Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
Those in academia are drawn into the profession by the assurance that they have the freedom to inquire and research, teach and make extramural utterances honestly and according to their own consciences, without fear of reprehension or losing their jobs in the discharge of their functions.
Such assurances will attract men and women of the highest scholarship with strong and independent character into the ranks of academia.
It is through the distinctive functioning of such members of academia that universities become the important cornerstone of the structure of society, innovations and progress in scientific knowledge that are so essential to civilization. This is also affirmed in the 29th session of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1997.
To its credit, the Malaysian government recognizes that institutional autonomy is a fundamental prerequisite for academicians to push the frontiers of knowledge and for universities to be rapidly proactive and entrepreneurial in meeting the changing demands of societies.
Establishing the code of university good governance and self accreditation procedures are some of the accountability measures to ensure that the University Board of Directors has sufficient autonomy over the management of resources and the Senate has academic autonomy.
Academic autonomy refers to the freedom of the university to determine who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, which students to admit, degrees to recognise or confer, areas, scope, aims, and methods of research. The power is invested in the university senate in Clause 17 (2) of the First Schedule of the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) 1971.
Exercising academic freedom - what is granted to the faculty and students - is full of challenges because it is subject to Statutes, Rules and Regulations of UUCA and also expressed in letters of appointment, faculty handbooks, academic custom and code of ethical conduct.
There are differing opinions as to whether academic freedom is a legal right in the Constitution of the United States. In 2008, a Federal court in Virginia ruled that professors have no academic freedom. All academic freedom resides with the university and that no constitutional right to academic freedom exists that would prohibit senior university officials from changing a grade given by a professor to one of his students.
The Senate of Malaysian public universities have the same discretionary authority for academic matters. For instance, a faculty member can determine what is taught in the classroom but he or she is guided by the curriculum approved by the Senate.
Freedom of extramural utterance and action is more complex and sometimes controversial. A reminder that it is not absolute is seen in the approach taken by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and AACU) in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. It states that teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matter that is unrelated to the subject. When speaking or writing in public, they are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution.
Freedom of speech as recognized under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is also not without limitations such as on libel, slander, obscenity, incitement to commit a crime among others.
Article 19 of ICCPR goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities". It may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" such as are “provided by law and are necessary for (a) respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals".
Over the past century academic freedom has evolved to assume the characteristics of a profession. As expressed by Neil Hamilton, professor of Law at St Thomas University, Minnesota in a 2006 publication of the Association of American College and Universities (AACU), professional competence and ethical conduct enforced by peer review are the linchpin of academic freedom in the United States.
Ethical conduct in exercising freedom of speech carries with it wisdom and integrity, particularly in the manner of expression.
The utterance must be the genuine product of the professor’s own study or that of fellow academicians. No fair minded person should have the slightest suspicion that it is shaped or restricted by the judgment of inexpert and possibly not wholly disinterested persons outside of their ranks.
In rendering services toward the solution of existing or future problems, the impartiality of the inquiries and conclusions must be beyond reproach. Scholars must carry out their duties without fear or favour. – UKM News Portal
Prof Tan Sri Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin is the Vice Chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.