Ethics Forum

University of Edinburgh

Does social responsibility mean limiting academic freedom?

What are the demands that a commitment to social responsibility implies for educational institutions, and how might these demands conflict with widely supported principles of academic freedom? Are there some topics that a socially responsible university should not research? Should research funding be scrutinised using the standards of sustainability and social responsibility?

Watch a video recording of the debate held on February 6th or have your say in the comments section.


Guardian:  Greenpeace activist in the Leard State Forest as part of a long-running campaign against Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coalmine. Photograph: Greenpeace/AAP

Guardian: Greenpeace activist in the Leard State Forest as part of a campaign against Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coalmine. Photograph: Greenpeace/AAP

Debate continues…

In contrast, universities seem to be under increasing pressure to take principled stands: University College London is under fire for backing a sustainability institute with funding from mining multinational BHP Billiton, and Greenpeace is calling on Sydney University to divest from Maules Creek mine stock.


As it happened

We held a debate on February 6th, 2015 to reflect on whether the University’s commitment to creating a socially responsible environment for research and learning could threaten academic freedom. Speakers disagreed as to whether academic freedom was necessarily threatened by the demands of social responsibility, although each drew attention to the complexity and tensions within seemingly simplistic notions of what is “socially responsible”, and what “academic freedom” consists in. The event was chaired by Liz Cooper (Research and Policy Manager, Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability).

Professor Rob Ellam (Director, Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, University of Glasgow) provided the recent fossil fuel divestment decision at the University of Glasgow as a case study of the tensions between social responsibility and academic freedom. He suggested that while the decision may be seen as socially responsible by those in favour, the lack of availability of alternative energy sources that are secure, cost-effective, and low in carbon emissions means that we continue to be reliant on fossil fuels regardless of the decision to divest. Amidst media scrutiny following the decision, some self-censorship by academic colleagues took place due to reluctance to disagree with the University’s position.

Michelle H Brown (Head of Social Responsibility and Sustainability Programmes, University of Edinburgh) highlighted the contested nature of the term “social responsibility”, and discussed her department’s ongoing engagement with academics and the public in driving towards a workable definition. Citing her department’s blog post on the topic, “a socially responsible university holds itself responsible for the effect of its activities and influence on its immediate community of students and staff, wider society both near and far, and on the rest of the natural world.”

As the core commitment of the University is the advancement of knowledge, she contended that the commitments entailed by social responsibility do constrain academic freedom to some extent. The University is not free to pursue knowledge advancement in any way it sees fit, but rather to do so within the bounds of what it takes to be socially responsible.

Professor Tim Hayward (Director, Just World Institute, University of Edinburgh) disagreed, positing that social responsibility is necessary in order to ensure academic freedom. He drew attention to the reason that universities exist: because academic pursuit of knowledge is good for society. Given that the best way for such institutions to promote knowledge is through freedom to explore our ideas and the world around us. However, when particular social goals or policy ideas are used to direct research agendas or teaching, this can clearly impact academic freedom. Directing academic work by reference to these goals should only be done with extreme caution and scrutiny, engaging with academics and stakeholders.

Further, he distinguished two types of goals of academic research: intrinsic and extrinsic. Open-ended inquiry about the world to discover and explore is the goal that society finds valuable, and this is the intrinsic goal of universities. An extrinsic, or instrumental, goal is something presented to the university by an external third-party, with a view to solving a particular problem. While a defence of academic freedom covers the intrinsic goals of universities, it should not cover those of extrinsic goals put forward by third parties.

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2015 by .
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