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Chicago principles debate: »I'm sitting here, so I do have some kind of backbone«

Freedom — Should the so-called Chicago principles be inscribed in Danish university legislation? Or are Danish universities actually just fine the way they are now? Academic freedom was discussed once again in the Danish parliament on 3 May.

How far is it from the US Midwest to the Landsting hall in the Danish parliament buildings? Spiritually, that is?

This was up for discussion when the Danish parliamentary committee on education and research held an open consultation 3 May on the so-called Chicago principles.

The committee wanted to explore political values. Can you express, do research on, and teach, everything at Danish universities? Or is a US-inspired sensitivity and political correctness sneaking its way in, and threatening both an intellectual and spiritual freedom of speech?

The latter, according to a minority in the Danish parliament. The Liberal Alliance Party put forward a proposal in the Danish parliament last December that would introduce Chicago principles. This was in response to some perceived trends.

The party did not get a majority. But »even though we did not reach agreement, we agreed that we could be inspired by them,« Kasper Sand Kjær (Social Democrat) said in his welcoming speech.

Henrik Dahl, who has campaigned against identity politics and university activism, snaps a picture of the big screen over the panellists’ seats for his Twitter profile. »This is going to be interesting,« he writes.

READ ALSO: »We need to do everything we can to fight this totalitarian identity politics movement«

Lifeblood endangered

The guest of honour turns up via video link. Daniel Diermeier is chancellor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and was part of management at the University of Chicago when the much-debated principles were adopted in 2014.

The Chicago principles

The Chicago Principles are a code of conduct to safeguard freedom of speech and freedom of research at universities.

They were adopted at the University of Chicago in 2014. Since then more than 80 other US universities have adopted them, while even more universities have drawn up their own variants of the principles.

In October 2021, the Liberal Alliance Party proposed that the principles should be incorporated into the Danish University Act.

Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen was among those that rejected the proposal. He urged universities to formulate their own principles instead.

In his world, there is real cause for concern, he says.

»Universities are where we come to debate and investigate the issues that matter most to us. And our investigations are most fruitful when they are based on a range of viewpoints. But this very lifeblood of a university—and with it, a free and thinking society—is under threat, as the culture wars encroach on our campuses and actors at both ends of the political spectrum politicize our conversations,« Daniel Diermeier says.

READ ALSO: Daniel Diermeier’s speech at the hearing.

It is not good if students get an understanding of the world that is too narrow, because universities are afraid of offending them, he says.

»A university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas. It is rather to expose them to ideas, and to enable them to process, and hopefully get, ideas themselves.«

But to legislate in order to safeguard an abundance of ideas is to go too far, he thinks. It is better to leave it up to the universities themselves to formulate guidelines.

»Nothing is happening«

And several Danish universities are, in fact, already on their way. In April, Aarhus University released a declaration on how the university will safeguard academic freedom of expression.

»In academic debates, in research, and in teaching, ideas and thoughts need to be freely investigated and discussed. This also applies even though they, for some, may seem unpleasant, wrong, or even offensive,« it states in the declaration.

At Roskilde University, they are looking for a new dean of the Faculty of Humanities, whose assignments includes ensuring »the freedom of research for academic staff.«

And at both Copenhagen Business School and the University of Southern Denmark, committees have been set up to formulate statements that are analogous to the Chicago principles.

At the University of Copenhagen however, management has taken a different approach.

»We have heard about the excellent work of Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark, but these are limited, local initiatives, and this is a problem. There are other places where nothing is happening at all, like at my own university,« says Associate Professor of Law at the University of Copenhagen, Jakob Holtermann, who was invited as one of the panellists.

The opposite of science

The principles of safeguarding academic freedom are already, constantly, in use throughout the University of Copenhagen, says Prorector for Research David Dreyer Lassen. He does not think it makes sense to draw up regulations or legislation.

»As a university, we need to communicate and cultivate an academic culture, and an ethics where you can agree to disagree. We can, I think, get better at this,« he says.

It is now the turn of Alex Ahrendtsen of the Danish People’s Party. He moves forward on his seat, turns on his microphone, and directs his comments at David Dreyer Lassen.

I don’t think students will be harmed by listening to, say, a fundamentalist that advocates for the oppression of women.

Daniel Diermeier, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University

 

»I agree that there is a need for a culture change. But I find it hard to see where a backbone is going to appear. I don’t think you’ve shown yourselves to have one. The only reason you have started talking about these things now is because of the debate that [Danish politician, ed.] Henrik Dahl and others have set off.«

If universities do not introduce the Chicago principles, and in black and white, it will lead to »wokeness, which is the opposite of science,« he says.

But no, Alex Ahrendtsen is looking for something that does not exist, says David Dreyer Lassen.

»I’m sitting here, so I do have some kind of backbone.  I don’t believe that Danish universities have been affected by this, compared to the US. Things happen where you are astonished and think ‘wow, can you do research on this’,« he says.

»There is a large group of anthropologists, for example, who do not give any credence to what I do as an economist. They think it’s madness, but they respect what I do, just as economists respect what the anthropologists are doing.«

An activist basketball team

But are there any limits to this, Ida Auken (Social Democrat) asks. Are there any positions that the universities should not associate themselves with, or allow the use of their auditoriums for? Is it okay, for example, when the audience is separated by gender at a presentation on the modernization of Islam, she asks, with reference to an event on Central Campus that took place in March.

Hardly not, Daniel Diermeier says from the big screen.

»I don’t think students will be harmed by listening to, say, a fundamentalist that advocates for the oppression of women. But we need to make sure that, as a university, the person in question does not just get a free pulpit, but is challenged in debate,« he says.

He recounts a case of an activist basketball team at his university. The team wanted to protest against racism, so they refused to come on to the court and sing the national anthem before the start of the match.

»I got so many angry letters from people who found this disrespectful. But I think students should be encouraged to get involved in the public debate,« he says.

That’s why he set up a dialogue meeting between the basketball players and the students who were war veterans, he says.

»The headline was ‘What does it mean to be a patriot’. Everyone learned something that day.«

As the panellists leave the room, it is as if there is still an ocean between them.

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