Academic Freedom Overseas: Hopes and Obstacles

The following is by Robert Epstein, a former editor in chief of Psychology Today and author of 15 books on psychology.

Early in 2013, I was appointed the first full professor of psychology at the University of the South Pacific, which serves more than 25,000 students throughout the 12 island nations in this vast and often breathtakingly beautiful part of the world. It was a late-career adventure for me and my wife. Full professorships are rare here, and my appointment came with a private lunch with the president of the university. I had never been welcomed anywhere so graciously.

Before I agreed to come, I read and was impressed by the university’s ambitious strategic plan, which emphasizes measuring up to international standards of academic excellence, including standards of academic freedom. Inspired by the lush, sprawling main campus, in Suva, Fiji, which is populated mainly by thousands of the happiest, most congenial indigenous young people you can imagine (the iTaukei, pronounced “ee-TOW-kay”), I found it easy to be enthusiastic about the university’s mission: to provide a first-rate education for the residents of this relatively poor region, where the average income is about $6,000 per year.

In some respects, though, both the growth and the reputation of the university have been held back by regressive policies dating back to its founding, in 1968. I will focus in this short essay on one such policy, indicative of the current state of academic freedom in this part of the world—and not just at the University of the South Pacific. That policy regards a faculty member’s right to attend academic conferences.

To put this matter into perspective, at first-rank institutions such as Harvard, the University of California, and the University of Cambridge, as well as at the prestigious University of Auckland, in New Zealand, which is only 1,600 miles from Fiji, faculty members need only the permission of a department head to leave for as long as a week (two weeks in some cases) to attend a conference. No special paperwork is required. If the conference interferes with teaching or other on-campus responsibilities, it is up to the faculty member to see to it that those responsibilities are met. I had seen this process operate smoothly for more than 30 years during teaching stints at Boston University, the University of California at San Diego, and elsewhere.

Given the multiple ways in which both faculty members and universities benefit from conference participation, it is difficult to imagine why a college would ever discourage faculty members from attending. Attendance is encouraged and sometimes funded generously to bring prestige and visibility to the university, to recruit new faculty members, to keep scholars up to date in their fields, and, perhaps most important, to keep papers flowing on the way to publication.

At the University of the South Pacific, however, a “conference leave” is an “entitlement” that “is not granted as of right” and must typically be requested at least eight weeks before the conference. Forms, documentation, and multiple levels of approval are involved. Moreover, as a matter of policy, administrators can deny funds and the leave itself even if the faculty member is already scheduled to present a paper—an action that could bring shame to both the faculty member and the university. As a practical matter, this means that if an administrator doesn’t approve of your research, there is little point in pursuing it. Contrast that type of practice with the American Association of University Professors’ longtime defense of “full freedom in research and the publication of the results.”

Administrators at the university here do, in fact, sometimes advise faculty members to alter their research programs and occasionally deny conference leaves even when papers have already been accepted; I have seen this myself. My concern here, however, is that it is a matter of policy that these kinds of actions are acceptable. Many academics in the United States and elsewhere would consider such policy to be a serious threat to academic freedom.  Administrators here have the power to pick and choose which conferences a faculty member can attend. It is as if the sword of Damocles is hanging over one’s laptop.

Is the leave policy really so bad? When I circulated an essay expressing concerns about it to colleagues at the university, I soon found myself invited by the president of the neighboring Fiji National University to evaluate its own conference-leave policy, which was under review by an internal committee. Fiji National is  the University of the South Pacific’s main competitor and the second-largest university in the region, serving more than 20,000 students.

Here came the real shocker. My university’s conference-leave policy is actually reasonable, generous, and far ahead of its time for this region. Everything is relative, yes? At Fiji National, conference-leave applications are normally reviewed only four times a year, and full papers must be submitted—no PowerPoints—even though most conferences these days require that only abstracts be submitted for evaluation.

What’s more, to get such an application approved, you must first present your paper at a “well publicized” event on the campus, and your performance must be judged worthy by administrators who might not even be in your field. In other words, if you want to take your act on the road, you first have to wow the crowd at home.

With procedural hurdles this high, and so much discretionary power in the hands of administrators, it should come as no surprise that the rates of presentation and publication at these universities are low—too low, I was told by an administrator, to earn them a place in rankings such as those maintained by Thompson Reuters and Quacquarelli Symonds. South Pacific averaged 0.3 “high-impact journal publications” per faculty member per year as of 2011, according to its strategic plan.

And what is the impact of such policies on recruiting and, more important, retaining accomplished scholars and scientists from other countries? The expats I have spoken with over the past year here have voiced concerns, to say the least.

I have seen signs—the strategic plan, that internal committee, whispers in hallways—that both universities will someday set self-defeating policies aside. But not anytime soon, I suspect. In the meantime, the next time you interpret a colleague’s raised eyebrow as a threat to your academic freedom, think again. In some parts of the world, academic freedom is still a seed waiting to germinate and blossom.

Follow Mr. Epstein on Twitter: @DrREpstein.

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