By Isaac Nahon-Serfaty, December 4, 2023
I was participating in the Second Conference on Academic Freedom in the Americas in Curitiba, Brazil this November when several messages arrived in my email inbox from colleagues, ironically, expressing their concerns about my online activities. The source of this concern? A recorded Zoom conversation I had with an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Ottawa. We were discussing sex and gender, and the political and social implications of what is known as “gender ideology” on the call.
The “synchronicity” between these events, as a Jungian psychologist might say, is a symptom of what goes on in universities across the Western Hemisphere. In the midst of a conference bringing participants from all throughout the hemisphere and across the world together to discuss worldwide threats to academic freedom, I received multiple emails from professors 8,000 kilometres away in Ottawa (some whom I’d considered friends) accusing me of giving a platform to a person who “promotes transphobia” and would “endanger trans people on campus.”
Some colleagues said they did not want to promote censorship or self-censorship. However, the tone of their words and the epithets they used to denigrate the professor (subtly sticking these labels on me by extension) only reinforced the climate of intimidation that already exists at countless universities, including the one where I work.
Ever since Visual Arts instructor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval was suspended three years ago for using the N-word during class (citing the word as an example of an epithet a community has reclaimed), my fellow faculty and I have lived “under suspicion” at the University of Ottawa. Each expression in the classroom or reading recommendation must now be carefully measured and calculated. “Racist,” “white supremacist,” and “transphobic”, for example, are labels that can ruin someone’s academic career. For this reason, many of my colleagues prefer to remain silent, rather than risk professional oblivion.
At the Curitiba conference, organized by the Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas, with the support of the Human Rights Clinic of the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná, the Scholars at Risk network, the Human Rights Education and Research Centre at the University of Ottawa, and the University of Monterrey (Mexico), we were able to confirm that threats to freedom of thought, education and research come from all sides: from the authoritarian left in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, to the “anti-woke” right like the one represented by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The liberticidal campaigns across Latin America seek to eliminate dissenting voices. They do it through the closure of universities and the ostracism of professors and students, as is happening under the left-wing dictatorship of Daniel Ortega (we heard testimony to this effect from Nicaraguan student in exile Lesther Alemán Alfaro); through the defunding of the public higher education system, the starvation salaries academics are made to persist on and the imprisonment of students and professors in Nicolás Maduro’s jails; or the doctrinal violence of a Cuban regime that leaves no room for criticism. The right, notably in the United States, also wants to restrict criticism and put an end to ideas that do not correspond to their vision of the world, threatening to cut off financial resources to universities that adopt programs and research that do not correspond to the most conservative of values.
The results of Scholars at Risk’s most recent Free to Think report were presented, showing a decline in academic freedom indicators across the world. The report confirms a direct relationship between attacks against universities, students and professors, and the weakening of the foundations of democracy and, in the worst cases, the consolidation of authoritarianism. This is seen on all continents, from Asia and the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Myanmar) to Africa (Sudan and Ethiopia), Putin’s Russia to both American continents. The same trend is corroborated by other reports. The Academic Freedom Index, for example, indicates that, in 22 countries and territories, universities and professors have less autonomy and freedom than they did 10 years ago. The index produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in its most recent report placed Harvard University in last place for on campus freedom of expression.
The many faces of liberticide
Different aspects of restrictions to academic freedom were discussed by conference attendees in Curitiba: state interventions and budget cuts (in the cases of Venezuela and Mexico, the use of budget reductions to ruin public universities); attacks against university autonomy and self-government (as has occurred during periods of violent repression in Peru and Colombia); the growing role of tech corporations and social media networks in controlling access to information, as well as their role in the spreading of disinformation and their weaponization against academic freedom; gender violence on campus and policies to ensure safe university life for all; and the growth of initiatives to welcome academics who come from countries where professors and researchers are persecuted or discriminated against.
But what is academic freedom? It is the essential human right that the academic community and others have to develop, disseminate, apply and engage a diversity of knowledge and ideas through research, teaching and discourse. Two years ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights adopted the Inter-American Principles of Academic Freedom and University Autonomy, which serve as a framework for setting the duties of states and the rights of citizens in relation to higher education, research, and the generation and dissemination of knowledge. However, as became clear during the conference in Brazil, conceptions of academic freedom vary depending on several factors, including the socio-political and cultural context, the priorities of academics and students, and ideological perspectives.
From a more global point of view, the conference served to compare the problems of academic freedom in the Americas with corresponding problems in other regions, such as Africa and Asia. A professor from Ghana spoke of tensions between students and professors in several African countries that have suffered military coups, or where liberal democracy is being questioned for its “ineffectiveness.” The speaker told us that students in the West African nation criticize their teachers for their “Western” ideas in favour of a democratic wave that, according to them, has not brought well-being to their continent. An Asian presenter, for her part, told us that academic freedom is not a univocal concept and that there are different ways of thinking about and applying academic freedoms depending on the level of democratic development of the countries in Asia. A fellow Canadian introduced the notion of what should and should not be considered academic freedom, arguing that there are uses and abuses of this right to promote discriminatory ideas under the guise of scientific expertise.
Without academic freedom, it is difficult to conceive a truly democratic society – meaning one with division of powers, legal guarantees of human rights, respect for minorities, and the alternation of power through electoral means. This is not just a problem for the pedagogical, scientific, and intellectual elites. Without the freedom to think, research, teach and participate in public debates, it is impossible to conceive of an open society that does not, sooner or later, fall into the hands of autocracies. Silence is not an option in the face of abuses against academics and students anywhere in the world. That is, if we still believe in human freedom and dignity.
Isaac Nahon-Serfaty is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.