Academic Freedom in Historical Perspective
Academic freedom is a central idea in modern scholarship. Even if a
precise definition of it is difficult to state, it can be understood as
the freedom for members of academia to teach and research without being
restrained by political or social surveillance. The concept is not
legally defined, it proceeds from customs, conventions or even
traditions. Legally, discussions on academic freedom fall into the
category of freedom of speech, even if this concept only partly
When first created in the Middle Ages, universities were religious
institutions. Throughout the centuries, they had to fight to escape the
Churches' influence. Modern universities created in the 19th century
were both instruments of learning the new techniques of capitalism (in
engineering, for example) and for the promotion of the new nation-state.
They were instruments of nationalisms. In the 20th century,
dictatorships and totalitarian regimes severely restricted any freedom
in academic institutions. In the 21st century, academic freedom and
freedom of speech can be found only in a few countries, mostly in
liberal democracies. In many countries, it remains difficult, often
dangerous, to criticise the rulers. Even in liberal democracies,
academic freedom remains fragile and is never perfectly achieved.
Neo-liberal governance of universities is a significant threat:
academics are expected to follow the market-oriented,
customer-satisfaction, impact-driven agendas of their employers. Rising
bureaucracy and micro-management imposed on academics could also be a
way of suppressing conflicting views. Critical thinking and freedom of
expressions could also be restricted by students themselves. The recent
emergence of 'safe spaces' on American campuses, in which students
demand not to be challenged by conflicting views and/or by topics
bearing on adverse personal circumstances which students have
experienced in their lives, are examples of such a phenomenon. Identity
politics and political correctness may also restrain debates.
The organisers of this conference welcome proposals on various relevant
topics, not confined only to academic freedom in the strict sense, but
to intellectual freedom more broadly. Presentations can cover any period
in history or any country, including freedom of enquiry within
intellectual contexts in eras before the creation of universities: for
example, within the philosophical schools of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Papers linking challenges to intellectual freedom in such eras to modern
debates about academic freedom are also welcome. They could address the
questions of university governance, institutional autonomy, the
recruitment of academics. Purges following regime changes can be
considered. Legal aspects are of interest to this conference, together
with case studies of academics exposed to persecution, harassment,
ostracisation or legal action because of their pursuit of knowledge in
teaching and research, whether in democracies or in authoritarian
The organisers of the conference welcome individual proposals of no more
than 300 words. They should be sent with a brief biography of no more
than 200 words. For roundtable proposals please send a maximum 500-word
description of the panel.
Olivier Beaud (University of Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas)
Paula Findlen (Stanford University)
Oleg Kharkhordin (European University, St. Petersburg)
before 15 April 2018. Proposers will be notified by 12 June 2018.
Conference language: English.
Participants are generally expected to cover their own travel and
accommodation costs, though limited support may be available upon
request for those without access to institutional funding.
Conference organizers (on behalf of the ERH/Reh editorial committee):
Jean-Marc Dreyfus (University of Manchester), László Kontler (Central
European University), Agne Rimkute (Central European University), Andrea
Talabér (Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of
Sciences, Prague), Bertrand Taithe (University of Manchester), Karin
Tilmans (European University Institute)