“TYRRANY” IN THE ACADEMY – By Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam

February 4th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Academic Unfreedom in Ethiopian Universities

Universities in democratic societies crank out legions of technorati, digerati and literati every year. But what do universities in police states produce? Hordes of ignorati? (more…)

Academic Unfreedom in Ethiopian Universities

Universities in democratic societies crank out legions of technorati, digerati and literati every year. But what do universities in police states produce? Hordes of ignorati?

Welcome to higher education in the Land of Absurd-istan! In an incisive article posted on the web-based legal research service, Jurist, Abigail Salisbury, a law professor at Mekelle University recently painted a chilling and naked portrait of a university in a police state.[1] She courageously described a dizzying state of intellectual absurdity and moral bankruptcy in the Ethiopian higher educational system, and one of its premier universities. She gave a vividly surreal account of fear and loathing in the classroom and on campus: Students plead with their professors not to snitch on them to the authorities on their studies and class work. Students solicit their professors to distribute their academic papers abroad because they are scared they will be punished or persecuted if they were to do so did so locally. Students starving for knowledge are literally deprived of their daily bread because they dared to voice a complaint. Students scramble to learn in an arid intellectual wasteland where the walls have ears and the light fixtures can talk. And professors are afraid to teach because they have signed loyalty oaths disguised as a contractual terms of employment, which prohibits them from ever saying a single word of criticism against the regime. In her penetrating analysis, Prof. Salisbury depicted a nightmarish educational environment where professors labor under a gag order, and students are paralyzed by the omnipresent threat of academic harassment, or worse.

No one could mistake Prof. Salisbury’s acute resentment and tacit embarrassment over her manifest lack of academic freedom to teach and speak her mind as a law professor, and her heartache over her students’ intellectual desolation and decay. Reading between the lines, one quickly develops empathy for the young American professor and her young Ethiopian students who find themselves trapped in an intellectual wasteland where thought is policed, the very act of thinking criminalized, student complaints punished by deprivation of food for weeks, and intellectual inquisitiveness made a capital offense. zenawi_teaches.gif

In her courageously critical piece, Prof. Salisbury offered a devastating indictment of a higher educational system where professors and students fear their own shadows, and are forced to make an anguished daily choice between the roles of hypocrite to their own education and teaching on the one hand, and professing their faith as true believers in a regime that is determined to keep them in a perpetual state of intellectual trepidation and despair.

But no amount of paraphrasing can capture the sheer intensity and disarming candor of Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of intellectual corruption and enforced political orthodoxy:


…. I sat down to read and grade the mid-term essays of the students in my International Human Rights Law classes. Because all of the instructors at Ethiopian universities are made to sign a contract that we will never say anything against the government or ruling party, I had been very careful in wording my assignment. I asked the students to select a human rights issue in Ethiopia (making sure not to imply that there are any actual problems, just issues) and find another country dealing with that same situation. They were required to then compare the actions of the two nations, discussing them in light of various international human rights instruments which have been covered in class. Then, they were to propose some potential methods they might use to deal with this “issue” they selected. Thinking that this was a sufficiently non-inflammatory prompt, I assumed I would get some rather dry responses, especially given the comments from the H.R. 2003 discussion forum, which all seemed to assert that Ethiopia is doing just fine on the human rights front.

I was absolutely shocked, then, when I started reading my students’ work. Out of the hundred third-year students I teach, probably forty of them had inserted a special section, right after the cover page, warning me of what might happen to them were their paper to leave my hands. A number of students wrote that they would never give their real opinions to an Ethiopian professor because they fear being turned in to the government and punished. Others begged me to take their work back to America with me so that people would know what was going on. Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening.

After my initial shock, I began to wonder if the students weren’t just making exaggerated claims in hopes of getting better grades. I kept trying to figure out whether they were writing these warnings because they were genuine or because they wanted to make me think that they were really putting themselves on the line for this assignment. As I read the papers which had been submitted without the notes about fears, however, I got the sense that the students were just writing in as safe a fashion as possible. They put in long recitations of facts and laws and strove to make the “issue” seem as insignificant as possible within the larger context of Ethiopian government. They were holding back. Their work lacked the color, honesty, and intensity of the writing of the students who had asked me not to show their papers to anyone

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To be fair, I can understand how the students might be afraid to speak their minds, because there have been a number of student protests which have been put down with violence recently, some journalists have been imprisoned, and much of the media is censored. At dinner, some university graduates from Addis Ababa mentioned that they had been without food for weeks at a time on campus but were forbidden by the administrators to ever voice a complaint. My friend tried to learn more about the conditions, but the Ethiopians had quickly changed the subject, telling her that they should not be overheard discussing such things. I even know some expatriate workers here who are hesitant to say anything negative about the country in their e-mails to friends and family at home, because they know that everything goes through a central server and could be read, with possible negative repercussions.

Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of university life in Ethiopia is not the first of its kind. Its importance lies in the fact that it offers solid anecdotal evidence of a long and continuing pattern of political interference in academic freedom in the country’s universities. The 2006 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices[2] plainly stated:


The [Ethiopian] government restricted academic freedom during the year, maintaining that professors could not espouse political sentiments. Authorities did not permit teachers at any level to deviate from official lesson plans and discouraged political activity and association of any kind on university campuses. Reports continued throughout the year of both uniformed and plainclothes police officers being present on and around university and high school campuses. The government arrested students and teachers during the year. Professors and students were discouraged from taking positions not in accordance with government beliefs or practices. There was a lack of transparency in academic decisions, with numerous complaints from individuals in the academic community of bias based on ethnicity and/or religion. The freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly were frequently restricted on university and high school campuses.

Academic Unfreedom in the “Good Ole Days”

The recent history of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry in Ethiopian higher education is deeply scarred by political interference, political correctness, arbitrary purges of professors, harassment and persecution of faculty and students, and general intellectual repression. It is a history that makes one think of the “good old days”. The respected and well-known scholar on Ethiopia, Prof. Donald Levine of the University of Chicago, made a poignant observation on academic freedom during the infancy of Ethiopian higher education when he accepted an honorary doctorate from Addis Ababa University on July 24, 2004.[3] He said:


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

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It is painfully ironic to learn that there was much more academic freedom during the reign of Atse Haile Selassie than at any time in the modern history of Ethiopia! Such irony was evident in Prof. Levine’s remarks on an incident in Ethiopia in 1958 when he served as assistant to the acting vice president of Haile Selassie University, Harold Bentley:


Before the project [Haile Selassie University] 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…

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…. [F]or 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? (Italics added.)

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….

Strictly for Those Who Have Never Experienced Academic Freedom: What is a University and What do Professors and Students Really Do There Anyway?

Contrary to some silly misconceptions, the university is not an “ivory tower” that is disconnected from “the real world”. Universities are not populated by absent-minded professors and wild-eyed radical students. And what happens in the university is not just of “academic interest”. The university is the intellectual engine of society, that is a democratic society. The greatest inventions in modern science came out of university laboratories. The vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in all areas of knowledge are university professors, scientists and researchers.

The university is a special institution in which an enlightened community of scholars, scientists, researchers and students use their intellect in the search for “Truth”. This pursuit of truth takes place in an environment of “academic freedom” where learning, teaching, research and scholarship are done without political or bureaucratic interference and intrusion. As Albert Einstein explained, academic freedom is “the right to search for the truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right also implies a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom serves to restrain the dissemination of knowledge, thereby impeding rational judgment and action.” In short, academic freedom is to a university what justice is to an independent court system. No academic freedom, no university! No independent court, no justice!

There are some simple ideas underlying the general principle of academic freedom. First, the university is a place of learning, not a place for political indoctrination. In the university setting, there is no such thing as a “false idea” or an “officially approved idea”, or “The Truth”. Acceptance of an idea at a university does not depend on the approval of politicians or party hacks. Acceptance or rejection occurs in a competitive marketplace of ideas where scholars, scientists, researchers, students and others test and debate the validity of ideas that are presented. The method of “Truth” discovery is different in the various academic fields. The physical sciences rely on equations and experiments to determine the “right” answer. In the social sciences, humanities and the law, the concept of truth is normative, and infinitely more elusive. Thus, there is a much greater need for a robust and wide-open debate in the search for truth.

There are a great many social benefits arising from stimulating academic freedom in a university. One major benefit is intellectual diversity which promotes not only the discovery of new knowledge, but is also essential in cultivating young minds to become creative, knowledgeable and productive citizens. Where academic freedom is maximized, students develop the habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry, which is instrumental in their own transformation as enlightened citizens compassionate public servants and professionals. Shielded by the principle of academic freedom, university professors help their students explore not only the outer limits of science and technology but also challenge the core principles of politics, culture and society.

Political Dissent and the University

There is a very important aspect of academic freedom that does not necessarily implicate formal classroom learning, research or laboratory experiments. It has to do with expression of political dissent and divergent viewpoints on campus. There is no question that a university is a proper venue to challenge and test the credibility of official government rhetoric and ideology, question the legitimacy of a political party, leader or regime, and openly discuss and criticize official corruption, abuse of power and violations of civil liberties and human rights. As experiences in democratic societies show, the professorait and students are often the tip of the intellectual spear in society not only in the search for truth, but also in demanding change and official accountability. More broadly, universities are the proper venue for all types of dissenting ideas and views and serve as forums for robust debate on issues affecting society. There are few alternatives to a university where such intense intellectual debates can take place in society. When academic freedom is restricted, and students and faculty recoil with fear and horror because they believe telling the truth will expose them to punishment, then the larger society is condemned to suffer in silence.

There is ample evidence to show the dynamic role of universities and dissenting voices in bringing about far reaching social change. In the mid-1960s America, for instance, opposition to the war in Vietnam began at the University of California, Berkeley. The anti-war movement soon evolved into a Free Speech Movement which transformed American universities and the society at large in the decades that followed. Academic freedom in American universities contributed significantly to the debate and policy formulation in civil rights, civil liberties and social justice issues. The Freedom Riders and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s introduced the strategies of nonviolence directly challenging Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the American South. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American campuses were the epicenters of the debate over terrorism, its causes and remedies. In this debate, even those who expressed anti-American and unpatriotic views were tolerated and engaged; and none were censored or denied their right to disagree or dissent with the majority.

Academic freedom is the right of faculty, and to a lesser extent the right of students. Politicians, party leaders or bureaucrats their should understand that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards, and not by loyalty oaths, contractual agreements, intimidation and harassment.

Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry as a Human Right

Article 29 of the “Ethiopian Constitution” provides “1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without any interference. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.” Evidently, this article does not apply to professors and students in Ethiopian universities.

Regardless of Art. 29, academic freedom is a question of human rights.[4] Academic persecution is quintessentially political persecution. Abusing, harassing and imprisoning those faculty and students who do not tow the party line or support the official ideology, censoring what they teach and learn and enforcing silence on dissident voices in the university is as serious a human rights violation as imprisoning journalists, civil society leaders and human rights defenders.

There are various efforts underway to protect academic freedom internationally. Human Rights Watch has formed an Academic Freedom Committee to “monitor, expose, and mobilize concerted action to challenge threats to academic freedom worldwide, and to foster greater scholarly and media attention to the critical role played by institutions of higher education in the promotion of human rights and the development and preservation of civil society.” Others have issued declarations and passed resolutions defending academic freedom. For instance, the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education[5] states:


3. Academic freedom is an essential pre-condition for those education, research, administrative and service functions with which universities and other institutions of higher education are entrusted. All members of the academic community have the right to fulfill their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of interference or repression from the State or any other source.

The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics similarly provides1:


14. All members of the academic community have the right to fulfill their functions of teaching, researching, writing, learning, exchanging and disseminating information and providing services without fear of interference or repression from the State or any other public authority.

The Earth is Flat, and H.R. 2003 is Bad for the People of Ethiopia?

The university is not a place to tell Platonic “noble lies” (the idea of telling the masses lies to keep them confused and under control). In the university, we do not punish, dismiss or impose a gag order on a professor who may claim that the Earth is flat and is carried through space on the back of a giant beetle. We put his dubious terrestrial claim to an empirical test. By demonstrating that the earth is indeed round in an open forum, we prove the falsity of his idea. Similarly, we should not deprive students of their daily bread or threaten them with expulsion, and intimidate their professors into submission just because they believe H.R. 2003 is a good thing for Ethiopia. We show them (or we let them they show us) the error of their ways by encouraging them to openly and robustly debate the provisions of the bill without fear of retaliation and retribution. In the final analysis the fate of H.R. 2003 should rise or fall in the marketplace of ideas in the universities, (and indeed in the broader society), and not struck down by the heavy hand of untutored and ignorant politicians and bureaucrats.

Professors, Students and Inconvenient Truths

Prof. Salisbury has revealed to us that when university faculty and students in Ethiopia attempt to teach, learn or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to the regime, they will likely find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, harassment or even worse. Prof. Salisbury herself was once forced to suppress her natural instincts for academic freedom and tiptoe around the subject matter of her course, human rights. But in writing her article for Jurist she asserted her academic freedom, in much the same way as any freedom-loving American would, and told those who had inflicted an affront to her intellectual dignity, “Take your job and… ! I ain’t gonna take it no more!” We owe her a great debt of gratitude for marshalling the courage to stand for her students, her colleagues and herself against her contractual obligations and potential risk of dismissal from her position. We should applaud her for standing up for academic freedom in Ethiopian universities.

No doubt, some may argue that the kind of academic freedom defended in the foregoing discussion will not work in Ethiopian universities. Neither Ethiopian university students nor their professors are ready to enjoy such freedom. I say poppycock! If students and faculty can enjoy full academic freedom at Harvard, Berkeley or Minnesota, there is no reason why faculty and students at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma can not enjoy the same scope of academic freedom. In fact, I shall argue that those at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma universities need much more academic freedom because they are tiny islands of scholarly fellowship in a sea of censorship and repression.

Professor Salisbury is right when she said “Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening. Prof. Levine is also right when he said, “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….” Time will tell if a new generation of remarkable young Ethiopians will rise once again and help establish first-rate institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia where courses, including those on human rights, will be taught freely and without political interference, harassment and intimidation.

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[1] http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/forumy/2008/01/linking-rights-and-foreign-aid-for.php

[2]http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78734.htm

[3] http://www2.bc.edu/~teferra/Honorary%20Doctorate-D-Levine-Speech.html

[4] http://www.hrw.org/advocacy/academic/

[5] http://w2.eff.org/Censorship/Academic_edu/CAF/academic/?f=academic-freedom.wus (The Sixty-Eighth General Assembly of WORLD UNIVERSITY SERVICE, meeting in Lima from 6 to 10 September 1988, the year of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

[6] The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/africa/DARDOK.htm

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