What is academic freedom and why the fuss?

| Written by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo

Academic freedom. The term has been tossed around so much in recent weeks, on social media, in the news, on the streets, but what is it really? And why are people so determined to defend it?


Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Rad Agustin, UP MPRO.


The recent abrogation by the Department of National Defense (DND) of its 1989 Accord with the University thrust the subject of academic freedom into the larger public sphere. The subsequent red-tagging of UP alumni by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which DND Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later acknowledged as an “unpardonable gaffe” and which the AFP apologized for, only served to intensify public discussion.

To put things in perspective, UP organized Usapang KP (Kalayaan sa Pamantasan), an online discussion series that intends to dive into the nuances of academic freedom. Its first episode, “Mga Terror, Hindi Terrorista,” was streamed live on February 4 and focused on defining academic freedom and its significance to the life of a university.

Watch the replay of the webinar on TVUP’s YouTube channel.

The episode featured alumnae and revered professors emeriti, Dr. Solita Monsod (Economics) and Dr. Gisela Concepcion (Marine Science) as main speakers. Reactors were: fellow alumni Atty. Soledad Deriquito Mawis, Dean of the College of Law, Lyceum of the Philippines University; Dr. Giovanni Tapang, Dean of the College of Science, UP Diliman; and, Atty. Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group. It was moderated by Professor Emeritus Jose Dalisay Jr., and Malou Mangahas, Co-founder and Board Member, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.


Top row: Atty. Soledad Deriquito Mawis (reactor), Dr. Giovanni Tapang (reactor), and Malou Mangahas (moderator). Middle row: Dr. Gisela Concepcion (speaker), Dr. Jose Dalisay Jr. (moderator), and Atty. Theodore Te (reactor). Bottom row: Dr. Solita Monsod (speaker). Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.


So what is academic freedom?

While the 1987 Philippine Constitution states in Article XIV, Section 5 (2) that “Academic freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning”, it does not define academic freedom.

The reason for this lack of definition can be found in the deliberations of the 1986 Constitutional Commission on September 9. Commissioner Adolf Azcuna said, “Since academic freedom is a dynamic concept and we want to expand the frontiers of freedom, especially in education, therefore, we will leave it to the courts to develop further the parameters of academic freedom. We just say that it shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning.”

US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter’s concurring opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), widely acknowledged as having captured the essence of academic freedom, has found its way into Philippine jurisprudence. Monsod, Mawis, and Te cited Frankfurter’s opinion that academic freedom consists of the “four essential freedoms” of a university “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”


Dr. Gisela Concepcion says a form of freedom of expression for scientists is the publication of their research, where they subject themselves to the scrutiny of their peers. Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.


For Concepcion, it is the freedom “to pursue knowledge without boundaries in an unencumbered and enabling environment.” Faculty members, she said, have earned the right to mentor and teach through years of study, research, and training that allowed them to gain expertise.

Academic freedom, she added, exists in an academic framework, a highly complex system that contains not only the functions of universities and their players, but also the factors that affect the successful execution of these functions toward the overarching goal of serving the nation and humanity. Concepcion said academic freedom is ensured by external support, including support from the government, which provides the encouraging atmosphere for teaching, learning, inquiry, and discussion to thrive and flourish.


Dr. Solita Monsod clarifies that neither academic freedom nor tenure protects incompetent teachers from losing their jobs. It does not protect faculty members “from colleague or student challenges to or disagreement with their education philosophies and practices” and it does not shield them “from sanctions for professional misconduct.” Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.


Monsod, quoting UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo, focused on academic freedom in UP, said that it is the “freedom to challenge orthodoxies and established ways of thinking and acting without fear of repression or punitive action. This freedom is essential for the life of the mind and for UP’s dual role as (a) knowledge producer and (b) social critic.”

However, she emphasized that academic freedom is not “unlimited”. Among others, it does not mean “a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.” It also “does not protect faculty members from non-university penalties if they break the law.”


Why is it important?

It is critical to a university’s role in clarifying and seeking truth, Tapang explained. Academic freedom allows an environment that is “most conducive to speculation, experimentation, and creation. . . . If we are unable to speak our mind with intellectual honesty, what else would the university be for us?” Borrowing Albert Einstein’s words, he added that “any restriction on academic freedom [hampers] the dissemination of knowledge among people and thereby impedes rational judgment and action.”


Dr. Giovanni Tapang agrees with Albert Einstein’s opinion that while everyone is involved in defending constitutional rights, intellectuals are “in a special position” since they have a “strong influence on the formation of public opinion.” Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.


Monsod made reference to Britannica on the justification for academic freedom. That it “lies not in the comfort or convenience of teachers and students but in the benefits to society; i.e., the long-term interests of a society are best served when the educational process leads to the advancement of knowledge, and knowledge is best advanced when inquiry is free from restraints by the state, by the church or other institutions, or by special-interest groups.”


Atty. Theodore Te explains that academic freedom, as guaranteed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution in all institutions of higher learning, “is understood to cover everyone within that institution.” Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.


Academic freedom is essential to any institution of higher learning because it is an “assertion of control over what we want to read, say, think, and how and who we want to think with, discuss with, express ourselves with,” Te stated.

Mawis concurred that academic freedom meant respect for universities to determine their academic governance, and emphasized that it was “consistent with law and jurisprudence.” She also cited Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe’s concurring opinion in Pimentel v. Medialdea, G.R. No. 230642 (2019), “Academic freedom is anchored on the recognition that academic institutions perform a social function, and its business is conducted for the common good; that is, it is a necessary tool for critical inquiry of truth and its free exposition. Thus, the guarantee of academic freedom is complementary to the freedom of expression and the freedom of the mind.”

Specific to UP, Concepcion, Mawis, and Te made reference to Republic Act No. 9500 or the UP Charter of 2008, where Section 5 states, “The national university has the right and responsibility to exercise academic freedom.” They emphasized “responsibility” as a clear mandate for UP to exercise its right to academic freedom.


“Teachers should be given a wide latitude to express their beliefs without fear of retribution. . . . Left, right, left of center, right of center, center. . . UP was the channel for free exchange of ideas and the confluence of disagreements, thoughts, and principles made me who I am today. . . . UP allowed me to decide on my own,” says Atty. Soledad Deriquito Mawis. Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.


How do we protect and defend academic freedom?

“Stop taking it for granted,” Monsod said, adding that academic freedom “does not stand alone in support of the higher education system.” She cited Cary Nelson’s No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, which states that academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure are the three legs in the footstool that supports higher education.

Monsod also proposed that professors emeriti lead in the establishment of a “Philippine Association of University Professors or Philippine Association of University Teachers” because unity in their ranks will create a formidable organization in guarding against threats to academic freedom, among other issues.

Tapang, meanwhile, echoed Einstein’s words on constitutional rights: “The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it.” He also said that “[there are] prevalent tools like Facebook. We have to speak online and on social media. Show that we are taking a stand.”

“UP has given us the tools, skills, attitude, disposition, critical thinking. Now we are called upon to apply these,” Te said.

Mawis added, “Be aware of what is happening. Know the facts. Analyze. Make a stand. Love the truth. We honor excellence by living the truth. We honor integrity. We honor the truth. We were wired that way, therefore we should act that way.”

“What is the proportion of [UP’s] contributions versus speculations [against it]? We need to communicate effectively the good that the University has done, even just in this time of pandemic,” Concepcion emphasized the positive outcomes of academic freedom.

Dalisay capped it off with “The best way to defend academic freedom is to use it. Express yourself. Wherever you are, the university is in you. You do not have to be in UP to exercise the spirit of academic freedom.”


Director Ana Tan of the Ateneo Center for Social Entrepreneurship, representing Dean Luis Dumlao of the Ateneo de Manila University John Gokongwei School of Management and Chair of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia (ISEA) Chair, reads Dumlao’s statement of support for Dr. Marie Lisa Dacanay, ISEA president and a UP alumna who was red-tagged by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Dacanay was the first Asian to be awarded Social Innovation Thought Leader by the World Economic Forum and Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship in 2019. Screenshot of live Zoom event taken by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO.