Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks

An introduction to the TRAFO Series “Academic Freedom”.

By Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ

Academic freedom is under threat today in many places of the world and it is urgent to create spaces of collective reflection on a principle that is fundamental to all intellectual practice. Together with colleagues from around the world, we organized a workshop at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin to serve as a forum for such reflections. It was held on October 21 and 22, 2020. In the coming weeks, many of the contributions to the workshop will be published on this blog; other events and contributions will follow.

The workshop aimed at understanding the normative foundations of academic freedom and developing a comparative comprehension of how governments, security establishments, and economic interests have and are continuing to restrict freedom through a wide array of constitutional, legal, political, and financial tools. Pressure imposed on academic freedom has been shaping public spaces and academic institutions across the globe, in authoritarian regimes as well as in liberal and so-called illiberal democracies. The comparative and connected study of these restrictions has barely begun, despite their accelerating proliferation and the growing urgency.

© Leo Romanski

Academic freedom is distinct from freedom of expression, and the workshop also aimed to explore the relationship between the two: whereas freedom of expression is an established human right, academic freedom is a liberty attached specifically to academia. It is sometimes criticized and attacked as a privilege rather than a right, which is one additional reason to discuss and establish its foundations.

Academic freedom traditionally includes freedom of research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression. It has been defended against religious and political authorities and has come to be regarded not as a privilege but as a liberty that is necessary for the common good. Academic freedom favors the development of science and knowledge, which benefits society as a whole a benefit that is enshrined as a human right in article 27 of the 1948 UN Declaration. In some jurisdictions, academic freedom is not regarded as an individual right like freedom of speech, or as a liberty of academic institutions, but as a right that protects a certain social function that can only be performed freely. As such, academic freedom is a protection not only against state intervention, but also against any attempt to instrumentalize academia for purposes other than scholarly research, be they political, economic, or religious.

The recognition of academic freedom has taken a variety of historical trajectories:

  • In Germany, academic freedom goes back to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea of a university that is unhindered by state intervention. The 1850 Prussian Constitution guaranteed the “freedom of science and teaching” in article 20. After being abolished by the Nazi regime, academic freedom was reestablished in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949; it is granted in article 5.3 of the constitution.
  • In the United States, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), asserts that there is a clear and compelling societal benefit to academic freedom.
  •  In France, academics are granted a special status in the civil service, and their autonomy is recognized as being similar to that of the liberal professions (self-organization, peer evaluation, recruitment by co-optation).
  •  In article 20, the 1999 Swiss Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of teaching and research.

A comparative look at academic freedoms reveals that the ethical, constitutional, and legal traditions vary widely even among Western countries and that the UN Declaration of 1948 has certainly not led to common values and practices worldwide. Most countries do not have constitutional guarantees of academic freedom, which makes their research communities vulnerable to interventions in the work and life of researchers. In countries such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Syria or Hungary – where Central European University was forced to leave the country on the basis of a law passed in 2017 – academic work is restricted by religious or political authorities – or both. Academics who publish critical research, express their political views, or defend freedom of expression are frequently dismissed from their positions, harassed publicly, prosecuted, and sometimes even thrown in jail or forced into exile. In recent years, these countries have witnessed a shocking increase in cases of repression against academics and in attempts by religious and political authorities to curtail academic freedoms. Worrying signs of similar repressive moves against academics and academic freedom are already appearing even in countries with longstanding democratic traditions, such as Brazil or India.

In addition to political interventions, economic factors exert an influence on the freedom of academic research. Examples include the restrictions placed on research funding to specific topics and the marginalization of particular departments. In 2009, the British University and College Union expressed growing concern about the threats against the “freedoms to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty.” These threats stem from “the changing nature of funding for UK research, in particular the dominance of the Research Assessment Exercise, the economistic approach of the Research Councils and growing pressures on academics to seek commercial sponsorship.” The social sciences and humanities are exposed to this type of censorship because they are regarded as not meeting the needs of society (in Japan, for example), and because of their critical tradition. The Hungarian government retracted accreditation from Gender Studies departments on the grounds that they pursued “an ideology not a discipline.” Even in stable democracies such as Australia and the United States, right-wing critics of academic freedom use parallel arguments to delegitimize entire disciplines and research programs for populist purposes.

The workshop was motivated by the conviction that a deeper understanding of academic freedom must start with an inquiry of its underlying principles and historical trajectories, its changing and diverse legal foundations, and its instable political and economic contexts. At the same time, a joint international effort to arrive at a deeper understanding of academic freedom is a precondition for a more effective intervention wherever it is under threat.

This article is part of the series Academic Freedom, curated and edited by former Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.


Amr Hamzawy studied political science and developmental studies in Cairo, The Hague, and Berlin. He was previously an associate professor of political science at Cairo University and a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo. He is currently a senior research scholar at the Center on Democracy of Stanford University.

Gisèle Sapiro is Professor of Sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Research Director at the CNRS (CESSP). She is the author of La Guerre des écrivains, 1940-1953 (1999; transl. French Writers’ War, 2014), La Responsabilité de l’écrivain (2011), Los Intelectuales (2017), Les Ecrivains et la politique en France (2018), Peut-on dissocier l’œuvre de l’auteur ? (2020), Des mots qui tuent (2020), and she recently co-edited Ideas on the move in the Social Sciences and Humanities (2020).

Başak Tuğ is Assistant Professor of History at Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey. In 2009, she received her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies & History from New York University. She was a Wiko fellow in 2018-2019 and a Gerda Henkel Research Fellow in Global History at Freie Universität Berlin in 2019-2020. Her book Politics of Honor in Ottoman Anatolia: Sexual Violence and Socio-Legal Surveillance in the Eighteenth Century was published by Brill in 2017.


Citation: Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.02.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26690.


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