Lecture on academic freedom and free speech censored at top Spanish IAC research institute: “totally inappropriate”

In an invited lecture at the IAC on Tenerife, Swedish philosopher Erik J. Olsson identified the replacement of traditional academic values with an excessive focus on equality and other soft values as a major threat to academic freedom. However, shortly after the appearance of the recorded talk on Youtube, the IAC seminar board decided to take it down for “preventive” reasons following concerns about its incompatibility with own IAC’s equality policies (!). In a final decision, the IAC Director confirmed the measure of “cancelling the distribution of and access to the presentation through [IAC’s] own media”.

On November 18, Erik J. Olsson, a Swedish professor of philosophy, gave a talk on academic freedom at the Institute of Astrophysics at the Canary Islands (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias) (IAC), a top Spanish astronomy institute on the Island of Tenerife hosting some of the most powerful telescopes in the world.

The first part of the talk surveyed the most important academic norms, including freedom of speech, drawing on the 1997 UNESCO recommendations for the status of higher-education teaching personnel.

In the second part, Olsson discussed what he claimed to be two major threats to academic freedom in the Western world today, including running universities as if they were private enterprises, which leads to an excessive concern with protecting the university brand from various forms of criticism.

Olsson then identified the transition from traditional academic values to an excessive focus on human relations and soft values as also potentially damaging to academic freedom.

At this point in his lecture, Olsson invoked the standard sociological distinction between feminine and masculine cultures, citing influential empirical work by renowned Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede on how the two cultures differ systematically in their attitudes to work and education, with a masculine culture emphasizing meritocracy, competition and achievement and a feminine culture rather valuing equality, friendliness and cooperation.

Olsson continued by arguing that these systematic differences affect academic freedom in predictable ways. In particular, an excessively feminine culture may lead to the silencing of speech viewed as unfriendly and non-cooperative. Here Olsson gave examples from his own research indicating how radical gender policies under the name of gender mainstreaming has had a chilling effect on speech at Swedish universities. A hypermasculine culture also has its academic issues, Olsson explained, but they are less urgent in the current Western cultural climate, he asserted.

The talk ended with a part outlining the activities of Academic Rights Watch, an independent organization founded by Olsson and colleague Magnus Zetterholm in 2012, its mission being to monitor and promote academic freedom in Sweden by documenting violations on the organization’s websites using the UNESCO 1997 recommendations as its gold standard. Olsson’s Powerpoint presentation can be found here.

In the part of the talk where Olsson discussed potential problems with an excessively feminine culture, there was an unfortunate loss of sound that took several minutes to address. Overall, the talk suffered from a number of technical mishaps, and the video that was published on Youtube was of unusually poor quality, in terms of the visibility of the Powerpoint slides as well as quality of the sound.

What happened then was extraordinary. The video was on Youtube only for about two hours before it was taken down. The Seminar Board (Comisión de Seminarios) explained its decision in an internal email claiming that several individuals had expressed “disagreement and concerns with the contents of the seminar,” adding that ”neither the profile of the speaker, nor the title, nor the abstract of the talk made the CS expect that the content could go against the principles of equality and be in conflict with our code of conduct.”

Moreover, the Board stated that the reactions to the seminar have been collected and transmitted to the IAC leadership (Comité de Dirección), “which is aware of the discomfort generated by this seminar, and which will take the measures it deems appropriate”. Finally, “[a]t the request of IAC’s direction, in a preventive manner, and until the Comité de Dirección can evaluate the content of the seminar, its recording has been removed from the Institute’s digital platforms and is no longer accessible online”.

The final decision was announced on November 24 in an internal email from the IAC Director Prof. Rafael Rebolo López, citing the following text adopted by the Board:

Concerning the seminar given recently at the IAC by Prof Erik J. Olsson (Univ. of Lund), the Management of the IAC deeply regrets that during this seminar statements were made that are utterly contrary to our firm commitment to gender equality and the principles of our Code of Ethics.

This professor was not on a working visit at our institution. On an ad hoc basis, his presentation was proposed by an IAC researcher to the Seminar Committee, who reviewed the provided title and abstract of the presentation. From the provided information, this Commission could not have possibly deduced the totally inappropriate contents that were actually presented in several slides and expressed verbally by the aforementioned speaker.

The IAC’s Management expresses its firm disapproval of what happened and maintains the measure of cancelling the distribution of and access to the presentation through its own media, thus confirming the action taken as a preventive measure by the Director shortly after the seminar when he became aware of what had happened.

All staff are reminded of their responsibility to comply with our Code of Ethics and the principles and aims of the IAC when carrying out our activities. This commitment applies to external staff invited for activities at our Institute.

However, the Director did not explicitly state which parts of the presentation he considers to be contrary to gender equality and IAC’s Code of Ethics and why. Nor did he comment on the truthfulness and empirical support for the statements made in the lecture.

Prof. Olsson was surprised to find that his lecture, unlike other lectures in the same seminar series, had been removed from Youtube and that its content was investigated and subsequently censored by the IAC leadership:

– I find it ironic that a talk on academic freedom and threats to freedom of speech is itself investigated and censured, indeed with reference to the very policies that I cautioned against in the talk.

– Many observers will view the actions of the IAC as providing a direct and unambiguous confirmation of the claims made in my talk and as sending a worrisome message about the institute’s academic health, Prof. Olsson said.

According to sources inside IAC, several professors at the institute openly expressed their support for Olsson’s right to express his views. One professor reportedly said that while he disagreed with some of those views, he found it important that they could be openly expressed and debated. Several junior IAC researchers whom Academic Rights Watch talked to said that they agree with the opinions expressed in the lecture, but added that they felt they could not express those opinions themselves for fear of losing their positions at the institute. Sources also suggested that the talk was problematic for the IAC leadership primarily because of concerns that it might damage the institute’s brand.

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