served as a tool that enabled discovery of the experiences and real-life stories of others facing different types of “dangerous questions” in their environment. And that definitely confirmed the topicality of academic freedom.

SD: I took an active part in every discussion forum. Other participants were from all over the world and from both inside and outside of academe. Those discussions were typically thoughtful and stimulating, and most of the participants engaged in the discussions in good faith with the intention of learning from each other. In addition, I really liked that the course authors often participated in the discussions.

Adrienne Wooster, student, Roger Williams University (AW): I found the participant discussions to be worthwhile. For every section I completed, I would read through the participant comments to glean their different arguments and opinions.

Animation featured in the online course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters”

AB: I was gratified by how civil and thoughtful the interactions were compared with ordinary website commentary. There was a high level of reasoning in some of the interchanges, and some of the personal experiences related by other users were interesting.

In the last run of the MOOC, we had university administrators, students, scholars, researchers, and general learners from 98 different countries enroll in the course. Who would you recommend this course to, and why?

CTM: I would recommend this course to all new teachers in higher education, perhaps as part of an induction programme. This course would really help us all to recognize the more fundamental responsibilities we have in (higher) education.

AP: I would absolutely recommend the course to everyone who is associated with academia, teaching, research or the higher education system in general. In addition to that, the course would have particular value for those who have a role in decision, law and policymaking processes in order to understand the fundamental values of higher education and the necessity of their adequate protection.

AW: This could be valuable to teaching new students the value and multifaceted nature of academic freedom while acting as a refresher to students who are already familiar with the importance of academic freedom in higher education.

ATA: I think at-risk scholars, as well as staff from assistance/support initiatives and institutions, would find the content valuable.

RZ: I forwarded it to many colleagues and friends. I think that it will benefit many.

VF: I have recommended the course to other SAR uOttawa committee members and members of our Human Rights Research and Education Centre.

SD: I think that every academic should take the course. In the current political climate, we are increasingly seeing free speech weaponized against university personnel. To protect ourselves and our institutions we need to be able to explain academic freedom and its connection to the scholarly mission of the university

We hope after taking the MOOC, learners will continue the conversation on academic freedom and other higher education values in their home institutions. From your perspective, why do you think this course is important?

SD: This isn’t my first MOOC, but it is the first time that I paid for the upgrade. I did so not because I wanted the certificate but because I know that I will keep returning to the very useful course resources. This was the model of an effective, well-designed online course.

RZ: It is important to take the course because it will introduce you to the terms of academic freedom and present the debate around those terms.

AP: Although I previously have researched on the topic of academic freedom quite extensively, I found the course very interesting, well-prepared and useful.

ATA: Seeking truth will always be the priority of those asking the hardest questions in academia. This is why this MOOC will remain valuable no matter what. I appreciate all the great effort put into preparing, sharing and sustaining it and promise to carry this unique experiential knowledge wherever I go.

Animation featured in the online course, “Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters”


Prof. Asli Telli Aydemir (ATA): Prof. Aydemir, a SAR scholar and Phillip Schwarz Research Fellow at Universität Siegen in Germany, is one of the signatories of the Academics for Peace Petition in Turkey and has experienced firsthand academic freedom violations.

Prof. Andrew Bonnell (AB): Prof. Bonnell is an Associate Professor in History and Director of Research  for the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland (UQ) as well as branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union at UQ, a SAR member.

Prof. Shannon Dea (SD): Prof. Dea is an Associate Professor and Vice-President, Faculty Association at the University of Waterloo. She frequently writes about issues related to academic freedom including in her new online column called “Dispatches on Academic Freedom” in University Affairs, the magazine for Universities Canada.

Viviana Fernandez (VF), Assistant Director at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, has worked closely with SAR for several years as the uOttawa representative in the Steering Committee of the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network – Canada Section and member of the International Advisory Committee for SAR.

Dr. Aušrinė Pasvenskienė (AP) is a lecturer, researcher and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Law at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. She has done extensive research on the topic of academic freedom for her PhD.

Cynthia Tilden-Machleidt (CTM) runs a SAR advocacy seminar for business students and has been active in the refugee effort in Berlin as an employment mentor since August 2015. She is currently a freelance lecturer, trainer/coach, learning materials writer, and was formerly responsible for Business English at the Berlin School of Economics and Law.

Adrienne Wooster (AW) is a student at Roger Williams University and a former SAR Membership and University Relations Intern. She is a member of one of SAR’s Student Advocacy Seminars and attended the SAR Student Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. in 2017.

Dr. Radwan Ziadeh (RZ), a SAR scholar from Syria, is currently the Director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), where he deals chiefly with issues pertaining to Syria.

The SAR Spotlight is a monthly series highlighting SAR scholars, partners, and network activities.