June 23, 2011

Academic Freedom of Expression? Not in Copenhagen

After the American Century

In Denmark at the moment academic freedom of expression is an issue. A professor at Copenhagen University criticized a proposed new law that will reestablish intensive border controls. The right-wing party that is pushing for these controls immediately attacked her through the media. The chairman of her department then ordered her to stop making public statements about the matter - or take a "media break" for an unspecified length of time. He also told all members of the department of political science at the university that they should refrain from making any public statements about this controversy to the press unless they first consulted him and the Dean. [update: the proposed law was passed, millions of kroner were spent on instituting more border controls, but they had almost no effect on anything in the real world. After the right-wing coalition that had forced through this change was voted out in the September, 2011 election, the new left-leaning coalition quickly abandoned the policy. Thus a professor was silenced for saying what the majority of politicians now agree was correct.]

This is a pathetic spectacle. The political scientists of all people should not be silenced in public debate on controversial proposals for new laws. In this case the Danish foreign minister is running around Europe trying to reassure governments that the new law will not violate treaty obligations. I am not an expert on EU law, but this is a matter of freedom of speech. If the entire department of political science at the largest Danish university has been silenced by its own administration, then that leadership ought to be removed. They have violated the most fundamental academic values.

Danish politicians and academic leaders will discover that there is a high price to pay for such outrageous cowardice. The best young minds will see the hypocrisy for what it is and seek careers elsewhere, some of them outside the country. The international evaluations of academic quality will undoubtedly hear of such behavior. It will hurt Copenhagen University in the yearly evaluations. Last year, even before these events, the university's rating fell far down the league table. Its fall can only continue in 2011.

The current crisis further worsens the university's reputation, already tainted by an on-going research scandal in the natural sciences. This "Penkova" case involves scientific fraud, abuse of research funding, and falsification of findings published in international journals. Several published articles have been withdrawn. Since most scientific articles have multiple authors, damage has been done to several individual reputations, as well as to the university as a whole. In that case, the university administration did not want to listen to its faculty, and those who tried to warn them that Penkova's research findings were problematic were ignored, if not silenced.

The vast majority of the faculty are not at fault. They are the victims of right-wing politicians and short-sighted university administrators. The University of Copenhagen has become a demoralized shambles.