Contextualizing and Conceptualizing Debates about Academic Freedom in Europe

By Anna L. Ahlers

Anna L. Ahlers. Photo: private.

After participating in the re:constitution seminar in Ljubljana, Slovenia in November 2021 and, also crucially, while working with colleagues in China, I cannot help but feel extremely lucky and privileged to be able to work under the academic circumstances that I do. They appear to be so much easier to deal with than the ones I learned about in my interactions with academics from China, Hungary, Slovenia, Turkey, and other countries. For me personally, academia has always felt like a work environment with an amazing degree of autonomy, with many opportunities and resources; and while not hassle-free or without frustrations and annoyance, I would claim that, to a large extent, my work environment also feels free.

You can already anticipate where I am going with this: I find it problematic how common it has become in Western Europe – even with all its history, especially in the German case – to quickly use the battle cry of “infringements on academic freedom”. Observers describe e.g. infrastructural shortcomings and undesirable developments, individual incidents and hindrances, and other day-to-day challenges in universities and research institutions as violations of academic freedom. In my view, this new and loose labeling does not do justice to the severity of problems in other contexts, where there are actual physical, legal, and systematic threats to academics and their organizations. By all means, we should welcome the discussion of a wide array of problems. However, I would claim that sometimes taking a step back, reconsidering, and making arguments more precise would help maintain solidarity and empathy with colleagues who work elsewhere under more difficult circumstances and who face actual threats to their academic freedom, while at the same time would help us to work effectively on all problems raised.

I would like to briefly raise three preliminary points to stimulate the discussion of academic freedom:

  1. Is academic freedom a universal societal value and what does this actually mean? Do we share a common understanding of it?
  2. Do other tangible values and norms and structural features of science and scholarship exist, especially when we try to identify related problems and work on them?
  3. What could be avenues of action and scholarly solidarity, regardless of the context or understanding of academic freedom that is shared?
Is “academic freedom” a universal value?

This question might sound paradoxical, not least since the term and idea of academic freedom is included in so many national constitutions and international declarations and because it is seen as being intrinsically connected to democracy and as a human right. But as many of the other contributions have already pointed out: as soon as you leave the letters of law or declaration – no matter how loosely the term or idea of academic freedom may be formulated – it usually becomes rather unspecific, especially when compared to the catalogue of human rights. It appears as a sort of religious value, sacrosanct but vague at the same time. Practically speaking, it is one of those sublime values that are either never achieved in reality or are only thought of when they (suddenly) appear absent. A value, altogether, that has so much normative power in some contexts and almost none in others, it seems.

For most observers, especially the legal scholars among us, it is probably easier to identify what academic freedom is based on its infringements. Katrin Kinzelbach and colleagues developed the Academic Freedom Index, a sophisticated tool based on violations of academic freedom. It works with a number of formal and judicial criteria for academic freedom, “freedom of legal or physical punishment for things you teach or publish”, for instance. When these criteria are perceived to be inadequately fulfilled, a country is ranked lower in the index.

Against this background, it is often unclear what constitutes such inadequacy, when in countries like Germany – where academic freedom is understood to be the completely free choice of topics to research and to learn about – public debate now on occasion treats structural and individual challenges to academics as being directly related to academic freedom. Often, the general understanding of academic freedom makes these challenges even harder to grasp, since they are not always related to some sort of external (for example, political or economic) influence or interference – they can also be related to how the scholarly community decides to organize itself.

Aspects that are publicly debated and would fall within this latter category can range from precarious temporary employment structures and career bottlenecks (e.g., #IchbinHanna in Germany), “cancel culture”, underfunding, neoliberalist tendencies of quantification and efficiency evaluation, teaching overload, “Americanization”, potential future shifts in global science and scholarship (e.g., around the ascent of the People’s Republic of China to a scientific global power), to the push to invest more resources in public “science communication”, and to measure public dissemination and impact when assessing grant applications. All of these can be considered reasons and factors that keep you from doing research the way you like to do it.

Multilingual publication output of a Chinese-European research project, conference book table, Hangzhou. Photo by Anna L. Ahlers, 2019.

At the same time, in contexts (e.g., in countries like China) where science and scholarship are traditionally seen as being a direct “service” to society or where research is conducted for more practical purposes, for example, technological development, the education of a professional workforce, or national welfare in general, the idea of scholars who do science for science’s sake may be rejected outright. In these countries, therefore, the idea of total academic freedom may have less appeal, as it seems to only stimulate potentially “useless” endeavors. Yet, this may sound like an exaggerated description of the opposite end of the spectrum of normative ideas about academia and academic freedom. It may be easier to think about it in the way that Lorrain Daston recently formulated: “Academic freedom has chameleon qualities, taking on the colors of its surroundings.”

Tangible values and norms and structural features of academia

If we are to support the notion that complete freedom of academia is a fundamental value, but that it also appears to be a rather abstract ideal and that no country has fully achieved it, then we have to ask: What’s the alternative? What are more tangible and more actionable approaches for its subordinate aspects? Contemplating this could be a way to also bridge the hard violations with the soft infringements previously described, both analytically and practically.

As Daston’s quote hints at, there are always contextual factors that have an impact, as academics do not move in a vacuum. They are always dependent on the organizations that employ them, the resources they need to do their work, colleagues who serve as evaluators of their labor, access to data, and much more. Science and scholarship are never independent, but when this dependence becomes problematic is probably a matter of degree. And still, I would contend, academia as a collective has some good sensors to detect that.  

Another commonly used term is academic autonomy, which points to tension within academia concerning intra-academic norms, most famously the Mertonian “ethos of science” (aka CUDO), as well as tensions with norms that are formed by societal values that guide scientific practices, observable in the fields of animal testing, dual-use control, diversity standards, and democracy, to name a few.

Again, to grasp the impact on the freedom to conduct research and teach is probably a question of degree and process here: do these values and norms stem from pressures exerted by their societal environment on academia, or were they introduced into academia by discussion and decisions made among scientists and scholars? In other words: when does the influence of values turn from the relative autonomy of the scientist to decide about his or her work and how to carry it out into a mechanism that makes him or her a puppet of someone else’s interest, like that of a religious community or the state?

And then of course there are micro- and macro-asymmetries in academia, such as power structures in a department, the dominance of English, and a global reputational ranking that rates places and countries above and below one another. Some of these are professional necessities, for example, teacher and student relations; some are harmful monopolies that decide about topics and careers and can lead to elitism and exclusion. It is here that asymmetries and inequalities can turn into unfairness.

Altogether, in my view, observations and terms that are more specific, such as dependence, autonomy, asymmetry, and inequality, should supplement the interpretation of a more abstract concept of academic freedom and could make both the analysis and the related suggestions more actionable. I would also argue that it is important to distinguish between structural and systematic challenges to the freedom of research and teaching, on the one hand, and sporadic, unique, and individual phenomena, on the other. This allows us to better distinguish between, for example, cancel culture and systematic normative constraints, or dependence and surrendering.

Suggestions for avenues of action and scholarly solidarity

Finally, is there any room for action against the diverse hard and soft challenges to academic freedom? Without claiming completeness, I would like to briefly conclude by once again pointing to inner- and inter-academic principles as a protection against infringements, which can already be promoted through scholarly conduct. These approaches could include:

  • Viewing dependence as a good thing. Science and scholarship are international and often need global collaboration. That is where we all have a responsibility of inclusion, which should be fostered. Not only is it proven that shared and especially international authorship leads to more citations; collaboration in general can also produce normative effects and, hopefully, protection.
  • By making projects and publications more international and global, we can build structures that can make a difference when some of us face difficulties. In addition, it seems important to think of our counterparts as individual scholars, not countries, even in what we call, from a European perspective, “challenging partner countries”.
  • Striving for publication platforms that are globally more accessible – with less surrendering to top-down assigned peer review, exaggerated costs, or other bottlenecks – is also an important step towards working on the subordinate aspects of infringements of academic (un)freedom.

It is relieving to see that reforms of this structural feature of global academia are already being vibrantly discussed now, and I am relatively optimistic that we will see significant changes here in the mid-term. These approaches will not be able to fend off all infringements of academic freedom, but at least they point to some action that any one of us working in academia could take.

Anna L. Ahlers is head of the Lise Meitner Research Group “China in the Global System of Science” at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Trained in Sinology and political science, her research areas include Chinese domestic politics and administrative reforms, the interactions of science and scholarship with the political regime in China, and the comparative analysis of modern authoritarianism. She is a member of the Junge Akademie of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Leopoldina and is part of the editorial teams of the Journal of Chinese Governance and Soziale Systeme.

Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021

Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, 7 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I), 14 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II), 21 April 2021

Sari Hanafi, The Pen and the Sword: The Narrow Margin of Academic Freedom in the Arab World, 5 May 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (III), 19 May 2021

David Armitage, Threats to Academic Freedom — A Comment, 26 May 2021

Alihan Mestci, On the Margins of the University: Academics in the Face of Power in post-2016 Turkey, 18 January 2022

László Detre, “Resisting Multiple Pressures – Perspectives on Academic Freedom in Europe” – Side Note on the re:constitution Seminar, 14 April 2022

Citation: Anna L. Ahlers, Contextualizing and Conceptualizing Debates about Academic Freedom in Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.04.2022,

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