Why academic freedom matters
By Sorpong Peou
May 2, 2020
This is a preliminary draft on academic freedom for discussion and dialogue among interested scholars.
I attempt to answer the interesting questions posed by Sokplea Young.
What does academic freedom mean?
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CATU) defines “academic freedom as the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. Academic freedom includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process.”
But this definition is a bit too narrow. What does "free of orthodoxy" really mean?
In a general sense, academic freedom is part of a broader civil liberty: freedom of expression.
In a more specific academic sense, it is a freedom of inquiry that academics or faculty members enjoy. For me, as will become evident later, academic freedom is the type of freedom that scholars enjoy without any excessive institutional controls.
It is a specific type of freedom rooted in liberal education. In a nutshell, it means freedom to express one’s opinions or views or perspectives freely without any fear of retribution. This is a moral and legal concept within academic communities in democratic states around the world. Academic freedom is one indicator of whether a country is democratic or dictatorial.
The question then is why do we need this freedom?
How does academic freedom matter (undermine) scholarship/ academic community?
Academic freedom matters a great deal because without it knowledge cannot be advanced. Fear of coming under attack or getting dismissed when scholars share their knowledge is likely to cripple creative thinking or imagination and the pursuit of truth, however one defines it.
Without academic freedom, scholars would be afraid to pursue truth and knowledge that might be critical of their workplaces and governments.
The destruction of this freedom is dangerous to society. Academic freedom in Germany, for instance, was destroyed after Adolf Hitler came to power and then started World War II. By 1939, according to one source, some 45 percent of faculty members had been replaced by Nazis who supported Hitler’s war efforts. Dictators don’t like academic freedom! I could not think of a worse situation than when a political regime shut down the entire country, silenced its people by killing and intimidation, and then self-destructed. That regime was led by Pol Pot, one of the dumb dictators I have learned. Not only did he turn out to be a monster but he also lost everything, including his life. My perspective on this is more complicated than what other scholars think.
Unfortunately, academic freedom can undermine another civil liberty: freedom of religion. The Supreme Court of Canada, for instance, ruled against a Christian university’s application for accreditation of its law school just because the university prohibits “sexual intimacy that violated the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” I personally disagree on this ruling because it violates that university’s religious code, which should be respected as long as the law school teaches what other law schools teach or its curriculum do not violate the Canadian laws. This is what diversity and inclusivity are all about. One cannot talk about diversity by excluding or punishing someone who holds a different belief! This is an oxymoron.
Moreover, we still live in a world where scholars are still human and thus prone to pride (thinking that their own knowledge is superior to others without displaying any humility, which I often refers to as intellectual narcissism). Often times, scholars also allow themselves to be driven by their ideologies that leave their academic communities divided. Liberals and socialists/Marxists, for instance, are hostile to each other. The world was divided during the Cold War because of two opposing ideologies: capitalism and communism.
Thus, academic freedom can be used by scholars to attack each other and even destroy their departments and communities. As head of two different academic departments, I can say that academic freedom can be misused and abused when scholars accuse each other of not adopting the right theoretical positions, the soundest methods of analysis, and the most reliable type of empirical evidence/data. I would say that all this is not about academic freedom, since freedom is really about being free from fear of attack or threat.
Overall, academic freedom is necessary for teachers and scholars to do their work to advance knowledge (regardless of their ideological positions and political orientations) without any fears of getting fired for saying something that their universities don’t like. The important logic of academic freedom in liberal education tolerance: live and let live. But with freedom also comes responsibility for the community at large. The trick is learning how to strike a balance.
What does it mean by scholarship in the academic community?
Academic freedom enables scholars, teachers and students to pursue knowledge in an independent way without subjecting themselves to any institutional control.
Scholarship is a serious business that requires one to pursue it in a way that is not politicized because it is about truth-seeking. The pursuit of truth-based knowledge is not something that can be done by one person either. None of us can know everything. What we do or discover through learning and research must be shared, questioned, discussed, and debated.
Thus, an academic community is one where its members can share their knowledge and research findings with one another and test them out with the hopes of getting helpful feedback or constructive comments for further refinement or improvement of what they know.
In short, an academic community is one whose members share the same identity as thinkers and learners with diverse interests but for a common goal: to build a better world.
How do you evaluate scholarship in Cambodia and academic community?
I have not taught in Cambodia so I can’t say much about this. However, I am increasingly impressed by the overall high level of scholarship in our country. There is a growing and vibrant community of scholars who have done fine work and I am encouraged by high levels of sophistication. This is something that makes me feel proud as a Cambodian: namely, seeing other Cambodians thirst for knowledge and pursue it with perseverance.
What may concern me is the fact that scholarship in Cambodia is still too empirical: namely, too descriptive work based on evidence. There is nothing wrong with empirical knowledge, but a higher form of learning is based on deep conceptual and theoretical issues and insights, which allow scholars to discuss, dialogue and debate in order to enrich each other’s knowledge.
I understand that academic freedom is still a new idea in Cambodia because of historical and current political circumstances. But this is not uniquely Cambodian. I have taught and done research in Singapore, Japan and Thailand and come to one conclusion: most Asian countries do not fully value academic freedom. Thus,Asian scholars tend to do historical or descriptive works. This is a cultural and political problem, which stifles intellectual life.
How do you evaluate Cambodian and Western conceptions of academic freedom and scholarship?
I have not done any serious study on this question, but based on experience I can say that the liberal tradition in Western democracies encourages scholars to come up with different, original, and innovative knowledge. One has to say something new or original in order to get people’s attention. Repeating what others say is a poor way to learn.
This is what writing dissertations is all about: students must know what exists in their fields of research and come up with original ideas. This is why I have made a lot of efforts to show in my teaching and research that students/scholars must know a lot, if not everything, before they can start thinking about what they propose to do and what their contributions to the existing literature would be. In one of my new book projects on Perspectives on Peace and Security on Indo-Pacific Asia, I discuss a wide range of perspectives that include different variants of realism and those in other schools of thought such as liberalism, pacifism, culturalism, social constructivism, neo-Marxism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, feminism, and others.
For me, this is one good way to learn and what I have learned is that no theory is perfect, though some are better than others. Each theory has its strengths and shortcomings. Thus, scholars are expected to be humble. If we are not humble, we can’t expect our leaders to be humble!
How to do academic writing on sensitive issues within the current political environment?
This is an excellent question: as alluded to earlier, it is difficult to pursue academic knowledge under political, social, and other constraints. Sensitive issues are difficult to investigate.
But such constraints may be a blessing in disguise for several reasons. Firstly, they force scholars to be careful about succumbing to politicization. I have studied politics but don’t like it and the pursuit of power is not something that crosses my mind. I have studied war because I hate it. Thus, I don’t easily get politicized. Secondly, political constraints should help students engage in a kind of scholarship more theoretical and thus less known or sensitive to repressive leaders. What always saddens me most is when people continue to attack each other or their leaders without constructively addressing their common problems. Much of what is written is more about who’s right and who’s wrong or who are the good guy and the good guy. The moment people do that the world ends up with people attacking each other with no end in sight because this is the easy way of thinking. I have been attacked by some scholars like the one at Yale University for trying to make that case that violence and conflict are almost always rooted in the absence of legitimate institutions. Yes, there are bad and good guys, the good guys can also become bad. Why?
Thus, my scholarship is not about attacking anyone but more about explaining and understanding problems. I am still convinced that this kind of scholarship is one effective or productive way when one works on sensitive issues. By the way, I am still learning how to do this.
In short, scholars should do their best, when dealing with sensitive issues, by not getting personal or attacking others (such as their leaders). By taking a more theoretical (abstract) position, a scholar can make arguments that do not hurt or harm anyone but are likely to help guide their thinking. At the end of the day, a good scholar must be guided by at least two principles: fairness and love. Fairness is what most of us can agree on. Scholars should love not only knowledge but, more importantly, people. Also to love people is to be fair with them by understanding their circumstances and showing better ways to help them behave more constructively.
How do we remain engaged academically and safely in sensitive social and political issues?
As mentioned above, do it in a fair and non-judgmental way. This is not easy to do because raw instincts can get in the way. But it’s worth working on it -- one day at a time.
One can be critical without being unfair or hateful or resentful or angry or too judgmental. Cambodian leaders in particular are not good at being subtle or diplomatic, but Cambodian scholars should be able to do this well, because we are not political animals.
In this context, how do young Cambodian scholars and early career researchers survive and maneuver themselves to achieve their career goals?
For me, to be a true scholar is less about getting a dream job or getting praises from anyone else. It’s about doing what one likes and learning to think better even if current circumstances are difficult. I keep telling my students to do their best and to be the best they can be but worry less about job prospects. Jobs will come to you if you are good, but jobs will run away from you if you are not. So, my advice is as follows: first things first. Doing your best to be the best you can be and worry less about the rest. For me, faith always plays the most important role in life.
How to emancipate Cambodian scholars from a confined zone, from being considered as a Cambodian specialist/expert?
I like to think that we are creatures of habit. We keep thinking the way we always do or what others do. We are afraid to try something new, something unheard of, something strange.
One way to get away from or out of our confined or comfort zone is to be brave and broad in the way one looks at the world. So learn to think differently and read anything that may challenge your thinking. One of the things I have done is not to agree with everything what other scholars say, even if it means getting criticized or attacked. But being different does not mean being disrespectful of others. The best way to develop yourself as a good scholar is to be helpful by saying your work is a contribution rather than an assault on someone or some work.
Don’t sell yourself as a Cambodian expert! There are no intellectual markets for it, especially outside Cambodia. If you are a Cambodian, try to sell yourself as a regional or a global expert by doing more theoretical work. So when I published my first book on UNTAC (Oxford University Press, 1997), I did not say that I was a Cambodian expert. The book says my fields of expertise are International Relations and Comparative Politics. UNTAC is ONLY a case study. By doing this, you are not restricted to Cambodian studies but you are required to know the broader fields of study. So, don’t sell yourself as a Cambodia expert but use Cambodia to help shed light on broader theoretical issues raised in International Relations or Comparative Politics or other fields unless you see yourself as someone who strictly belongs to Khmer Studies.
In sum, scholarship and academic freedom are important issues that need more of our attention and scholars and government leaders should continue to exchange ideas about how to move forward and promote them in a bold but fair and respectful or non-threatening way. It would be nice if political leaders could understand that academic freedom is what helps their countries develop scientifically, economically, socially, and politically. But scholars must do what they can to help their leaders learn to think this way. Love and fairness may be one best way to help promote academic freedom.