Academic freedom is a value highly prized in public policy.
RA 7722 mandates CHEd to “ensure and protect academic freedom;” it commands CHEd to “promote its exercise and observance…” (Sec. 2). In fact, it issues an explicit “Guarantee of Academic Freedom” in Sec. 13, “Nothing in this act shall be construed as limiting the academic freedom of universities and colleges.” It is as if it foresaw regular attacks on academic freedom.
RA 7722 guarantees academic freedom in implementation of a Philippine Constitutional guarantee: “Academic freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning” [Art. XIV, Sec. 5(2)].
Here, it may be noted that academic freedom is enjoyed in institutions of higher education. This is not enjoyed in the same way by basic education institutions. The implication of course is that in the governance of higher educational institutions (HEIs) this Guarantee of Academic Freedom precisely be observed. It may be appropriate for the Department of Education through its top-down governance structure to prescribe curricular content in all its levels of basic education. This is not appropriate in higher education precisely because of the Guarantee of Academic Freedom.
This, it seems to me, is the reason why RA 7722 does not design a powerful CHEd. What has been designed, wisely, is a CHEd that is weak. Too much CHEd, too much State, in the governance of higher education, weakens higher education. In this Act, understanding the importance of HEIs “exercising and observing” academic freedom, the State says, “Higher education must increase, I must decrease.” CHEd is most powerful for higher education in its self-restraint and delicadesa, i.e., in its observance of academic freedom and in its promotion.
In this context, a perusal of CHED’s powers articulated in RA 7722, Sec. 8 reveals a wholesomely weak CHEd, that is, a list of abilities to “formulate and recommend…”, deferring always to the democratic power of the People to determine policy through Congress. Its most powerful provisions, in my view, are: to “set minimum standards for programs and institutions of higher learning recommended by panels of experts in the field and subject to public hearing, and enforce the same” (Sec. 8, d), and to “promulgate such rules and regulations and exercise such other functions and powers as may be necessary to carry out effectively the purpose and objectives of this Act” (Sec. 8, n). Note that it is not to set standards, but minimum standards for programs and institution, and even in setting minimum standards, CHEd is not designed to be powerful, but to attentive to the recommendations of experts and to public hearings, allowing expertise in a social context to determine minimum standards, not State power alone. Note furthermore that even in the only provision where it speaks of “rules and regulations,” these are in furtherance of “the purpose and objectives of this Act” – namely to promote greater access to higher education, to ensure and protect academic freedom, and to ensure that state-supported institutions of higher learning gear their programs to national, regional or local development (cf. Sec 2).
The salutary weakness of CHEd is reflected also in its collegial governance structure. RA 7722 does not create a dictatorship in a Chair whose commissioners are rubber stamps. It creates a Commission that governs collegially, with a Chair that does not have the executive powers of a Department Secretary. Considering the Guarantee of Academic Freedom for higher education, this is not meant to diffuse a dictatorship into an oligarchy, but to signal that the governance of higher education that appropriately respects academic freedom must necessarily be accomplished collegially, not just between a Chair and his/her Commissioners, but between a Commission and the Community of HEIs. Here, governance would not be through the imposition of regulations, fallibly conceived by a group of academicians even when appointed to government service, on HEIs to extinguish their academic freedom, but through the self imposition of norms by the Higher Education Community, collegially governed by peers, through the mediation and facilitation of CHEd, ensuring and protecting academic freedom.
Academic freedom is the stuff of higher education. Its essence. It is the reason why teachers and students came together in the first place to form the first “universities”, i.e., “communities” of teachers and students – the universitates magistrorum et scholarium – who were in pursuit of truth in an essential context of academic freedom. This was the pursuit of truth that could not be dictated on them by royalty, the pursuit of truth that could not be dictated on them by religion. It is important not in furtherance of the goals of the State, nor in furtherance of the goals of the Church. It is essential in furtherance of the pursuit of truth. This is why the Constitution protects and guarantees it. This is also the reason why the Church guarantees it.
For those to whom the latter statement may come as a surprise, considering that the Church claims to teach infallibly, in its Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it is stated: “Every Catholic University, as a university, is an academic community which in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching, and various services, offered to the local, national and international communities. It possesses the institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively, and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual persons and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and of the common good” (John Paul II, ECE, 12).
The dogmatic Church allows space for academic freedom in its universities. Even the Church has learned the wisdom of restraint in the governance of its universities. The world is not flat. The divine right of kings has shifted to the democratic rights of the majority. The Church lives in a plural world of diverse cultures. There is room for the Church to find truth in the religious experience of other religions. The common good is not just for the citizens of Rome that excluded the slaves and the foreigners. The common good is not confirmed as good in its imposition through military might.
Academic freedom is a highly prized public good.
Observed in the Church’s and the State’s restraint vs. HEIs and exercised in the HEIs empowerment, academicians contend in HEIs to articulate what is true about the world, about human society, and about the Absolute. They contend to give the human being technical power over the world, or to protect the world against the destructive power of man. They contend to articulate the demands of state religion vs. private faith vs. religious fundamentalism.
In academic freedom, academicians contend against ignorance, caused by failure to discover truth, communicate it, and live it. They contend against governments who repress truth, private interests that distort it, cultic interests that mystify it, military power that suppresses it.
In academic freedom, academicians contend against the tyranny of the few over the many, the excesses of government over the governed, the limitations of the nation vs the individual and vs. the human community.
In academic freedom, academicians dare to think thoughts that have of yet been unthought, and to think systems that of yet have been unsystematized. In academic freedom there is hope of moving forward from the platitudes and tired thoughts and rehashed jargon that too often characterize the sum of a nation’s intellectual life.
Academic freedom is important. When the academic freedom of our HEIs is violated, the appropriate response is not the silence of slaves – even though they may be better paid today than yesterday (Proudhon).