Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Politics and Profit Scholars at Risk: Leaving Room for Dissent

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Politics and Profit Scholars at Risk: Leaving Room for Dissent

Article excerpt

Since the first universities were born over eight centuries ago, intellectuals have negotiated the right to pursue knowledge without outside pressure, a privilege broadly known as academic freedom. This sacrosanct notion continues to be challenged on all fronts. Strapped for funds because of public sector cutbacks, universities worldwide are sealing deals with corporations. Although in some cases these alliances have proved their worth (pp. 21-22), in many others, they have led to blatant conflicts of interest and run the risk of sidelining basic research and the humanities (pp. 18-20). In response, medical journals recently took a lead in protecting academic investigators (p. 23). Meanwhile, hopes that the information revolution would spur easier access to knowledge are hampered by ever stricter intellectual property rights (pp. 24-25). Marginalized from the international community, many African researchers are forced to sell their wares. While they are no longer widely targeted on grounds of subversion, in many other parts of the world, the politics of ethnic and religious identity have placed intellectuals in the line of fire (pp. 30-31). Some, such as Afghan professor Abdul Lalzad (p. 29), have managed to flee with help from the international community, others serve prison sentences (p. 32). The social climate can also curtail freedoms: in Russia, historians are running up against a reluctance to explore the darker days of the Soviet era (pp. 33-34). B ut scholars must seize the day and play a more prominent role in addressing pressing global problems (p. 35).

Dossier concept and coordination by Cynthia Guttman, UNESCO Courier journalist

In the first universities of medieval Europe, 800 years ago, an individual who questioned official attitudes could find himself an outlaw. The notion that there was value in challenging what society thought permissible through public debate emerged later, as a result of the religious and intellectual wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Gradually, a tacit agreement developed between the state and universities, whereby freedom of speech in the public interest was allowed.

Governments--and to some extent university administrations themselves--are losing sight of the reasons for protecting this community that is allowed, like the court jester, to ask authorities awkward questions. Universities are increasingly seen as training centres rather than as institutions of higher learning. They are expected to produce skilled workers instead of critical scholars in societies where a computer programmer is deemed more valuable than a philosopher. …

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