Tyranny in the Academy
By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / Feb. 04, 2008
Academic Unfreedom in Ethiopian Universities
Universities in democratic societies crank out legions of technorati, digerati and literati every year. But what do universities in police states produce? Hordes of ignorati?
Welcome to higher education in the Land of Absurd-istan! In an incisive article posted on the web-based legal research service, Jurist, Abigail Salisbury, a law professor at Mekelle University recently painted a chilling and naked portrait of a university in a police state. She courageously described a dizzying state of intellectual absurdity and moral bankruptcy in the Ethiopian higher educational system, and one of its premier universities. She gave a vividly surreal account of fear and loathing in the classroom and on campus: Students plead with their professors not to snitch on them to the authorities on their studies and class work. Students solicit their professors to distribute their academic papers abroad because they are scared they will be punished or persecuted if they were to do so did so locally. Students starving for knowledge are literally deprived of their daily bread because they dared to voice a complaint. Students scramble to learn in an arid intellectual wasteland where the walls have ears and the light fixtures can talk. And professors are afraid to teach because they have signed loyalty oaths disguised as a contractual terms of employment, which prohibits them from ever saying a single word of criticism against the regime. In her penetrating analysis, Prof. Salisbury depicted a nightmarish educational environment where professors labor under a gag order, and students are paralyzed by the omnipresent threat of academic harassment, or worse.
No one could mistake Prof. Salisbury’s acute resentment and tacit embarrassment over her manifest lack of academic freedom to teach and speak her mind as a law professor, and her heartache over her students’ intellectual desolation and decay. Reading between the lines, one quickly develops empathy for the young American professor and her young Ethiopian students who find themselves trapped in an intellectual wasteland where thought is policed, the very act of thinking criminalized, student complaints punished by deprivation of food for weeks, and intellectual inquisitiveness made a capital offense. In her courageously critical piece, Prof. Salisbury offered a devastating indictment of a higher educational system where professors and students fear their own shadows, and are forced to make an anguished daily choice between the roles of hypocrite to their own education and teaching on the one hand, and professing their faith as true believers in a regime that is determined to keep them in a perpetual state of intellectual trepidation and despair.
But no amount of paraphrasing can capture the sheer intensity and disarming candor of Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of intellectual corruption and enforced political orthodoxy:
Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of university life in Ethiopia is not the first of its kind. Its importance lies in the fact that it offers solid anecdotal evidence of a long and continuing pattern of political interference in academic freedom in the country’s universities. The 2006 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices plainly stated:
Academic Unfreedom in the “Good Ole Days”
The recent history of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry in Ethiopian higher education is deeply scarred by political interference, political correctness, arbitrary purges of professors, harassment and persecution of faculty and students, and general intellectual repression. It is a history that makes one think of the “good old days”. The respected and well-known scholar on Ethiopia, Prof. Donald Levine of the University of Chicago, made a poignant observation on academic freedom during the infancy of Ethiopian higher education when he accepted an honorary doctorate from Addis Ababa University on July 24, 2004. He said:
It is painfully ironic to learn that there was much more academic freedom during the reign of Atse Haile Selassie than at any time in the modern history of Ethiopia! Such irony was evident in Prof. Levine’s remarks on an incident in Ethiopia in 1958 when he served as assistant to the acting vice president of Haile Selassie University, Harold Bentley:
Strictly for Those Who Have Never Experienced Academic Freedom: What is a University and What do Professors and Students Really Do There Anyway?
Contrary to some silly misconceptions, the university is not an “ivory tower” that is disconnected from “the real world”. Universities are not populated by absent-minded professors and wild-eyed radical students. And what happens in the university is not just of “academic interest”. The university is the intellectual engine of society, that is a democratic society. The greatest inventions in modern science came out of university laboratories. The vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in all areas of knowledge are university professors, scientists and researchers.
The university is a special institution in which an enlightened community of scholars, scientists, researchers and students use their intellect in the search for “Truth”. This pursuit of truth takes place in an environment of “academic freedom” where learning, teaching, research and scholarship are done without political or bureaucratic interference and intrusion. As Albert Einstein explained, academic freedom is “the right to search for the truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right also implies a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom serves to restrain the dissemination of knowledge, thereby impeding rational judgment and action.” In short, academic freedom is to a university what justice is to an independent court system. No academic freedom, no university! No independent court, no justice!
There are some simple ideas underlying the general principle of academic freedom. First, the university is a place of learning, not a place for political indoctrination. In the university setting, there is no such thing as a “false idea” or an “officially approved idea”, or “The Truth”. Acceptance of an idea at a university does not depend on the approval of politicians or party hacks. Acceptance or rejection occurs in a competitive marketplace of ideas where scholars, scientists, researchers, students and others test and debate the validity of ideas that are presented. The method of “Truth” discovery is different in the various academic fields. The physical sciences rely on equations and experiments to determine the “right” answer. In the social sciences, humanities and the law, the concept of truth is normative, and infinitely more elusive. Thus, there is a much greater need for a robust and wide-open debate in the search for truth.
There are a great many social benefits arising from stimulating academic freedom in a university. One major benefit is intellectual diversity which promotes not only the discovery of new knowledge, but is also essential in cultivating young minds to become creative, knowledgeable and productive citizens. Where academic freedom is maximized, students develop the habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry, which is instrumental in their own transformation as enlightened citizens compassionate public servants and professionals. Shielded by the principle of academic freedom, university professors help their students explore not only the outer limits of science and technology but also challenge the core principles of politics, culture and society.
Political Dissent and the University
There is a very important aspect of academic freedom that does not necessarily implicate formal classroom learning, research or laboratory experiments. It has to do with expression of political dissent and divergent viewpoints on campus. There is no question that a university is a proper venue to challenge and test the credibility of official government rhetoric and ideology, question the legitimacy of a political party, leader or regime, and openly discuss and criticize official corruption, abuse of power and violations of civil liberties and human rights. As experiences in democratic societies show, the professorait and students are often the tip of the intellectual spear in society not only in the search for truth, but also in demanding change and official accountability. More broadly, universities are the proper venue for all types of dissenting ideas and views and serve as forums for robust debate on issues affecting society. There are few alternatives to a university where such intense intellectual debates can take place in society. When academic freedom is restricted, and students and faculty recoil with fear and horror because they believe telling the truth will expose them to punishment, then the larger society is condemned to suffer in silence.
There is ample evidence to show the dynamic role of universities and dissenting voices in bringing about far reaching social change. In the mid-1960s America, for instance, opposition to the war in Vietnam began at the University of California, Berkeley. The anti-war movement soon evolved into a Free Speech Movement which transformed American universities and the society at large in the decades that followed. Academic freedom in American universities contributed significantly to the debate and policy formulation in civil rights, civil liberties and social justice issues. The Freedom Riders and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s introduced the strategies of nonviolence directly challenging Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the American South. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American campuses were the epicenters of the debate over terrorism, its causes and remedies. In this debate, even those who expressed anti-American and unpatriotic views were tolerated and engaged; and none were censored or denied their right to disagree or dissent with the majority.
Academic freedom is the right of faculty, and to a lesser extent the right of students. Politicians, party leaders or bureaucrats their should understand that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards, and not by loyalty oaths, contractual agreements, intimidation and harassment.
Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry as a Human Right
Article 29 of the “Ethiopian Constitution” provides “1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without any interference. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.” Evidently, this article does not apply to professors and students in Ethiopian universities.
Regardless of Art. 29, academic freedom is a question of human rights. Academic persecution is quintessentially political persecution. Abusing, harassing and imprisoning those faculty and students who do not tow the party line or support the official ideology, censoring what they teach and learn and enforcing silence on dissident voices in the university is as serious a human rights violation as imprisoning journalists, civil society leaders and human rights defenders.
There are various efforts underway to protect academic freedom internationally. Human Rights Watch has formed an Academic Freedom Committee to “monitor, expose, and mobilize concerted action to challenge threats to academic freedom worldwide, and to foster greater scholarly and media attention to the critical role played by institutions of higher education in the promotion of human rights and the development and preservation of civil society.” Others have issued declarations and passed resolutions defending academic freedom. For instance, the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education states:
The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics similarly provides1:
The Earth is Flat, and H.R. 2003 is Bad for the People of Ethiopia?
Professors, Students and Inconvenient Truths
No doubt, some may argue that the kind of academic freedom defended in the foregoing discussion will not work in Ethiopian universities. Neither Ethiopian university students nor their professors are ready to enjoy such freedom. I say poppycock! If students and faculty can enjoy full academic freedom at Harvard, Berkeley or Minnesota, there is no reason why faculty and students at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma can not enjoy the same scope of academic freedom. In fact, I shall argue that those at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma universities need much more academic freedom because they are tiny islands of scholarly fellowship in a sea of censorship and repression.
Professor Salisbury is right when she said “Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening. Prof. Levine is also right when he said, “Commitment to the values of academic freedom and excellence animated the generation of remarkable young Ethiopians who struggled to establish a first-rate institution of higher learning here….” Time will tell if a new generation of remarkable young Ethiopians will rise once again and help establish first-rate institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia where courses, including those on human rights, will be taught freely and without political interference, harassment and intimidation.
http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/forumy/2008/01/linking-rights-and-foreign-aid-for.php http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78734.htm http://www2.bc.edu/~teferra/Honorary%20Doctorate-D-Levine-Speech.html http://www.hrw.org/advocacy/academic/  http://w2.eff.org/Censorship/Academic_edu/CAF/academic/?f=academic-freedom.wus
(The Sixty-Eighth General Assembly of WORLD UNIVERSITY SERVICE, meeting in Lima from 6 to 10 September 1988, the year of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
 The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/africa/DARDOK.htm