How shall Swedish universities remain global when democracy and academic freedom are in decline?
Below are my reflections after the conference “Academic freedom and international collaboration in a turbulent world”, arranged in KI’s campus in Flemingsberg.
How shall Swedish universities remain global when democracy and academic freedom are in decline? This is one of the most pressing questions of our time and the topic for today´s conference entitled “Academic freedom and international collaboration in a turbulent world”. Faced with wars and conflicts and with the rise of authoritarianism and suppressive ideologies, should we – as institutions or individual researchers – abandon or suspend all international collaborations with the countries or regions in question? Or should we proceed as usual, turning a blind eye to the trends that we now experience?
Obviously, we should do neither. We should not respond in a binary manner. And we should not react instinctively and reflexively when a new crisis emerges. We have to nuance our response, and nuances will have to emanate from an informed debate that should be continual and inclusive, and that should have a long-term perspective. The conference today should be seen as our attempt to raise such a debate in the academic community.
The discussion inevitably revolved around Russia´s invasion of Ukraine and the repercussions this has had on international academic collaboration. What principles should apply when confronted with such an egregious act of aggression? After suspending collaborations on the institutional level (which is the only logical reaction in the case at hand), should we proceed and also discontinue collaborations on the individual level? What came out as a reasonable approach to authoritarian regimes is to “keep up collaborative links when conditions are difficult, but not when they are hopeless”. Even in countries where conditions are difficult there may be large segments or pockets of the academic community that are neutral or critical to the suppressive regimes in question. Hope vanishes only when such pockets cannot be reached or no longer exist.
When it comes to maintaining individual collaborations, it was argued that it all boils down to the competence and ethical compass of the individual researcher. I agree. Who else could be privy to the inner workings of an individual collaborative project and know how best to balance gains with risks? To navigate, the scientist in charge must be knowledgeable, courageous, and responsible. It is like sailing a ship through troubled waters: the captain must be in charge. Nobody can do the navigation for her.
Sanctions were discussed at length. The effects of such sanctions, and of science sanctions in particular, are difficult to judge. Sanctions tend to hit the disadvantaged disproportionately hard and may increase polarization rather than reduce it. The claim was put forward that it is a narcissistic aspect to the imposition of sanctions: it is more a matter of emerging as forceful and agile than helping promote a nuanced analysis of the long-term consequences of the sanctions imposed.
Back to academic freedom: how should we understand this term? Even if definitions can vary, the core meaning is the same.
Academic freedom is the universal right of teachers, students, and academic institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without the undue or unreasonable political, confessional, or ideological interference and injunctions. It involves the freedom to engage in the entire range of activities involved in the production of knowledge, including choosing a research focus, determining what to teach in the classroom, presenting and publishing research findings.
Academic freedom is a driver of innovation, enhances the capacity of scholars and students to acquire and generate knowledge, and thereby protects societies’ capacity for self-reflection. States and universities throughout the world have long committed to respecting academic freedom. All the same, it is constantly under attack. Sometimes due to ignorance, sometimes out of total disrespect. In some countries more blatantly than others.
Norway, where I come from, is, according to Democracy index considered to be the most democratic country worldwide. Sweden is in third place with Island sandwiched in between. Just like democracy, academic freedom needs to be constantly discussed, explained, and defended. Be it from activistic elements reporting teachers for using the “wrong” words, interference by university authorities with a professor´s choice of literature, self-censorship, or governments´ imposition of ideology that clashes with the principles of academic freedom.
Violation of academic freedom comes in a variety of different forms. It can come from within or be imposed from outside. The examples mentioned above are among the more lenient. In the most extreme cases university teachers might lose their jobs, be imprisoned or worse. One example relates of a professor in a North African country, who discovered that the mortality rate among children was higher than government figures indicated. He lost his job and was imprisoned. We have also the alarming case of Ahmadreza Djalali, Swedish citizen and KI alumnus, who was imprisoned in 2016 and who now has a death penalty hanging over him.
Being at the top of the democracy list comes with responsibilities to stand up for and engage in issues related to democracy and human rights. This also includes working actively for academic freedom and institutional autonomy on a global scale.
How can we maintain and deepen the international activities of higher education institutions in a world that is increasingly less democratic? And how can this be done without compromising our conviction on the importance of spreading the messages of fundamental human rights, democratic values, and academic freedom?
International advisory committee
In order to focus on this extremely important topic, Karolinska Institutet established last year an international advisory committee. The committee consists of experts that will complement our own knowledge and act as advisors on geopolitical issues that affect our internationalization efforts, our students and our employees. It is this advisory committee that has put together this evening´s program. I am happy to announce that from now on, this advisory committee will serve the entire Swedish university sector and not just KI.
I extend my gratitude to all panel members, the moderator, the organizers, the technical staff, and not least: to all of you who attended this conference, in person or on distance. Among those present in Jan-Åke Gustafssonsalen today were a number of KI students. You are the ones who will need to navigate in the turbulent world of the future. A special thank you for your interest and participation.