[Column] Academic freedom

If TU Delft can push electives on artificial intelligence and entrepreneurship, why does it not do so for climate education, wonders columnist Bob van Vliet.

Bob van Vliet: “Comparing everyone with the same yardstick also depoliticizes the whole thing.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Following my earlier columns on climate action (see here and here), I regularly have discussions with colleagues about severing ties between TU Delft and the fossil industry, and the idea of making courses on the climate crisis mandatory in all curricula. A surprising number of people appear to find both proposals enormously radical. And they almost invariably invoke the principle of academic freedom to claim that these things are completely out of the question. But as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t fly.

Academic freedom is not an absolute, standalone principle. It is part of a kind of social contract: the community pays your salary and for your tools, and in return it asks for unbiased research and thinking with integrity. Academic freedom exists to guarantee that. Normally, ‘who pays the piper calls the tune’. Academic freedom is a means of breaking that pattern.

As soon as you accept money from third parties – especially if they are private corporations with a profit motive – that deal breaks down. Then it becomes difficult to trust that your work is not influenced by private interests, even if only subconsciously, or because only those researchers whose (genuine) ideas are not in conflict with shareholder interests are able to secure funding. If you ask me, there should be more discussion about this. After all, engineering is almost by definition intertwined with industrial interests.

‘You shouldn’t let commercial parties fund professorships at all’

In any case, accepting funding does not fall under academic freedom. And professorships that are directly funded by the fossil industry should really be a thing of the past. In fact, I think you shouldn’t let commercial parties fund professorships at all. But for companies whose interests are in direct conflict with the liveability of the planet, it seems especially clear cut.

Then there is the proposal to include climate education in all curricula by default. The Executive Board says this cannot be imposed from above. The colleagues I talk to also baulk at the idea of any kind of obligation whatsoever – because ‘academic freedom!’ But I think that’s too easy. After all, the recent hype around artificial intelligence had barely erupted or there was a push from above to include a 15 credit programme as an option in every master’s programme. There is also a TU Delft-wide programme around entrepreneurship that systematically advertises electives and larger programmes – centrally organised and pushed from above.

Perhaps it can’t be mandated. But if you are serious about the importance of facing up to the climate crisis, then you’d better set up a centrally organised and funded programme of electives, minors, and masters’ projects that is pushed at every opportunity – as is done for AI and entrepreneurship.

Luckily, what is needlessly slow from the top down is starting to come from the bottom up. Students are taking action. And at my first time on the A12 last Saturday I discovered that the TU Delft branch of Scientist Rebellion is growing steadily.

Bob van Vliet is docent bij de faculteit 3mE en gespecialiseerd in ontwerponderwijs. Reacties zijn welkom via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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