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Is Academic Freedom Worth Its Price?

WARWICK, UK – Is academic freedom affordable in a time of economic crisis? That was the topic for discussion at the annual signing of the Magna Charta Universitatum at the mother of universities, the University of Bologna, earlier this year.

The Magna Charta is the world’s most visible statement of principles for the promotion and protection of university autonomy. Over the past two decades, nearly 700 institutions of higher education on every continent have signed it. Nevertheless, there remains a nagging sense that universities are luxuries now that ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet.

There has always been reason for concern. In the past, universities have been created in times of plenty, typically to encourage people to think beyond their immediate need for survival to more edifying spiritual or national goals. Nearly 50 years ago, a statistically minded historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, observed that the best indicator of academic research production is a nation’s energy consumption per capita: both grow together.

This is hardly surprising. From a strictly economic standpoint, academic freedom requires relative immunity to costs, whether stemming from trial-and-error experimentation or from more radical challenges to the status quo. But should universities now reduce their demands in order to meet the needs of the larger society, not least in terms of their carbon footprint?