Academic Freedom and Academic Excellence

Donald N. Levine

University of Chicago

Remarks prepared for the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate from Addis Ababa University, July 24, 2004

 

Mr. President of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia

Mr. President of the University of Addis Ababa

Esteemed Colleagues of the University Faculty

Members of the graduating class of 2004 and their families Honorable guests

 

It is with much gratitude that I return here today, to an institution with which my association goes back forty-five years. In 1959 I taught a course at the old University College of Addis Ababa, and subsequently organized what was perhaps the first interdisciplinary seminar on Ethiopian Studies in the world.

 

Not long after that, the University College was turned into Haile Selassie I University. And what do you think was its governing mottoa motto that once appeared on the seal of the University and on all diplomas it issued, and still appears above the entrance of Ras Makonnen Hall? The motto, proposed by the noted scholar Blatta Marsie Hazen Wolde-Kirkos, was kwillo amekkiru: we-ze-senai atsni'u. Kwillo amekkiru! "Try out, examine everything!" This was a mandate to engage in open inquiry. This was the motto of the young Karl Marxbefore he became a dogmatistwho advocated the free and uninhibited critical examination of everything existing, uninhibited by fears either of the powers that be or of the consequences for one's own beliefs.

 

We-ze-senai atsni'u! And then, "hold firmly to what is true." Assess what you find. Be selective. Don't settle for errors, or distortions, or half-truths, or half-baked formulations. Transcend the mediocre. Go for the very best. Kwillo amekkiru we-ze-senai atsni'u, then, calls for open inquiry, without constraint--in other words, academic freedom—and determination to grasp the most valid conclusions of such inquiry--in other words, academic excellence. Not bad for the motto of a university!!

 

Commitment to the values of academic freedom and excellence animated the generation of remarkable young Ethiopians who struggled to establish a first-rate institution of higher learning here. (Their work, I am happy to say, is currently being retrieved, thanks to Dr. Mulugeta Wodajo, the first Ethiopian Vice-President of the University.)

 

Under the regime of the Derg, the great gains for Ethiopian education which they produced suffered a series of terrible blows from which Ethiopia has not yet fully recovered. When the Derg took power in September 1974, their first act was to impose a rigid ban on freedom of speech, in the form of proclamation forbidding groups of more than five people to assemble anywhere. What was worse, they closed down the university and also the feeder junior and senior grades of secondary schools for two full years. To make matters worse, when the University at last reopened, they subjected faculty and curriculum to severe ideological restraints. They based admissions on criteria of ethnic quotas rather than merit; they tied appointments to political loyalty instead of academic qualifications; they subjected curricular content to ideological scrutiny rather than to defensible educational principles; and they isolated Ethiopian faculty from the international academic community.

 

With the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopians inside and outside the university enjoyed a marked increase of freedom of speech and publication. Even so, the pattern of unwarranted governmental intrusion into the university was matched by such destructive actions as the abrupt dismissal of some forty of the most experienced and accomplished members of the University faculty. It has remained difficult to uphold standards of admissions and to hold faculty performance to international academic standards. The government has failed to realize how delicate and vulnerable a university of high quality is.

 

Regarding freedom of expression and publication, although the severe repression through imprisonment of independent journalists has diminished,new forms of curtailment are being entertained by those who wish to legislate a system of severe restrictions on freedom of the press. These legislative proposals so worried the late Ato Kifle Wodajo, recipient of an honorary doctorate in this hall a year ago, that he composed a detailed critique of those proposals, which argued that that would be harmful to the well-being of this country.

 

You may well ask, what does a free press have to do with the functioning of a university? The distinguished social scientist Robert Redfield, speaking of conditions in the United States during the McCarthyist period, answered that question in words as valid now as a half-century ago. In an article entitled "The Dangerous Duty of the University," Redfield stated:

 

The concern with the preservation of freedom of speech, thought and discussion is likely to be strong in a university. . . . University people are more likely than is the average man to do something toward protecting that freedom [because] university people do depend upon these freedoms, so use them in their work that the importance of this vale is strongly felt by them. . . . Is it not a good thing for the whole community that when most of it, perhaps because of fear, is disposed to put security above freedom, that part of the community that cares deeply about this kind of freedom should urge its preservation?

 

Related to the question of academic freedom is the issue of university autonomy-the right of university faculties to determine academic and institutional appointments on the basis of internationally observed standards maintained by peer review. As a way of raising some questions about this issue, let me tell a personal story.

 

When this university was being founded, I regarded the enterprise as so important that I accepted an offer to serve as assistant to the acting Vice-President, Harold Bentley. Before the project had a chance to break ground, however, Addis Ababa was racked by an attempted coup d'etat against the late Emperor. As a friend of one of the coup leaders, Girmame Neway, I was one of the last persons to talk with him before he was captured and killed. Girmame's parting words riveted me: "Don, please tell our story to the world. Even if we are defeated and killed, at least a word of truth will have been spoken in this land of deception." A few months later, I published an article in accord with Girmame's testament, an article which the Emperor found so offensive that he wanted the U.S. Government to put me in prison. But then, Acting Vice-President Bentley dissuaded him with this memorable argument. "Your Majesty," he pleaded, "think of yourself for a moment not as head of the Ethiopian State, but as Chancellor of this new University. You want it to be internationally respected. For that, it must be able to guarantee academic freedom. What better proof of your intent could you demonstrate than to invite Dr. Levine to return to help build it?"

 

The rhetoric worked. Despite the fact that I had written an article that was terribly critical and threatening to him, the Emperor understood that for this university to be a first-class, internationally respected university, it had to guarantee freedom of inquiry, speech, and publication; and so, with grace and generosity, His Majesty approved the idea of inviting me to return.

 

Nevertheless, when it came time to travel to Addis to take up that position, no Ethiopian embassy had received authorization to issue me a visa-despite the fact that I had received a contract and several thousand dollars to cover transitional expenses. When I phoned Addis Ababa to inquire about this situation, Dr. Bentley reported that his Majesty had said, "as University Chancellor, I still want him to come; but as Head of State, I do not."

 

As I have pondered this episode over the years, I have come to interpret the actions of Girmame Neway and His Majesty in a new light. For all the bravery and self-sacrifice manifested in the attempted coup, had Girmame and his comrades actually spoken the truth, in this land of deception? Had they not reproduced a familiar old pattern of Ethiopian culture, in which social discontent was either suppressed, expressed indirectly through wax-and-gold language, or through martial rebellion-meshefet and wetardernet? Was it really progress to engineer an armed coup against the regime instead of organizing public discourse about societal problems, an approach that often takes greater courage? Was it really speaking the truth to execute in cold blood sixteen leading figures of the old regime, a pattern that created a terrible precedent for the horrors of the Derg? What of Mahatma Gandhi's notion of satyagraha, which holds that to take the life of another human is to impede the search for truth by silencing a potential contributor to dialogue?

 

On the other hand, for all his upholding of tradition, the Emperor was taking a large step forward by embracing Dr. Bentley's differentiation between the values of political authority and the values of the university. Although my critique of him had upset His Majesty greatly, he apparently glimpsed the significance of that distinction and embraced it. He understood that the university and the state were governed by different norms and pursued different missions, even when reversing his decision about my return on grounds that consideration of State overrode considerations of academic autonomy. And does that reversal not reinforce the point-that university autonomy requires the management of a university to be fully independent of external political authorities?

 

The truth is that those in Power need, today more than ever, an independent and open quest for truth. Although the conclusions or the process of such inquiry may at times bring discomfort to the powers that be, surrounded as we are by unprecedented changes of enormous complexity, it stands to the advantage of these powers to support free inquiry and to be open to its honest conclusions. Failure to do so can result in calamities, based simply on ignorance and uninformed judgment. Of many examples from the experience of the United States and Ethiopia over the past half century, let me cite just one.

 

In the 1960s , the United States government committed itself to a horrible war in Southeast Asia, on the basis of perceptions that were uninformed by sound understanding of Vietnamese realities. I shall never forget the moment when the late Senator Robert Kennedy, speaking at a scholarly conference at the University of Chicago on Southeast Asia in 1966, confessed: "If only we in the government had known what you scholars knew all along, we never would have gotten into this horrible situation."

 

The best ideas to help Ethiopia cope with the mammoth problems it now confronts problems such as poverty, urban congestion, famine, disease, environmental deterioration, and erosion of cultural resources are most likely to emerge from the uninhibited quest for truth. What is more, given the public commitment of this regime to promoting democracy and therewith respect for human rights, the university offers an ideal training ground for the virtues needed for democracy; it trains people to speak openly, clearly, and responsibly, and to deliberate respectfully within a public, communal setting.

 

One way of providing such support is to encourage a university faculty to be responsible for decisions affecting the academic side operations of the university's operations. Parliament has recently passed legislation that, while not granting the university autonomy, at least has the potential to open a path of movement in that direction. A strong, secure, and courageous regime can accommodate novel insight and challenging truths. Ethiopians increasingly appreciate the difference between the courage of wetadernet and the courage of non-violent civil discourse.

 

In the hope that this institution will continue its struggle to become a place that upholds the highest international standards of teaching and research-in the spirit of kwillo amekkiru: we-ze-senai atsni'u, that inspires a commitment to academic freedom as means to academic excellenceI wish you Godspeed, and say: Idme le-ras-adari AAU--long live an autonomous University of Addis Ababa. (Time did not permit delivery of this entire text at the actual ceremony.)