Academic Freedom between Ideals and Daily Challenges

By Jernej Letnar Černič

For decades, pluralism, the rule of law, and human rights have been the backbone of constitutional democracies. Those ideals have been embraced by academia, at least in constitutional democracies. Academia has, on the one hand, propelled innovation, creativity, and pluralism in the past decades in various national environments. On the other hand, it has been more challenging to internalize those values in environments where state authorities have prevented academia from fully flourishing. As we discussed in November 2021 at the re: constitution Ljubljana Seminar on “Resisting multiple pressures – Perspectives of Academic Freedom in Europe” (see report), academic freedom reinforces the objectives of constitutional democracy. As participants discussed at the seminar, we should not take academic freedom for granted. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have increasingly taken academia as a direct threat to their existence.                      

Jernej Letnar Černič. Photo: private

The last decade has witnessed an increase in the attacks on the above ideals in academia and beyond. Space for different stakeholders in academia to express their views shrank. The attacks on academia have increased after, for example, the alleged coup d’état in Turkey, the crackdown on the opposition after unfair elections in Ukraine, and, more recently, the Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine since 24 February 2022. The recent attack has triggered an internal and external exodus of scholars in Ukraine. Several researchers have left areas under attack. Many have been internally displaced, but have chosen to remain, trying to conduct research from a temporary location elsewhere in the country. In the past decades, several researchers and professors have been the targets of external and internal attacks. War and unstable environments have caused the exodus of researchers and professors from various academic areas and national settings. They have negatively affected their family and private lives and their well being. Some of those who fled ongoing oppression in Belarus have been constantly on the run since the summer of 2020.

Universities have traditionally been a space for free, innovative, creative thinking, research, and teaching. They aim to advance socio-economic developments locally, regionally, and worldwide. Researchers and professors, for instance in the social sciences, have been vocal in highlighting challenges to human rights, the rule of law, and pluralism and in criticizing their government, university, and other actors. Nonetheless, academic freedom has been under stress in most of Europe for several years. The reasons are multi-layered. Generally, they include funding, administration, politics, the rule of law, and ideology. Most institutions of higher education have struggled with funding challenges, whereas external and internal pressures have often mounted. Academia has traditionally been a defender of pluralism, human rights, and the rule of law on the European continent. Whereas, after obtaining tenured positions, some professors and researchers in some countries of the Global North have been privileged to freely research, a substantial number in the Global North and even more in the Global South have had to struggle to retain their jobs. Such vulnerability has generally affected their ability to produce critical and high-quality research; this has deepened inequalities in global higher education, research, and teaching.

Some institutions and scholars have been experiencing even more direct challenges to academic freedoms in the past decades. The nature and scope of the attacks on academic freedom vary. Nonetheless, they include at least the following five different groups of academic freedom violations. First, professors and researchers are forced to leave their hometowns and universities due to forceful takeover through armed attacks, as we have seen recently in Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and elsewhere. The Russian Federation has recently attacked and demolished several university buildings across Ukraine. Most of the professors and researchers in Eastern Ukraine have fled and are now internally displaced. Some of them have taken up arms to counter Russian aggression. In the meantime, the leadership of hundreds of Russian universities has signed a public letter supporting the attack of the Russian Federation on Ukraine.

Second, the state authorities in environments where the rule of law is weak often aim to force outspoken critics out of academia by terminating their employment relationships, threatening their families, cutting off their salaries, and other measures. The formal and informal state and societal elites recognize these critics as a direct threat to the power of the regimes. Researchers and their families have been threatened, laid off, and prosecuted. In other cases, old and new elites have systemically taken over whole universities, attempting to eliminate any instances of academic competition. Third, state authorities have threatened the existence of critical higher education institutions by decreasing or eliminating their funding, imposing formalistic and bureaucratic administrative barriers, or forcing them to dissolve. Fourth, sometimes professors and researchers have been targeted internally by university officials and external public officials in a crackdown on pluralism in universities and beyond. Fifth, as the space for civil debate has shrunk in constitutional democracies, there is evidence from several national environments that authorities expect tacit ideological support from academia and make institutions’ funding dependent on unequivocal support for their ideology.

How are we to respond to persistent threats to academia in Europe and to protect those defenders of human rights within academia who, under threat, left universities and their cities and countries? The place of academia in modern constitutional democracies should be to defend core societal and constitutional values. It should inform the power centers in state institutions, public administration, business, the private sector, etc. As turbulent times continue in the following months and years in Europe, academia as a democratic society will have to return to its roots. Such a change will not be easy, but it is inevitable. Academia will have to adapt to new realities by reaffirming and deepening its place in democratic societies. As a beacon of hope, academia must embrace broadmindedness and its autonomy and defend itself against internal and external pressures. The rights to independent, pluralistic, and tolerant thinking, research, and teaching are important both outside and inside academia. Another challenge is ensuring or recreating independence, impartiality, and professionalism in those environments that have been subjected to the erosion of the rule of law, human rights protection, and professionalism. Those scholars privileged to work in more or less accessible environments should not turn a blind eye to people who daily fight to uphold academic freedom in environments where the rule of law is weak. Continued silence will further exacerbate the dire situation of academic freedom and increase risks for scholars and their families, students, and institutions in environments where the rule of law is weak.


Jernej Letnar Černič is Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law at the Faculty of Government and European Studies of the New University (Ljubljana/Kranj, Slovenia) and Visiting Professor of Law at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder.


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, 07 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, 05 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

Anna L. Ahlers, Contextualizing and Conceptualizing Debates about Academic Freedom in Europe, 28 April 2022 

Raffaela Kunz, The Digital Threat to Science and Academic Freedom, 17 May 2022


Citation: Jernej Letnar Černič, Academic Freedom between Ideals and Daily Challenges, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.08.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/40101



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2022, 10. August). Academic Freedom between Ideals and Daily Challenges. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut55

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