Academic freedom and responsibility

"One cannot exist without the other."


In 1231, Pope Gregory IX issued the papal bill “Parens Scientiarum” which granted the University of Paris autonomy to run its own affairs, guaranteed its freedom to debate on any subject without the interference of the local bishops and the secular authorities and assured them the particular protection of the Pope. In the centuries that followed, this relationship between Church and the medieval universities continued to thrive, resulting in the historical development of the concept of academic freedom.

Despite academic freedom becoming a rallying point for many universities in recent years, the fact is that there remains no clear understanding of its legal metes and bounds. Generally speaking, academic freedom is understood as the freedom to pursue learning and research without undue institutional or political intervention. For teachers, it means the freedom to create courses of learning and to accordingly teach them as they see fit. For students, it is their right to choose what to study and the direction of their learning.

Our modern-day understanding of academic freedom has been later on expanded to also include safeguards on the right of teachers and students to free speech, including the communication of ideas and facts including even on matters beyond their professional expertise, without fear of repression, termination of employment or criminal prosecution.

The unilateral abrogation of the accord between the University of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense has caused academic freedom to be once more under close scrutiny. Signed in 1989 by then UP President Jose Abueva and then Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos, the said accord, as its core element, laid down guidelines on military and police operations inside the university, effectively prohibiting any member of the military or the police from entering any UP campus except in case of hot pursuit, similar emergency situation and ordinary transit through the campus. Should the military or law enforcement officers intend “to conduct any military or police operations in any of the UP Campuses,” they must transmit prior notification to the UP President, or the chancellor of the constituent university, or the dean of the regional unit concerned.

On January 18, current Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a letter addressed to incumbent UP President Danilo Concepcion officially notified the university, unilaterally abrogating the 1989 UP-DND accords, citing reports that the Community Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) is actively recruiting members among students. Secretary Lorenzana insisted the agreement was a “hindrance in providing effective security, safety, and welfare of the students, faculty, and employees of UP.” He explained that the accord is being used to shield communist insurgents and to prevent the military from conducting operations against them.

CHED Chairperson Prospero “Popoy” de Vera, who chairs UP’s Board of Regents, is right in saying that the controversy surrounding the UP-DND agreement signals the need to finally define what academic freedom really means.

The unilateral act by Secretary Lorenzana of terminating the UP-DND agreement clearly imperils the liberties presently enjoyed by UP, especially existing guarantees of academic freedom. In fact, by ending the agreement, the military and police are now absolved from the obligation to “not interfere with peaceful protest actions by UP constituents within UP premises.”

There is no question, therefore, that UP must defend its liberties and challenge the abrogation before the courts. Bringing the issue before the courts would allow them to remove any remaining contentious ambiguities on the concept of academic freedom and to rule once and for all, on its extent and limitations.

Guaranteeing academic freedom is important to UP’s culture of critical thinking and intellectual dissent. Since its establishment, UP has long served as a bastion for activism among its faculty and students. By removing such protection previously assured to the members of the UP community, questions arise on the exercise of the right to petition the authorities for redress of grievances, and even the right to dissent and criticize their actions and decisions without fear of prosecution or reprisal from the government.

In fact, the recent move by Congress to legislate guarantees on academic freedom not only for UP but for all colleges and universities is a welcome development.

The matter of academic freedom, however, is but half the issue. This is also an opportunity for UP and other colleges and universities to have the courage to confront itself on the question of academic responsibility.

Academic responsibility is no less important than the freedom guaranteed to institutes of higher learning. Responsibility and freedom are like two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other. Our constitutionally guaranteed liberties are not a free pass for us to say and do whatever, whenever, wherever and to whomever we want. It is important to remind ourselves that every freedom we enjoy is coupled with a correlating responsibility. Exercising our rights must never be isolated from fulfilling our duties, otherwise, there will be the tendency to misuse our freedom as a misguided excuse for despicable behavior in speech or action.

It is important, therefore, to define what constitutes academic freedom, and what our academic responsibilities demand. While academic freedom requires protection from institutional discipline or restraint, it must be emphasized that it cannot be used to justify sedition, insurgency or rebellion – especially when such actions result in violence for political ends or threaten the lives of others. The freedom to discuss and debate on all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write on issues of public concern are not absolute, and its does not extend to acts that contravene the rights of others and that what the law would consider a crime.

In fact, society is better served by the affirmation that with freedom comes responsibility, and our willingness to accept the consequences of our choices, in a way that respects and protects not only ours but also the freedom of others.

The DND’s error on this matter is that it failed to consider that activism and critical thinking is a natural offshoot of conscientious learning. The truth of the matter is that they are fighting an ideology that apparently presents an alternative to the political, economic and moral ills of society – a necessary component of a functioning democratic society. Rather than impute malice on the right of the people to question the status quo, all that the government should have done was to simply battle it with an even better idea.

Our intellectual freedoms of teaching, expression, research, and debate must be protected at all costs, but to the same extent must we also uphold our responsibility to exercise these freedoms in the interest of reasoned inquiry and the preservation of the general welfare. In the end, academic freedom, as well as responsibility, are but a means to an even higher purpose of learning – the pursuit of understanding the search for truth.

Topics: Jude Acidre , Academic freedom , responsibility , University of the Philippines , Department of National Defense
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