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The widespread embrace of “university values” is problematic and distracts from the central value of our profession: academic freedom. Building on his contribution to a debate at EUA’s 2022 Annual Conference, Carsten A. Holz argues that rather than grandstanding with “university values” university managers ought to protect academic freedom, including through implementing good governance principles.

The concept of “university values” is problematic

The term “value(s)” comes with a dozen definitions, two of which apply in the context of universities. In a narrow definition, values are “principles or standards of behaviour; one's judgement of what is important in life” (Oxford English Dictionary). In a broader, sociological definition, values are “the ideals, customs, institutions, etc. of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard.” Both definitions have in common that it is individuals who hold values. It is an individual’s judgment as to what is important in their life, and it is up to the collective of individuals to agree on their common values. In other words, universities don’t have values; faculty members, staff and students do.

Values of the profession vs. “university values”

The appropriate question is not one of “university values” but of the values of our profession, academia. The central value of our profession is academic freedom.

Many academics may not be overly concerned with academic freedom, let alone be able to define what it is. But the moment academic freedom is taken away, there is an outcry - or an exodus. In the author’s Social Science Division at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST), within little more than one year half of the faculty members left. They may state various reasons for doing so, but everyone now faces the so-called national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party in June 2020. Suddenly, given the threat of, in the extreme, life imprisonment in mainland China for exercising our profession, academic freedom has taken centre stage.

Since our profession is exercised mostly within the organisational form of a university, the values of our profession transfer to the university. Without academic freedom, a university is no more than a research and teaching factory for directed labourers.

Society-wide values and good governance principles vs. “university values”

Universities are part of their societies. Members of a society hold values. The values that all members of a society subscribe to are codified. For example, Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty lists the EU’s six values as: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights (as does the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights).

Why should every university proclaim its own private set of “university values” when, as a society that the university is part of, we have already agreed on a codified set of values? And does a university manager declaring their set of university values today really make every member of the university adopt, internalise and live these values tomorrow, just as a cult leader’s declarations become the creed of their followers?

Should a university indeed need a special set of values in addition to those of our societies, we should consider a set of good governance principles that support academic freedom and the exercise of our profession (and reflect our society-wide values for the case of our profession): transparency, accountability, and academic self-administration. Such governance principles - or values guiding the organisational arrangement of our profession - can have real impact.

For example, when HKUST managers decided to open a second campus in mainland China, transparency would have meant that they could not blatantly ignore issues of academic freedom (a proclaimed HKUST core value) raised by faculty members. Accountability could have forced HKUST’s managers to abide by university regulations (and their declared core value of “integrity”), which state that “sabbatical leave with full pay may be granted to eligible academic appointees,” rather than re-define “sabbatical leave” to mean a re-arrangement of teaching duties (“make up for their teaching duties”). Academic self-administration could have stopped a president from declaring a core value of HKUST to be “1-HKUST,” meaning “The entire HKUST family work together as an integrated and holistic team,” a slogan perhaps more reflective of some utopian autocratic-communist society than of academic freedom. I do not believe that secretive and opaque, unaccountable, autocratic university management will ultimately be conducive to academia.

University mangers scrimping on their duties

In today’s world, university managers compose long lists of “university values” for which they can offer no rationale. These “university values” have no practical implications, least of all for managers who ignore them at will. Enforcement mechanisms, which would hold managers to their declared values, are missing. Rather than grandstanding with meaningless “university values” it should be incumbent upon university managers to safeguard academic freedom so that faculty members and students can freely engage in inquiry and intellectual debate, whatever their values are, without fear of censorship or retaliation. Adoption of a set of good governance principles would further help protect academic freedom and the exercise of our profession.

Note: This article is based on the author’s contribution to a panel on ‘Values in Global Cooperation’ at the European University Association’s 2022 Annual Conference.


Carsten A. Holz
Hong Kong University of Science & Technology

Carsten A. Holz is Professor in the Social Science Division at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and currently Visiting Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He holds a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and his research and teaching focuses on the Chinese economy. Since 2020 he has published several commentaries on academic freedom in Hong Kong.

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