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COVID-19 has raised issues of academic freedom, principally where there are divergences of opinion over the legitimacy of COVID-related vaccination. This, in turn, has cast the spotlight onto the nature of academic freedom in other contentious areas within society and therefore within the academy. While the notion of academic freedom has wide acceptance in theory, it regularly encounters obstacles when it appears to give academics a platform to oppose government policy or even university policy. Two areas are highlighted.
The first considers COVID vaccines in academic debate, where the challenge is to balance the freedom not only for academics to speak out in support of vaccination, but also against it. The demands posed by vaccine mandates have brought this tension into prominence. Additional issues include the protection of academics acting as quasi spokespeople for governments, plus the temptation to critique other academics promulgating minority viewpoints based on dubious scientific credentials. This raises the need to protect academics with unpalatable viewpoints.
The second dimension explored is that of the status of indigenous concepts of science. While this discussion has no relationship to COVID-19, it brings to the surface a similar range of tensions related to academic freedom. Although the details will vary between indigenous groups in different cultures, they raise a fundamental consideration: ‘what is science?’ For some there are elements of science that are culture dependent; others vigorously disagree. The question is how a university copes with such fundamental disagreements, and what may and may not be acceptable within academia. Does academic freedom allow approaches that appear to be at fundamental odds with one another? The way in which this question is answered has a bearing on approaches adopted to COVID-19 debates.
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