Dialogues on Academic Freedom: Interviews with Experts

Is Academic Freedom a general principle or an effective right? Looking for an answer

An interview with Prof. Gianmario Demuro, University of Cagliari 
By:  Federica Capitani (University of Trento, DSRS-Sociology Degree), Lisang Nyathi and Uddhav Gautam (University of Trento, LAW-CEILS Degree) 

In this interview, the students want to understand the extent and effectiveness of academic freedom as a universal right in the European Union and in Italy. So, they firstly ask to professor Demuro to better define the theoretical content of academic freedom, to later explore how AF is protected (and respected) in EU legal system. In this way, they discovered that academic freedom is recognized by the EU Charter (art. 13 “The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected”) as a fundamental right whose core “is scientific method and freedom of expression”, as professor Demuro says. The last focus is dedicated to Italy: it considers the problems encountered by scientific research and the consequent need to find a balance between opposing interests (e.g. using animals in experiments). In conclusion, the interview poses a complex question: what will be the future of academic freedom? For professor Demuro it is necessary to guarantee that AF becomes a global right, effectively practiced and guaranteed to all and only international law (and international institutions) can secure this goal.

Scientific research and human genome editing: Before performing research, we should make sure that this will really bring us into a better world

An interview with Prof. Iñigo De MiguelBeriain, Universidad del Paìs Vasco 
By: Eider Arozamena and Maddi Ponce (Universidad del País Vasco – Law Degree); Celia Sáez (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Faculty of Humanity, Cultural Studies Degree)

Together with Prof. De Miguel Beriain, students tackled one of the most complex and sensitive topics within the general field of scientific experimentation: the research using the technique of human genome editing (CRISP CAS9). Gaining clarity and an in-depth and full understanding of this field of research is a prerequisite for tackling it in an informed manner, and the interview recalls the need for a cultural change in this regard. Through students’ questions, key issues are addressed: the future potentialities of this type of technique and the impact that its implementation will have on our world; the characteristics of the regulatory tools implemented at global and regional level; and the need for researchers to having an effective access to advice (i.e. through ethics committees) on the ethical and legal scenario in which the concrete research will be performed. A further key challenge that the use of this technique will pose to societies and decision-makers in the future will be fairness of universal access to the results of the application of these techniques, in respect of which fundamental decisions will have to be taken.

Academic Freedom and Gender studies: a scientific approach under attack

An interview with Prof. Maddalena Cannito, University of Turin 
By: Chiara Molina and Eleonora Cirillo (University of Trento, LAW-CEILS Degree); Gonnella Giulia and Beatrice Parati (University of Trento, DSRS – International Studies Degree) 

The interview documents the difficulties faced by scholars of gender studies. First of all, Maddalena Cannito underlines that “the main challenge for scholars is to be accepted as scientists in academia”. In fact, gender studies are often delegitimized on the basis of ideological, political but certainly not scientific considerations. Critics of the detractors against the scholars is that they have "political objectives" and want “to convince people of their truth, which are not considered scientific”, as Maddalena Cannito says. At the same time, the interview shows clearly that in Europe awareness is growing, not only of the importance of gender studies but also of the need to build alliances between civil society and scholars. At the hearth of this awareness is the concern that rights are not secured forever and for everybody: our interlocutor reminds us that “it is important as scholars to exercise our privilege in order to protect women and other minorities rights”. Gender inequality remains a big challenge not only in countries like Iran or Afghanistan, but also in Western countries and even within academia, as Maddalena Cannito explains. The last question refers to sexist behaviours that, even within the University of Trento, are no longer acceptable: thanks to gender studies, we can achieve a wider and widespread understanding of this topic and we can promote a real cultural change.  

Amplifying Voices through Academic Freedom Advocacy

An interview with Prof. Adam Braver, Roger Williams University
By: Federica Baldo and Elisa Viola (University of Trento, DSRS - BA in International Studies)

In this interview, students explore with Adam Braver the meaning of advocacy for threatened university members across the globe. Drawing from his expertise as professor of creative writing and coordinator of advocacy seminars for Scholars at Risk, Adam Braver reflects on the importance of creating international awareness around cases of attacks against academic freedom. Advocacy means mitigating the risk of isolation of imprisoned scholars and students, and of the potential indifference and forgetfulness in the public sphere. When a university community advocates for the academic freedom of colleagues of different national, scientific and generational background, it reminds us the responsibility we hold as university members towards transnational scientific solidarity. Adam Braver reflects on the fruitful exchange between students from different countries about advocacy ideas, plans, strategies, something that supports the responsible internationalization of higher education communities. The interview concludes with a reflection about the fragility of academic freedom in ‘Western’ contexts like the US, and on the importance to avoid focusing exclusively on authoritarian regimes when discussing attacks against academic freedom.  

There is no Academic Freedom without Job Stability

An Interview with Prof. Asli Vatansever, Bard College Berlin 
By: Camilla Crisma (University of Trento, LAW- CEILS Degree); Ella Eklund and Ida Hellkvist Karlsson (University of Trento, DSRS-Sociology and Social Research Degree); Marie-Luise Winter (University of Trento, Centre for Integrative Biology)

The research topic we select as scholars are often the result of personal experiences, combined with an impetus to thread the latter into a critical analysis of broader phenomena. Asli Vatansever dialogues with students, to provide an engaging reflection on how labour precarity intertwines with state and university censorship to constrain academic freedom. While the discussion interests political events hitting Turkey since 2016, it holds relevance well beyond this national context. 
Students begin to discuss with our guest the social responsibility of scholars to raise their voices against rights violations, a ‘duty to critique’ that lies at the hearth of the university mission. Asli Vatansever reflects on her decision to sign the ‘Academic for Peace Petition’ in 2016 and on the consequences this held for her professional dismissal. While state violence against dissident academics is recalled as a landmark in a disrupted academic career, Vatansever also reminds us that prolongued precarity, the erosion of tenure-track positions, the imperative of prolongued job-seeking mobility act as powerful means to weaken academic freedom. In this respect, any careful analysis of academic displacement from Turkey cannot be disentangled from a critical discussion of the worsening conditions of academic labour in receiving destinations like Europe.   

From Russia with Pain: a Historical Perspective on Academic freedom

An Interview with Antonella Salomoni, University of Calabria 
By: Diego Morone, Roberto Bonaduce, Francesco Paolillo and (University of Trento, LAW-CEILS Degree); Irene Gomez (University of Trento, DSRS-International Studies Degree) 
In this interview, students of the University of Trento asked Professor Antonella Salomoni to comment on academic freedom in Russia and to reflect on how the current situation is related to the ongoing war in Ukraine and to the Soviet legacy. According to Professor Salomoni, there is no academic freedom in Russia today. Academic rights and freedoms are openly violated and subjected to political control. Considered from a long-term perspective, the war in Ukraine accelerated a process of restriction of academic freedom that have deep roots in the past. Even before the outbreak of the war, the Russian Federation invested heavily in education and science, promoting the internationalisation of research. At the same time, state security and political control were extended over all scientific and educational activities, with increasing limitations to the principle of academic freedom. Moreover, the outbreak of the war undermined the prospects for international collaboration. One telling episode is the case of the “Skoltech” Institute, an institute for science and technology. Founded in 2011 in Moscow, the Institute was co-founded by M.I.T. in the US and by the Russian higher education system. In February 2022, the cooperation was immediately suspended, as a direct consequence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The case of the Skoltech is also emblematic of how the war affected the life of international students.  After the outbreak of the conflict, many students left, or at least tried to exit the country. More generally, the strong sanctions had a direct impact on the Russian university system, especially penalizing international students and forcing them to abandon the country. For the Russian Federation these are significant losses. Also the Russian disengagement from the Bologna process is part of a policy of renationalization of the higher education system. Professor Salomoni maintains that the Soviet legacy helps to understand the ongoing violations of the principle of academic freedom since the all-encompassing securitization of culture and education have been a feature of Soviet history from Stalin onwards. Already in the 1960s and 1970s, only a small part of the scientific community enjoyed full academic freedom and only in certain fields, such as physics for example. Among the lucky few, some would later join or even lead the dissent, such as the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. The long-lasting effects of the Soviet legacy can also be detected in the massive and increasing political control over mass media and information.  

An interview with Prof. Terence Karran, Lincoln University 
By: Federica Mancini, Giulia Coseani and Magda El Assri (University of Trento, DSRS – International Studies Degree)

Students engage in a dialogue with one of the leading experts on academic freedom in Europe, who has largely contributed to foster our awareness of the importance of this principle for the present development of higher education systems in the old continent, and beyond it. The interview revolves around two main interrelated themes. The first one addresses the relevance that academic freedom holds for university communities in the broadest sense: we often think of this freedom as something that is enjoyed by scholars, underestimating the fact that students’ freedom to learn and to express their ideas is necessary to promote critical thinking and to foster democratic citizenship. The second, points out at the different ways in which academic freedom can be - directly or indirectly - protected. Prof. Karran underlines the importance of the de jure and de facto protection of academic freedom. Drawing from the case of Russian scholars fleeing today from their country, he reminds us how the inscription of academic freedom in national laws does not necessarily translate into the protection of academic communities. 

An interview with Prof. Peter Burke, University of Cambridge 
By: Emma Giachino and Federica Ceresa (University of Trento, DSRS-International Studies Degree) and K. Setsen Yifei (University of Trento, LAW-CEILS)

The interview engages with the topic of intellectuals, who, across different epochs, found themselves in the condition of exile, the latter marked by a tension between deprivation, critical awareness and original thinking. Students discuss with Peter Burke the importance to thread past histories of displacement into the discussion on the consequences contemporary intellectual exile for the destruction of knowledge. Prof. Burke underlines the relevance of the trauma generated by displacement, and the need to create awareness within and beyond universities about the potential contributions that exiled scholars can offer to international scientific communities. In doing so, the internationally renowned historian recalls how knowing and being thought by intellectuals that fled from Germany and Italy since the 1930s constituted a landmark in his academic career. He prompts research centers in contemporary European universities to valorize the perspectives and experiences of displaced scholars, for the benefit on knowledge. The last part of the interview start disclosing the much understudied topic of women scholars in the ‘Great Exodus’, and their need to combine care work with the intention to pursue scientific recognition.