Academic Freedom In Danger Worldwide, Especially in China and Other Authoritarian Countries

Repressive governments are cracking down on colleges and universities in more than 60 countries, according to a report by Professor Kirsten Roberts Lyer and researcher Aran Suba for the International Center for Not-for-profit Law. They outlined ways in which educators, administrators, and students are losing freedoms:


  • colleges and universities lack institutional autonomy and face political interference — “higher authorities above the university” firing, demoting or denying promotions to educators for political reasons or for no given reasons whatsoever;
  • professional educators — administrators and faculty — encounter severe restrictions from governments on what they can do, say, research, or what policies they can implement;
  • Freedom of research and academic engagement are quashed because certain topics are too controversial and too political to touch;
  • Students are restricted from expressing themselves legitimately in student media, or even in classroom activities;
  • Admissions, scholarships, grades, and dismissals are politicized, not based on academic merit;
  • Academics are criminalized, educators face fines, dismissal, deportation or prison terms for legitimate statements made in the classroom, in public, based on research on in writing;
  • False accusations that educators are “foreign agents” or “terrorists” can be used to justify their dismissal, deportation, or imprisonment.
  • Cameras or audio devices in classrooms record all presentations by teachers and interactions with students, and insure that teachers make politically-correct statements. Electronic devices alert security when teachers and students enter or leave campus, and alert parents when their students’ ID is active on campus.
  • Campuses are secured, locked and/or militarized to prevent interaction between genders, ethnicities, nationalities. Approval by stringent security bureaucracies are required for guest speakers to attend campus events or to communicate with students in classrooms. Instructors are expected to monitor and restrict communication between genders or castes.
  • Excessive financial control of colleges and universities by governments or businesses seeking political control of education as a propaganda tool.

“University autonomy is closely related to the healthy functioning of democratic societies,” the authors wrote. “Autonomous higher education institutions are a critical feature of democratic, rule-of-law-based societies.”

University autonomy cannot be separated from academic freedom, which
It is defined by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) as:

  • the freedom “to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge and
    ideas, through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation or writing” and
  • includes “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution
    or system in which they work,
  • “to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic
    bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human
    rights …”

One of the most frightful examples of repression within education is in China, where students are recruited as spies or watchdogs against teachers in order to quash political dissent. Professors, Beware. In China, Student Spies Might Be Watching.

My colleagues and I encountered more and more restrictions on academic freedom while I worked in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. My mentor teacher in Turkey was among 150,000 swept up by authorities in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan. A gifted teacher and patriotic Turk, he was tragically sentenced to eight years in prison for simply being a follower of Fettulah Gulen, an Islamic scholar an opinion leader in Turkey. Follow

Nearly all of the authoritarian moves cited above against educational institutions were taken against Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates while I was living in the country between 2011 and 2017, in response to the Arab Spring. Before mid-2012, the university had a progressive academic atmosphere that taught Enlightenment values such as freedom of thought, speech, inquiry, and debate. Communications Professor Matt Duffy accomplished remarkable things, for example, before he was summarily kicked out of the country in 2012. Duffy was one of more than a dozen colleagues who were fired, dismissed or deported without explanation during my time in the country.

Restrictions on Academic Freedom in the United States As Well? 

Conservatives in the U.S. complain bitterly that college campuses are becoming increasingly narrow-minded, and hostile to diverse viewpoints. While campuses do not face anything like the severe restrictions outlined above, and that I noted in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, there are examples of conservative speakers shouted down and not permitted to speak on campus.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in 2018 observed that campus leftists were making a mistake in choosing to suppress ideological voices they don’t agree with, like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, in hopes that their ideas will go away.

The Ted Radio Hour explored the debate over free speech in the US, asking “Should all speech, even the most offensive, be allowed on college campuses? And is hearing from those we deeply disagree with … worth it?” Click.

Bias Against Hiring Conservative Professors? 

American conservatives have long complained that they have difficulty getting jobs and promotions in academia, are under-represented among faculty, and should receive affirmative action or job quotas in higher education. (Debate.)

But a 2016 book, “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University” by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. challenged the notion that colleges are hostile to conservatives by interviewing 152 conservative professors:
“Most conservative professors told them that the university is a far more tolerant place than its right-wing critics imagine. Many, in fact, first turned right in the university itself, while others say they feel more at home in academia than in the Republican Party.

“Even so, being a conservative in the progressive university can be challenging. Many professors admit to closeting themselves prior to tenure by passing as liberals.

“Some openly conservative professors even say they were badly mistreated on account of their politics, especially those who ventured into politicized disciplines or expressed culturally conservative views.

“Despite real challenges, the many successful professors interviewed by Shields and Dunn show that conservatives can survive and sometimes thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.

“And this means that liberals and conservatives need to rethink the place of conservatives in academia.

“Liberals should take the high road by becoming more principled advocates of diversity, especially since conservative professors are rarely close-minded or combatants in a right-wing war against the university.

“Movement conservatives, meanwhile, should de-escalate its polemical war against the university, especially since it inadvertently helps cement progressives’ troubled rule over academia.”

The authors summarized the main points of their book in a Washington Post column.

Drill Deeper:

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