Plus - Letter to the editor

Academics without freedom: How will history judge them?

The Federations of University Teachers Association’s recent strikes and protests have highlighted a crucial issue that we the Sri Lankan academics are faced with today – poor salaries. There is truth in this claim. Many academics choose to remain in the university system in spite of the meagre salary they receive.

There is also truth in the claim that they are a “privileged minority” -- a minority that has been hand-picked to engage in the pursuit of truth in our respective disciplines, be it law, history, physics or medicine.

We are entitled to paid study leave, sabbaticals and flexible working hours. We have access to scholarship schemes for research and participation in specialised programmes. Academics are provided with these special facilities and privileges so that they could serve society through the pursuit of truth. In this process they face difficulties -- some of our libraries do not have the latest books and facilities at universities are not satisfactory. Yet, the point remains that our calling is to seek truth.

When reflecting on this specific role, how will history judge the Sri Lankan academics? Will history be able to even identify the role we the academics played in determining the post-conflict future of our country? I am not denying that there are a handful of academics who are engaged in one way or another in this task... but what about the majority?

In what ways are we contributing to the construction of a vision for a new Sri Lanka? Where is the vibrant debate and discussion that should be taking place about development, human rights, the rule of law and history? Are our universities dealing with questions of national importance through debates and discussions? Is there any new thinking emerging from our universities on any of those issues?

It is disappointing that executive heads of some Sri Lankan universities have made public statements in certain contexts that support the powers that be, using their official designations. While any academic has the freedom (or should have the freedom) to express his or her opinion, when opinions are expressed as executive heads of academic institutions, those actions go against the independence of the academic institutions they represent. Such statements have had a chilling effect on the few groups and individuals who are willing to inspire debate and discourse within the university on issues of national significance.

There is fear that views that are contrary to those of the establishment cannot be voiced and that the expression of those views will not be permitted. Several academics and student organizations exercise self-censorship due to this fear. “Academic freedom” has been undermined as a result and there is a sense of fear and reluctance to engage in a free exchange of ideas – one of the most critical roles of academics and students. An environment, in which ideas can be exchanged freely, will also enable academics to pursue truth and thereby contribute to the advancement of mankind. Where that freedom is curtailed, patronage, partiality and apathy take root.

The recent controversy over interference of a university administration in the private actions of undergraduates highlights how far some of our academic institutions seem to have strayed from their central calling. The need for control that is gaining momentum in other public spaces in our country seems to be finding its way into our universities too. Control, as in the case of apparent partiality of an administration, has a chilling effect on academic freedom.

So, as much as we are concerned with our pay slip, hopefully we will also be vigilant and protect our academic freedom. The erosion of that freedom will have grave implications not only for us and our credibility, but also for the future of our academic institutions and our nation.

So we come back to the original question, how will history judge us and the role we have played, in this critical point of our nation’s history? Will we even be mentioned in the pages of history? Or will we, together with the silent majority of our country, be condemned for our omissions?

Dinesha Samararatne, University of Colombo.

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