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Why academic freedom is crucial—and problematic

By Melanie Manlogon-Victoriano Published Feb 08, 2021 1:54 am Updated Feb 08, 2021 2:52 am

Professors from the University of the Philippines (UP) called on the academic community not to take academic freedom for granted and take steps to protect it during an online forum on Feb. 4.

This comes in the heels of red-tagging incidents involving UP and other universities in recent weeks.

“Mga terror … pero hindi terrorista,” was how discussion moderators—investigative journalist Malou Mangahas and multi-awarded writer Jose “Butch” Dalisay—described their webinar panelists and reactors. They included professors emeriti Solita Monsod and Gisela Concepcion and alumni or faculty members Soledad Deriquito-Mawis, Giovanni Tapang, and Theodore Te.

Titled “Usapang Kalayaan sa Pamantasan: Mga Terror, Hindi Terrorista,” the webinar discussed academic freedom—what it is, why it is important for an academic institution and the nation, what threatens it, and how to protect it.

The word “terror” probably evoked memories of unforgettable professors—those who taught well but made their students work really hard and in whose class a “1” (the highest grade in the UP scale) would be wishing for the moon—from at least 1,500 webinar attendees, mostly alumni of the UP from Quezon City to Tawi-tawi, to California and Ireland, and elsewhere in the world.

Lawyer Ted Te: Why is there such a big deal about academic freedom? It is really an assertion of control. That’s the tension that gives rise to where we are right now.

Though participants enjoyed that bit of levity injected by the moderators, they agreed that recent incidents related to the State University were no joking matter.

Last Jan. 15, in a letter to UP President Danilo Concepcion, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana unilaterally abrogated the 1989 UP-DND Agreement on the conduct of military or police operations on any of the UP campuses.

Six days later, on Jan. 21, a Facebook post from a unit of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) erroneously identified some UP alumni as members of the New People’s Army (NPA) who have died or been captured.

The viral social media post from the AFP Information Exchange has since been disowned as wrong—an “unpardonable gaffe,” as the defense secretary termed it—and taken down. The AFP apologized for it and its deputy chief of staff for intelligence has since been relieved from duty.

University of the Philippines-Diliman campus.  Photos from UP’s Facebook page 

Maj. Gen. Benedict Arevalo, whose office runs the social media page which put up the post, has also gone on leave as chief of J-7, the AFP’s Office for Civil-Military Operations, taking full responsibility for the actions of his subordinates.

The UP community has not taken these incidents sitting down. Students and faculty trooped to Quezon Hall, the university’s administration building in Diliman, to denounce the one-sided termination. This was followed by the circulation of a collective statement signed by more than 200 alumni of the Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of the university, denouncing the unilateral abrogation of the UP-DND agreement and the use of the DND of the new Anti-Terrorism Law as justification for it as a “brazen threat to academic freedom and democratic freedom.”

On Jan. 24, in a letter to the university’s Board of Regents (BOR), 35 professors emeriti registered “in strongest terms” their protest against the unilateral abrogation of the 30-year-old UP-DND Agreement.

The professors emeriti stated that there was no supporting proof given on how the agreement failed and likewise did not say what the military intends to do on campus. “We are left to anticipate, with grave apprehension, the return of the kind of authoritarian policing that we suffered under martial law,” they wrote.

The importance of academic freedom

Defining academic freedom, Solita Monsod, professor emeritus for economics and former economic planning secretary, relied on various authorities to define academic freedom, beginning with one from a decision of the US Supreme Court which stated that academic freedom means that “a university can determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”

Citing Encyclopedia Britannica Monsod, stated that academic freedom “is the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulation, or public pressure.”

Economist Solita Monsod: The military is not the only threat. Corporations likewise threaten academic freedom when they dictate that universities should only teach ‘marketable courses.’

Another element of academic freedom is the “freedom to challenge orthodoxies without fear of repression,” Monsod added, drawing from the vision paper of current UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo. For UP in particular, academic freedom is important since its role is not only to be a knowledge producer but also a social critic.

Academic freedom, however, is not unlimited, Monsod said. A teacher or student is still subject to disciplinary action following due process, in case of misconduct.

Professor Emeritus Gisela Concepcion said that academic freedom is important to develop the “universitas” or “open thinking” that is necessary for institutions like UP who are “agents of social change.” The UP Charter of 2008 (Republic Act 9500) in fact gives it “the right and responsibility to exercise academic freedom.” Concepcion stressed that UP must protect its academic freedom so that it can fulfill its responsibilities as the national university.

If academic freedom sounds “all so good,” moderator Butch Dalisay asked panel reactor Atty. Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), why then are universities like UP having trouble when they invoke it, especially to agents of the State?

“Why is there such a big deal about academic freedom? It is really an assertion of control. Within the UP and within other universities, academic freedom allows administrators, faculty, students, constituents of the university some degree of control of over what we want to read, what we want to say, what we want to think, how we want to think, and who we want to think with, discuss with, express ourselves with. That’s the tension that gives rise to where we are right now. The assertion of some degree of control,” Te said.

Giovanni Tapang, dean of the College of Science, cited an interview of Albert Einstein which was conducted in 1950s in the US when Red Scare was intense, and professors were being asked what their political affiliation is.

Quoting Einstein, Tapang said, “Any restriction on academic freedoms acts in such a way as to hamper dissemination of knowledge among people and thereby impedes rational judgement and action.”

Tapang said that academic freedom is not only important within the university because if academic freedom is limited, the role of the university to know and show the truth becomes limited as well. A recent example is how UP’s science community was lambasted by the DENR for their criticism of the dolomite project in Manila Bay.

Ways to protect academic freedom

What then can universities and its constituents do to protect academic freedom?

There is organizing. Monsod called on fellow academics not to take academic freedom for granted and to continuously educate themselves about it. She also suggested that Filipino academics “seriously think about organizing” into something like the American Association of University Professors. This organization was established in the US in 1915 to advance academic freedom and to ensure that higher education serves the common good. Among AAUP’s key personalities are John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and Albert Einstein.

“Hold accountable in a public sphere” those who spread untruths about UP. 

Monsod said that if professors across universities are organized, those who are out to curtail academic freedom in the country will have a stronger organization to deal with, one more permanent and with institutional memory. This would be a step-up from the “episodal collective actions” that academic institutions are doing now.

“The military is not the only threat (to academic freedom),” Monsod said. Corporations likewise threaten academic freedom when they dictate that universities should only teach “marketable courses.”

“We cannot allow this,” Monsod said.

Another is communication. Monsod urged UP alumni and concerned members of the public to “communicate displeasure” through various media channels, including social media, since it is going to be a “communication battle” just like during martial law when people were afraid of speaking up for their colleagues because they were afraid to be red-tagged. This won’t happen if people speak up in defense of their Alma Mater.

Tapang agreed, saying that individuals should let their opinions be known, using tools such as Facebook. “Go on social media and discuss things like academic freedom violations,” he said.

He added that bots should not be allowed to take over discussions.

Likewise, Te stressed using skills and attitudes learned in UP to “hold accountable in a public sphere” those who spread untruths.

For her part, Deriquito-Mawis said, “Think, act, and live like a UP student. Know the facts. Analyze. Make a stand.”

Noting his observation that UP’s problems with red-tagging seems to be a policy which seems to be “beyond the review of the executive branch,” Te said “UP must assert its right to academic freedom” so that this policy, which could be an “experiment,” will not be successful and will not be rolled out to other universities.