Loughborough University has a statutory and contractual duty to protect academic freedom, a commitment to tackle discrimination, harassment, and bullying, and a statutory duty to promote equality.
This statement seeks to articulate how any tensions that arise between these might be judged and resolved. Whilst this guidance has been developed to support cases amongst staff, brought through Ordinance XLIV, the ‘considerations’ herein can be applied to cases involving postgraduate research students. Academic freedom is a different concept to freedom of speech.
Existing Policy Framework
The University’s Statute XXI states the University will
ensure that staff, while engaged in the provision of learning, teaching or research in accordance with their terms and conditions of service, have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.
This statement is derived from the UNESCO 1997 Paris Declaration on Higher Education. The UNESCO Declaration makes it clear that exercising academic freedom carries responsibilities – including a need to be fair and equitable to students. Academic freedom therefore is a fundamental cornerstone of a university but is a qualified concept.
The University’s Bullying and Harassment Policy (correct as of 31 August 2022) states :
Harassment or bullying can take many forms, often involving the abuse of power or position and may be a single event, sporadic events or a continuing process. Both harassment and bullying refer to behaviours which, deliberately or otherwise, are hostile and/or offensive to the recipient or others and which unreasonably interfere with an individual’s work, academic performance or social life.
Harassment or bullying may involve apparently insignificant acts which cumulatively create an intimidating environment that undermines the integrity or dignity of the individual. Unacceptable behaviour ranges from violence and threats to ignoring people. In all cases, harassment and bullying are unwelcome and can make an individual feel uncomfortable, unsafe, frightened or embarrassed.
Such behaviours may be expressed verbally or non-verbally via traditional or electronic communications, or by physical actions. The common link is that the behaviour is unwanted by the recipient or others, is unwarranted by the relationship and would be regarded as harassment or bullying by any reasonable person.
Staff are expected to behave respectfully and professionally when exercising academic freedom. We are committed to being an inclusive, tolerant and non-discriminatory institution.
In the course of their academic work, an academic may examine and/or hold various philosophical beliefs which are in keeping with their research area. This belief may be associated with a particular protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The legislation is clear that the manifestation of a person’s religious or philosophical belief should not conflict with the rights of others and in particular conflict with another protected characteristic. Academic freedom must therefore be applied in a way that is cognisant of the requirements set out in the Equality Act 2010.
Given its fundamental importance to a university, the test for whether academic freedom fails to protect an individual for expressing their views should be a high one. In considering whether academic freedom applies and, if so, then to what degree, the following factors should be considered:
- The content of the comments made (in particular whether they are lawful).
- How the speaker has reached their view (is the comment an outcome of specific research activity, a canon of work over time, or has no basis in previous academic activity).
- The media, forum or broader context by which they appear (for example, academic publications should have a higher degree of protection than social media posts, although egregious content on any media / forum is unacceptable).
- The tone of any statement (for example, academic discourse should have a higher degree of protection than statements that could be viewed as rhetorically provocative).
- The degree to which statements are targeted, especially against individuals or constitute an attempt to victimise (posts attacking individuals, as opposed to their views, would not routinely be covered by academic freedom).
Ordinance XLIV prescribes a process for resolving any issues of academic freedom. Where the issue of academic freedom relates in some way to issues of protected characteristics, the panel considering the issue should normally seek advice from the PVC (EDI) or their representative where specific EDI specialist advice is needed. If not on the panel, an individual qualified to comment on the disciplinary area should be consulted. Informal queries can be made to the Chief Operating Officer.
The extent to which individuals have been counselled previously (for example, if an individual has previously been counselled that a particular way of communicating and behaving would not be protected by academic freedom) should be considered as mitigating and aggravating factors in determining outcomes.
Approved by Senate, June 2022