Einstein on Academic Freedom
Einstein on Academic Freedom

Basic tenets of academic freedom as we know them today were created as a response to totalitarian governments and dictatorships of the early 1900’s. Contemporarily, academic freedom is defined as the ability of university researchers to use their knowledge and expertise to make public statements, irrespective of opposing political and commercial interests of their employers. From the former Soviet Union to The United States of America, freedoms of research and publication have come at a high cost. Here, we explore a brief history of academic censorship since the turn of the 20th century.

Duke University’s Bassett affair in 1903 sparked mass outrage in America, when professor John Spencer Bassett praised Booker T.Washington, bringing negative attention to the racist behavior of the Democratic party. Many newspapers published smearing op-eds, and many demanded his removal from the University. On December 1st 1903, the entire faculty of Duke threatened to resign if Professor Bassett was removed from his position. Bassett himself resigned after enrollment rates dropped and churches began suggesting to their parishioners to send their children elsewhere. In 1929, a sociology professor and his assistant were terminated from their positions at the University of Missouri for advising a student who distributed questionnaires about then-taboo subject of personal sexual lives.

John Spencer Bassett
John Spencer Bassett


Impediment to academic freedom is not, however, limited to the Americas. A noted example of the infringement on academic freedom in the Soviet Union, where science and scientific research was brought under strict government control in the 1930’s. Here, a number of findings were dubbed “bourgeoise pseudoscience” and forbidden entirely, namely the fields of genetics and sociology.


More recently, a 2006 case brought about the termination of Professor Khan from a South African University, after he took a leadership role in a non-related strike. Two years later, international concern at the same university was expressed for their attempts to discipline two other academics at the same institution.

The contemporary Boycott Divest Sanction movement of Palestinian civil society calls for a boycott of “complicit Israeli academic institutions”, citing their role in the oppression of Palestinian peoples:

Palestinian civil society has called for an academic boycott of complicit Israeli academic institutions. Refusing to normalize oppression, many academic associations, student governments and unions as well as thousands of international academics now support the academic boycott of Israel.

University of Melbourne staff struck in May 2018 in order to highlight the University’s moves which undermine academic freedoms. Currently, the tertiary education system in Australia is being restructured and privatized, with fears mounting at the ability of academics to express researches without being used solely for profit.

These instances are a mere example of how academics and research has been suppressed throughout the world in the last 100 years. We will continue to fight in the pursuit of fair, honest, and free academia, especially with contemporary advents of information-sharing.


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