Is Academic Freedom Under Assault?

Students and academics should be encouraged to care for and to participate in social issues and politics, whether they support government policies or not

It’s been a tough week for social scientists in Taiwan. It began with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Su Ching-chuang’s (蘇清泉) grilling of Environmental Protection Administration Minister Wei Kuo-yen (魏國彥), who was scheduled to answer questions on nuclear waste disposal, about what social scientists and the departments of sociology at universities do exactly. This was followed by Su’s tirade accusing faculty and students at public universities of “causing chaos on the streets” and his call for “education budget redistribution.” Then KMT Legislator Lu Hsueh-chang (呂學樟) stepped in and led an investigation team, organized by the Legislative Yuan’s Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee (司法及法制委員會), into Academia Sinica, the nation’s top research institution.

The purpose of Lu’s visit was ostensibly to inspect the conditions of Academia Sinica’s staffing and performance enhancement after the institution’s restructuring (組織改造後員額編制及業務績效提升情形). According to Lu, Academia Sinica had a budget of more than NT$5 billion (US$165.8 million) for the past five years and experienced a 2% staffing increase during the same period. Given this, he said, the public has the right to examine the institution’s progress and quality of its research.

Lu’s visit to Academia Sinica would not have sparked such outrage among academics had it not happened at such sensitive time, or if he had not made such a splash of his views on certain academics and what research institutions ought to be doing.

Questioned by the press, Lu said that members of Academia Sinica had behaved in an irrational and impolite manner when they greeted President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last month with Sunflowers, banners, and slogans as ma arrived at the institution to deliver a keynote speech at a conference on the sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyutai Islands. Ma’s visit came a week after the end of the Sunflower Movement’s three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in protest against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China, and less than less than a month after an estimated half-a-million people took to the streets to express their support for the Sunflowers.

Several hundred researchers, staff, and students from Academia Sinica, including Institute of Sociology research fellow Chiu Hei-yuan (瞿海源) and associate research fellow Wu Rwei-ren (吳叡人) of the Institute of Taiwan History, greeted President Ma outside the venue where he was to deliver his speech with banners that said, “Taiwan’s future is for the people to decide (台灣未來,人民做主),” or “Legislative Oversight on Cross-Strait agreements! (兩岸協議,立法監督).” Some protesters also held sunflowers while they chanted “Restore Constitutionalism, Defend Democracy (重建憲政,捍衛民主)” at the president. Later on, associate research fellows Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) and Shiu Wen-tang (許文堂) of the Institute of Modern History, along with Paul Jobin, an associate professor at the University of Paris Diderot, held protest posters in silence inside the conference room as President Ma addressed his audience.

Such behavior from members of Academia Sinica, according to Legislator Lu, was administratively unethical and inappropriate. Lu further criticized the nation’s top research institution by arguing that Academia Sinica was subordinate to the Presidential Office, and that therefore the president was Academia Sinica’s boss. “Who would do such a thing when one’s boss visits?” Lu asked. Employees at Academia Sinica are the president’s staff and should naturally make recommendations to the president, he said. However, yelling at the president is “incongruous.” Lu suggested that Academia Sinica reflect on the incident.

But he wasn’t done. Lu then opined that while institutes of natural sciences and engineering were conducting “vigorous, outstanding research,” academic work by the Institute of Political Science and Institutum Iurisprudentiae had gone astray. Researchers should not be so critical or so vocal in their opposition to government policies, he said, as employees at Academia Sinica are also public servants. Taking part in protests, he added, violates the Civil Service Administrative Neutrality Act (公務人員行政中立法). Lu recommended that the institutes that “went astray” be merged and “reconstituted.”

Lu’s visit and comments sparked outrage among members of Academia Sinica and academics at other institutions of high learning. Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), an associate research fellow at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae and a key leader during the Sunflower Movement’s occupation, said that Lu was “utterly ignorant” and that even former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) had not had such authoritarian tendencies. In an interview with the Chinese-language Storm Media, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), the director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, sounded equally unimpressed with Lu. Echoing Huang, Hsiao called Lu ignorant and added that as a legislator, Lu should represent the people and not act as a mindless follower of his party.

Weighing in, Modern History associate research fellow Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) pointed out that the purpose of Academia Sinica as the “highest national research institution of the Republic of China” was to serve as the country’s top research entity. Consequently, academic freedom should be at the heart of Academia Sinica, he said, adding that caring for and paying attention to society were naturally part of an academic’s work and research.

Worryingly, Lu’s outburst appears to be just one in a series of attempts by the administration and its allies in the KMT to keep academia in line. In 2012, KMT Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) threatened to slash the budget of the Institutum Iurisprudentiae in half if the institute’s research fellows continued to speak against the Want Want China Times Group’s attempt to purchase China Network System (CNS), which would have affected a quarter of households nationwide. Many academics from Academia Sinica were vocal in their opposition to the deal, which they feared would create a media monopoly by a company that had vast business interests in China. Besides threatening to slash the budget of the law institute, Tsai argued that it was none of the academic’s business to protest against a commercial merger and that the academics were motivated by anti-government media outlets for political reasons.

Back in 2010, the Ministry of Education had issued a notice to National Taiwan University (NTU) requesting the university to “reflect and improve the contents of its PTT Gossip board.” The ministry claimed the university’s Internet discussion board was permeated by “all kinds of political articles” and added that it hoped the university could rid the Internet forum of “political party employees” and create a “clean environment” for its users. The ministry further requested NTU strongly regulate posts that strayed from “academic and teaching purposes.”

The sustained efforts by the government to keep academics and students from engaging in politics and social issues with the threat of selectively limiting or curtailing the distribution of research and education funds — or simply by discrediting and smearing those who disagree with the government — are grounds for grave concern. It’s difficult to determine whether KMT Legislator Su is truly that ignorant about the fields of sociology and social sciences, or that he was merely attributing the blame for what he considers “social instability” to social scientists and their students. The notion that academics and students should stay within the confines of the university and research centers, or that they should only conduct research that is directed by an administrative entity, is absurd.

Social science is a vast discipline. It consists of many fields, including psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, economics, political science, and law. It studies society, its institutions, and how and why people behave as they do as individuals or as groups within society. In order to study these essential elements of society and research the variables that affect these elements, systematic, vigorous fieldwork is always required. Whether they conduct surveys, interviews, or engage in participatory observation, being physically close to the research subject is key to the ability of social scientists to carry out robust research. To urge political scientists or sociologists to only “stick to research and academia,” or to order them not to care about the impacts of a certain policy is impossible, if not downright offensive.

Most importantly, academic freedom is one of the essential elements of a democracy. Such freedom gives academics the ability to investigate, examine, and present their findings without fear of being monitored, reprimanded, or fired when the conclusions are not to the government’s liking. It is also through academic freedom and openness that students are able to learn and discuss vast subjects inside and outside the classroom and make their own interpretations of various phenomena and theories. Academia is the first sector in which authoritarian governments extend their tentacles to restrict and control people’s thoughts. Taiwan prides herself in her democracy. Academics and students should be encouraged to care for and to participate in social issues and politics, whether they support government policies or not. They certainly should not be penalized for doing so.

Ketty W. Chen is Director of Research Programs at the Association of Public Issues Studies (TAPIS) in Taipei.

2 Responses to “Is Academic Freedom Under Assault?”

May 18, 2014 at 2:14 am, mike said:

That academics should not be penalized for disagreeing with government policies is, I would think, a relatively uncontroversial statement. However, legislator Lu’s claim that academic participation in street protests is a violation of civil service neutrality points to an interesting, and in this article, unexamined conflict of interest.

Just as the proverbial fish don’t notice the water they are swimming in, so too academics – especially social science academics – tend not to be aware of just how deeply and narrowly politicized they are. That they can insist upon “academic freedom” from politics even whilst operating largely at the sufferance of the State is indicative of this tendency. One would not expect, for example, to find an academic interpret his findings by openly questioning – let alone refuting – the necessity of his own institution’s research grant. It may happen from time to time, but as an “apostate” from the social sciences myself, I am convinced that it is far from the norm.

Given that inherent conflict of interest, it follows that there are very strong incentives for academics to rationalize their dependence upon the State. Thus, academics whose political thought relies on the tenets of one of the many varieties of socialist ideology, in which State sponsorship of certain endeavors is seen as a “corrective” to the “failures” of the market, will tend not to even think about it. When the political contingency of their funding is once more made salient to them, as for instance by the remarks of a KMT legislator, then it is not surprising that academics are prone to interpret such remarks as highly political “authoritarian threats”, even though it is their own funding that is “political” in the first place, and it is their own premises that remain uncontested.

Whilst the question of whether social science should be funded by the State is indeed a political question, social scientists are arguably the least qualified people to answer it.


May 18, 2014 at 3:30 pm, An Ma Ke said:

Not a little bit of hubris when an elected official is called the “boss” of the people!


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