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Academic Freedom: With Every Right Comes a Responsibility

Michael Ignatieff, Vanessa Scherrer, Silvia Giorguli and Sergei Guriev (credits: Thomas Arrivé)

On Friday, 16 september, three high-level international speakers took turns to discuss the complex topic of “What do our university communities owe society?”. Last but not least, this event ended the Academic Freedom Week organised by Sciences Po to promote freedom in learning, teaching and researching.The three panelists, Michael Ignatieff, Silvia Giorguli and Sergei Guriev, three professors specialised in respectively history, sociology and economy, introduced by Vanessa Scherrer, Vice-President for International Affairs at Sciences Po, explored the importance of academic freedom for a free society whatever the national and international context may be: democratic or non-democratic countries, economical crisis, climate change,etc.

Academic freedom is not a privilege

Michael Ignatieff, among his many activities, has taught history to the university students of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Toronto. Through his rich academic career, he has always kept in mind and came to Sciences Po to remind everyone that, “Academic freedom is not the privilege of academics. University, as one of the oldest communities, should be proud of its right, but should never forget that with a right comes a responsibility. Academic freedom is a right that university communities as a whole, meaning as a student, as a member of staff, as a professor, tenured or not, owe to society”. It represents a duty to curate the knowledge that society needs to find solutions to its problems, to ask difficult questions, even when they’re not rewarding career-wise.

The notion of institutional autonomy is key. If the institutions are not free, then there is no freedom to “write and think”. That is the reason why Michael Ignatieff claims, “Academic freedom is under attack because democracy is under attack”. What better example than his own experience at Central European University, a partner institution of Sciences Po through CIVICA, that had to leave Hungary due to Viktor Orbán’s opposition? The former rector and President of CEU asks himself, “What lesson to draw from defeat?”. Academic communities have a responsibility to make sure that society understands what academic freedom means for all… It should be a daily priority, if they do not wish to fail again and again.

Promoting “tolerance, peace and respectful exchanges of ideas”

Silvia Giorguli is a sociology professor and the President of El Colegio de México, an institution that was first established as “The House of Spain in Mexico” because it welcomed all the Spanish intellectuals that fled their country at the end of the Civil War. It is needless to say that protecting free thinking is in the DNA of the college.The panelist gives an historical lookback on the importance of academic communities in South America. In countries that are often “economically and politically unstable”, universities have remained as invaluable “pioneers of knowledge”. That being said, if public funding is understandably not a main part of the academic resources, a strong dependance lies on the funding from the large foundations and international organisations. It then becomes extremely delicate to maintain their autonomy to define the content of the programmes and the research topics, without complying to an external research agenda. 

In fact, “in a polarized environment like South America”, with deep inequalities between people, Silvia Giorguli sees academic communities as actors that should promote “tolerance, peace, respectful exchanges of ideas”. Universities should be seen as places of tolerance but also of open debate, even on difficult questions. The fact that the members of the community are generationally divided can create conflicts. They reflect the questions that have also divided society. It’s an opportunity for academic communities to restore social cohesion and communication.

“Honest debate, honest research” without self-censorship

Like his fellow colleagues, Sergei Guriev, Provost and Professor of Economics at Sciences Po, is familiar with his academic freedom being restrained. He was forced in 2013 to leave his position as Rector of the New Economic School in Moscow and buy a one way ticket to Paris. He expresses how difficult it is to speak freely and to choose freely a subject of research, in non-democratic but also in democratic countries. Climate change or new technologies are issues that need “honest debate, honest research”. Academic communities need to remain intellectually honest and not self censor themselves. If he agrees that private funding can have a right to ask questions, they should not censor universities and impeach with their “duty to help solve social challenges”. The fact that the democratic model is becoming less and less popular is particularly worrying and Sergei Guriev believes that one solution is to reestablish a dialogue between politicians and their people, a citizen assembly like it used to exist in Ancient Greece.

All in all, should students also ask themselves what they owe to society? Michael Ignatieff underlines that one can observe “fashion in ideas like in clothes” and that every student should ask themselves every day, “Am I thinking for myself?”. The integrity of their beliefs, that will carry them all their life, depends on it. And the final request, from a professor to his students, should be, “If we fail you, you have to stand up and tell us.



Sciences Po at 150

Moving fluidly between past, present and future narratives, throughout 2022, Sciences Po draw on its history to look ahead to its future in a range of different formats and media.

Discover the 150 years website (FR).