Last Anniversary Celebration of the Institute for Advanced Social Research, IASR: Robert Imre on Academic Freedom in the IASR

Freedom From and Freedom To: Academic Life Inside and Outside the IASR

Dr Robert Imre
Former IASR Senior Fellow
Senior Researcher – TAPRI

In political science terms we can identify academic freedom as a situation in which the primary form of expression is to have the capacity to engage with power ‘freely’ in terms of criticizing both actors and systems. This means that academics who are concerned with political problems such as policy questions, questions about structures of government, questions about political actors, and related situations, must be free to critique both power structures as well as the political actors who participate in them. This is the ‘freedom to’ proposition that political theorists often operate with.

This also means that there must be a ‘freedom from’ persecution for engaging in these critiques.

But this ‘freedom from’ has to have protections in place for academics: those protections need to include ensuring that governments are prohibited from delivering retribution, ensuring that there are laws protecting academics from abuse from the public, and protections from the academic institution they work for (and that the academic institution they work for does not use a de facto retribution itself to punish academics critical of illiberal and anti-democratic university policies). It is quite necessary that if there is to be any kind of accountability, critique of public and social policy, development of inclusive societies, or indeed any sort of evaluation of those in power, academics must have a ‘freedom from’ setup that protects them when they speak truth to power. It also means that ‘academic freedom’ must include some kind of proviso that stops academic research from being weaponized by those in power.

Sadly, this is rare, as many feminist scholars, antiracism scholars, scholars who do critical work in all kinds of the social sciences, and scholars who take long periods of time to think about major issues and develop their arguments, can attest to. Those who run universities are always pressuring academics to publish much and more, and then place the constraints on the publishing of research to be ‘socially relevant’ as defined by the university bureaucracy. When critique of government policies leads to online abuse for example, university administrations have a history of always backing down, acting like corporate managers instead of participating in guardianship of public trust. Calling someone a ‘fascist’ when they fit all of the well-established academic categories of a fascist, or suggesting that there is gender bias in institutions, or demonstrating the ‘racial’ and/or gender bias exists in public institutions, or demanding that the powerful act to mitigate climate change rather than accept the bribes from powerful corporations, are not contentious issues for academics working in these areas. Building inclusive and open societies means that academics may not be producing material quickly, may not be producing what is demanded to be ‘useful’ by corporate university administrators, and may not be producing material that is marketable for businesses and companies.

Universities (and by implication academics, researchers, teachers, administrators) do not merely ‘serve’ society, and they certainly are not in the service of the state. Universities are part of the societies in which they are embedded, just as people who work in universities are concerned with their families, the bills they have to pay, and the planet they live on. As an institution, universities are supposed to contribute to world knowledge, accessible to all. Demands by university administrators for ‘new’ and ‘relevant’ research is usually about their own glorification, similarly, corporations demanding ‘market-based’ education is about cutting their own costs for training and ensuring the presence of a readily available and exploitable labour force, and the state demanding ‘useful’ research is about an exercise of power wielded by university bureaucracies working in tandem with the state. The reason that academics are not in the service of the state is the same reason that school teachers, nurses, doctors and bus drivers are not there to serve those in power, treat the wealthy first in hospitals, or make commodifiable objects for the wealthy to obtain more wealth.

So this might help to explain why the IASR is such a valued institution and what ‘academic freedom’ means to academics. A fundamental approach in the IASR was always to edify. When colleagues presented research, we gathered together to engage in the difficult task of actually thinking about and understanding what was happening. This might require time to ruminate on difficult research questions, formulating long-term projects, and tackling the kinds of issues that cannot be solved immediately. A principal means of doing this was also to have Professor Risto Heiskala set the tone immediately: informing us that we are engaged in our research, and we should feel free to change our minds during the investigations, and think deeply about the problems that present themselves. In effect fulfilling the ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ mission that is so necessary for the various academic tasks at hand. Similarly, the work of Marjukka Virkajärvi, the Coordinator for the IASR, also played a fundamental role in how ‘free’ academics were able to function. Most academics spend a great deal of their time drowning in administrative work rather than research and teaching. We need help in organizing our institutional lives, and administrators form a fundamental part of that. This is precisely why we see so many former fellows lauding the work of our friend Maiju, the Coordinator of the IASR, as we academics had a professional person taking care of the necessary administrative work. This also contributed to our freedoms in a very valuable way.

In sum, institutions like the IASR are fundamental to enhance the ability of ‘free’ thinkers to speak truth to power, which is precisely why institutions like the IASR are so rare (and so often disapproved by those in power). It is no accident that the IASR is universally lauded, and certainly no accident that all of the former fellows, including myself, speak so fondly of their time there.