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Background: academic freedom at the University of Edinburgh

We regard academic freedom – the duty of universities to ensure that their members can pursue whatever lines of enquiry they deem appropriate in their teaching, research and public engagement – as foundational in a democracy. In some parts of the world, academics face threats to their lives as well as their livelihoods for their pursuit of truth: we stand in solidarity with them, and we recognise that we in Edinburgh benefit from a long tradition of respect for academic freedom. Nonetheless, the structural and cultural obstacles to academic freedom appear to be increasing here as elsewhere, and we are concerned about the censorious climate which is being allowed to flourish in some parts of our university. We believe that we now need to act to defend the academic freedom we value.


On February 10th 2022, Peter Mathieson, University Principal, included the following paragraph in an all-staff email:


“I am writing to make comment on …Freedom of expression, on which recent events have highlighted some concerns and you will be aware of some imminent legislation albeit aimed predominantly at English universities that are regulated by the Office for Students. … it shouldn’t need restating that we (me personally, the senior team as a whole and the University of Edinburgh as a leading member of the sector) are absolutely and resolutely committed to freedom of expression. We were one of the first Russell Group universities to publish a statement on this (approved in September 2020) and several others have followed with similar statements. I have had cause to recently emphasise that whilst we want to actively encourage the expression of differing opinions, including on highly sensitive and controversial subjects, we do expect that the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy will always be observed. It is vitally important that people of all levels of seniority and experience feel able to express their views, even if they differ from those more senior or more experienced. I always worry about the phenomenon of “self-censorship” where an individual might hold back from expressing certain views or working on certain areas for fear of prejudicing their future career prospects and/or of incurring the wrath of prominent individuals or organisations. Those of us that have been in the sector for longer have a duty and a responsibility to contribute to the fostering of an environment where no-one should fear expressing themselves as long as they do so within the boundaries of the law and our principal of dignity and respect for one another and for the right to “disagree well”. ”


We were cautiously optimistic to see the inclusion of this statement. However, we were disappointed that no action was suggested. Academic freedom and freedom of expression (we are not clear that managers understand the distinction) had been the subject of discussion at a Senate meeting in October, and we were hopeful that action would be taken to address challenges to academic freedom that some of us had experienced: indeed, some of us had made suggestions for actions. A group of academic staff sent this response to the Principal on 17th February:


“We, the undersigned (and doubtless many more staff and students at the university), are heartened by your email of 10th February, in which you set out your commitment to academic freedom. We share your hopes that academic freedoms will in future be less hindered by dignity-threatening harassment, and by consequent self-censorship.

Given the severity of some ideologically motivated attacks on staff and students over the past couple of years, we share your fears in this regard. But we also note that the University’s inadequate responses to those attacks has undoubtedly resulted in long-term chilling effects on academic freedoms, and in toxic effects on campus social quality. You will no doubt be fully aware from frequent adverse press coverage that these problems and leadership failures have also had devastating impacts on the university’s reputation.

We are therefore writing to urge you to follow up your message with some practical indications of how academic freedom and dignity will be promoted and protected throughout the University.

We recommend two important first steps:

  1. Publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the problem we have faced from ideologically motivated and abusive denunciations of students and staff in recent years, and the need to provide better protections of people who are defamed, and stronger discouragements to abusers.
  2. Commission a fully independent, substantial University-wide review of the threats to academic freedom and to considerate debate. This should consider evidence of harassment, political intolerance, and self-censorship on campus, and recommend better ways of fostering a climate in which academic freedom can flourish.

We will be happy to offer further thoughts on justifications for these actions, should you wish to discuss them with us in more detail.”


On March 1st we received this reply:


“Thank you for getting in touch on what I do feel is one of the most important issues currently facing the sector, which is why I highlighted it in my all staff email of 10th February.

I consider my words in that message as a public statement on the matter.

I also welcome continued discussion on these critical issues as parameters continue to shift & develop and opportunities to consider and hone our approach should be taken.  The University Executive discussed the University’s statement on Freedom of Expression in December and noted the need for further engagement across campus in addition to discussions already held at Senate for example. In order to ensure that such conversations are open to all staff to listen/contribute to, I suggest that we pick this up at the next all staff Town Hall which is currently being organised and is likely to be just before, or after, Easter.”


This response was deeply disappointing. Some of us have corresponded with various managers at length, and made suggestions for action that needs to be taken to defend academic freedom at the University of Edinburgh. Since the publication of the University’s statement of commitment to Freedom of Expression, the chilling of academic freedom on some topics has worsened. Stating a commitment is clearly not enough to protect academic freedom. We will continue to remind managers that it is the university’s responsibility to defend and nurture academic freedom, as set out in law. But in the absence of any signal that managers intend to take action, we have formed this group which we hope will draw together academics and students who value academic freedom and are committed to action to defend it.

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