International appeal for the protection of academic independence

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A group of Swiss aca­d­e­mics have recent­ly launched a peti­tion to call for the pro­tec­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic inde­pen­dence. Per­son­al­ly I think it’s gone well past the point where pro­tec­tion is the appo­site term, giv­en the extent to which the func­tion of Uni­ver­si­ties has been erod­ed over the last 4 decades. But we have to start some­where. Please read their peti­tion below and sign at the rel­e­vant web page for your­self:





Inter­na­tion­al Appeal for the pro­tec­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic inde­pen­dence

Now that coop­er­a­tion between the pri­vate sec­tor and pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties has all but become the norm, in Europe as else­where, it is time to ask some basic ques­tions: What is a uni­ver­si­ty? And what is its role in soci­ety?

Uni­ver­si­ties grew out of the idea of estab­lish­ing a place where free­dom of research, edu­ca­tion and schol­ar­ship is pro­tect­ed and beyond venal influ­ence. They serve the com­mon good and in turn are sup­port­ed by the com­mu­ni­ty. Direct­ly linked to this found­ing idea is the aca­d­e­m­ic ethos that pre­serves the insti­tu­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty as a spe­cial place, free from polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal and com­mer­cial inter­ests. Free­dom of teach­ing and research is pro­tect­ed by the Swiss Con­sti­tu­tion.

Against this back­ground, it is self-evi­dent that a pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty should nei­ther coop­er­ate with nor accept spon­sor­ship from insti­tu­tions asso­ci­at­ed with pub­lic scan­dal or uneth­i­cal con­duct. That is dam­ag­ing to the aca­d­e­m­ic rep­u­ta­tion of any uni­ver­si­ty. And it impinges upon the inde­pen­dence of the schol­ars con­cerned, par­tic­u­lar­ly those direct­ly fund­ed by such insti­tu­tions, under­min­ing their sta­tus as guar­an­tors of inde­pen­dence and eth­i­cal­ly-mind­ed schol­ar­ship.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Zurich was born of this same spir­it of inde­pen­dent think­ing in 1833. It is “the first uni­ver­si­ty in Europe to be found­ed by a demo­c­ra­t­ic state instead of by either a monarch or the church”. This proud claim stands to this day on the university’s web­site. The ques­tion is: are today’s uni­ver­si­ties still suf­fi­cient­ly inde­pen­dent in an age of coop­er­a­tion and spon­sor­ship?

In April 2012, the Exec­u­tive Board of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Zurich con­clud­ed a coop­er­a­tion agree­ment, in cam­era, with the top man­age­ment of UBS (Union Bank of Switzer­land). The agree­ment entails spon­sor­ing of the uni­ver­si­ty by UBS to the tune of 100 mil­lion Swiss francs and the estab­lish­ment of a “UBS Inter­na­tion­al Cen­tre of Eco­nom­ics in Soci­ety” with­in the scope of the uni­ver­si­ty. Nei­ther the pub­lic nor the research and teach­ing staff were asked their opin­ion. The agree­ment between the uni­ver­si­ty and UBS was con­clud­ed secret­ly in the spring of 2012.

This pro­ce­dure brings the issue of spon­sor­ship into sharp focus. The Exec­u­tive Board of the Uni­ver­si­ty con­cedes that the bank is using the uni­ver­si­ty as a plat­form to fur­ther its inter­ests. How­ev­er, UBS is a par­tic­u­lar case of a busi­ness that has been shown in the past to have engaged in uneth­i­cal prac­tices. The fact that the bank was able to place its logo at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Zurich has noth­ing to do with schol­ar­ship and every­thing to do with mar­ket­ing.

It is a glar­ing exam­ple of the prob­lem­at­ic nature of aca­d­e­m­ic spon­sor­ship. But there are many more instances, in oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries, of ques­tion­able uni­ver­si­ty spon­sor­ship deals. In one case, in June 2011, Deutsche Bank had to with­draw from a con­tro­ver­sial spon­sor­ship arrange­ment because of jus­ti­fied pub­lic crit­i­cism. This shows that spon­sor­ship involv­ing spe­cif­ic vest­ed inter­ests and secret deals – in con­trast to altru­is­tic patron­age and dona­tion by bene­fac­tors – rep­re­sents a threat to the impar­tial­i­ty of uni­ver­si­ty research and teach­ing. The very aca­d­e­m­ic ethos is at risk.

As cit­i­zens, researchers, aca­d­e­mics and stu­dents, we appeal to the lead­ers of the uni­ver­si­ties and all who bear respon­si­bil­i­ty for our edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions, at home and abroad, to safe­guard the pre­cious her­itage of free and inde­pen­dent schol­ar­ship, and to avoid endan­ger­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic ethos in con­tro­ver­sial col­lab­o­ra­tions.

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About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.