Academic freedom is the most important value that any university has to cherish and protect in order to be counted as a university in the first place. A university is a place where scholars should be able to freely inquire without any hindrance from their administrators or faculty members. Academic freedom is broader and separate concept from civil and political freedoms of democratic citizens. In Azerbaijan, academic freedom suffers from regular interventions and restrictions from university administrators such as rectors, deans, and heads of departments, who believe that academics are not supposed to criticize the current social and political structure, their administrators or the universities they work at. These administrators wrongly assume that the priority of universities are or ought to be something else than seeking and transmitting the truth. For they fail to see that, at least for the sake of intellectual inquiry and discoveries, all other values, such as civility, loyalty, friendship, respect for the elderly and others, which can be held dear by other institutions in the society, should be subordinated to the highest value of universities – the freedom of expression and the freedom from any restrictions of academics within as well as outside of the university borders.

The notion of university that we know today was developed by the establishment of Berlin University by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810. The German model claimed that the main goal of a university is to incentivize research. Moreover, according to this model, students should not be treated like unreasonable children or naïve youth who would be better off memorizing names or years; instead, students should be encouraged to think critically. Finally, since universities aim to search for truth, they should not be used as a means for state, religion or any other institution (Zimmer 2015, 240). In short, this model emphasized the necessity of the freedom of scholars as well as the autonomy of universities.

This German model of the university as a research center was borrowed by American universities in the late nineteenth century and the leading American institution in this model became the University of Chicago. Later the “1915 Declaration of Principles” of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) codified academic freedom by clearly stating that “the proper fulfillment of the work of the professoriate requires that our universities shall be so free that no fair-minded person shall find any excuse for even a suspicion that the utterances of university teachers are shaped or restricted by the judgment, not of professional scholars, but of inexpert and possibly not wholly disinterested persons outside of their ranks” (AAUP 1915). The American model also rejected the notion that scholars should be nonpolitical in public (Stone 2015, 5). Americans argued that first, scholars are citizens with full citizenship rights and they can have any political position they want and second, scholars are free to be (public) intellectuals – they can actively write about and participate in social as well as political movements; in addition, public also has a right to directly benefit from contributions and insights of scholars in any matter of public interest.

My aim in this article is to demonstrate the vital importance of academic freedom for universities. Indeed, although it might seem a bit radical for Azerbaijani universities, my argument here is conventional and simple – a university without academic freedom is not a university. Throughout the text, I base my arguments on the assumption that knowledge is valuable because it is communicable, more stable, more reliable than true belief (classic arguments) or because it is virtuously formed and it is an intellectual good (Olsson 2011). Here I am not concerned whether knowledge has a special or extra value because in any case, I argue that scholars need academic freedom in order to be able to acquire knowledge or true opinion or information without fearing the economic, political or moral implications of their logical conclusions. Unless you are against academia itself, you have no option but to defend academic freedom.

To articulate this point, in the first section, I define academic freedom by three main points and I also clarify each of them. In the following section, I present six arguments for the justification of academic freedom. While one of my arguments is the argument of consistency, the others are the rationality, open-mindedness, libertarian, utilitarian, and creativity and diversity arguments, each appeal to a different value as its basis. The next section gives a few examples of the negative effects of academic unfreedom in Azerbaijani universities for the whole country. Since I accept the unfree situation of scholars in Azerbaijan as prima facie evidence and assume that no reasonable person would challenge this presumption, I do not feel obliged to present more than a few cases of academic unfreedom in the country. The final, discussions, section is dedicated to the implications of understanding the necessity of academic freedom in the universities of Azerbaijan. A university without academic freedom is impossible, let us not deceive ourselves.

What is Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom[i] should not be understood as a subgroup or an extension of freedom of speech. Similar to the right to property, academic freedom is more like a bundle of rights. If you have full property rights over something, it means that you have a right to use, transfer, modify, or destroy it or exclude others from using it. In this sense, academic freedom, which is specifically designed for licensed scholars, includes the rights of scholars to (1) freely determine the content of their research and (2) teaching, as well as (3) to be free from “institutional censorship or discipline” from state, any organization or university, including the one that they work at (Moody-Adams 101-102). For a university is not a family (an analogy that Azerbaijani rectors and deans love to use in order to defend themselves in front of any criticism), which you ought not to criticize among non-family members. A university, among other things, is a workplace for academics and their academic freedom to criticize and to inquire cannot be restricted by the university administrators, who are obliged to respect the freedom of scholars. In short, academic freedom means that “academics (…) should be free to pursue and proclaim the truth in both teaching and research without interference from unqualified outsiders” (Moodie 1996, 129). That is, academic freedom can neither be restricted by a “political autocracy, [nor by] a tyranny of public opinion” because a university, which is “an intellectual experiment station,” is “an inviolable refuge from such” impediments (AAUP 1915).

Freedom of speech, on the other hand, is concerned with providing equal rights to all citizens to speak their mind and participate in public discussions or collective decision-making process regardless of their professional backgrounds. In this regard, for example, while it is crucial to create an environment where students can learn and dissent with their teachers, academics do not have a moral or legal obligation to provide “balanced” discussion of the subject matter or to give half of their lectures to students to express their opinions. For academics are free to include or exclude certain viewpoints based on their expertise; as an expert in one particular discipline, an academic is the one who decides what is relevant for their courses and what is not. The right to determine the content of your academic interests and publications means that you also free to advocate a certain position that you are convinced to be true: balance is only relevant when it comes to “our survey of the evidence on which our convictions are based” (Bilgrami 2015, 23). It is to say that, for example, a professor of political science cannot be expected or forced to allot equal time for different, and maybe rival, viewpoints or theories. Since the right to determine the content of your academic activities include the “rights to (1) exclude, (2) to advocate, and (3) to risk giving offense,” academics then have a right to non-neutrality in their researches and teachings (Moody-Adams 2015, 109).

Academics are not encyclopedias that can define and give background information about anything without picking a side in academic debates. For example, we cannot expect a biology professor to provide “balanced” argument between the theory of evolution and creationism. Simultaneously, a historian of World War II cannot reasonably be expected to equally weight the arguments against the Holocaust. Michele Moody-Adams suggests a helpful analogy between academics and doctors to emphasize the crucial role of expertise: “just as it is unreasonable to demand that medical patients should be able to write their own prescriptions and determine their own treatment, it is unreasonable to demand that the content of the curriculum be determined by reference to what students want to discuss” (2015, 105). In other words, a conflict between academic freedom and democratic values ought not to surprise us because the former is mostly justified based on the authority of expertise rather than the democratic values such as equal opportunity. A liberal, nevertheless, may say that academic freedom, which is important, is just a different name for individual rights. Yet, I feel obliged to emphasize that in addition to traditional liberal rights or civil and political rights as the other citizens of any democratic country, academics also enjoy the right to exclude certain viewpoints on the grounds that they are irrelevant or unjustified beliefs, and this academic right to exclude derives from the expertise of academics in their respective fields.

However, academics may also want to gain the public trust. In order to gain the confidence of the people, academics ought to be truthful individuals and; therefore, they should possess some academic virtues such as seriousness, sincerity, and accuracy (Williams 2004, pp. 11, 96-100, 125). When I say seriousness, I mean a scholarly and disinterested inquiry of which outcomes should be used in one’s publications and teaching. Sincerity means teaching, discussing or advocating positions that one indeed believes in rather than promoting certain positions, to which one is not convinced, for economic, political or other reasons. And accuracy refers to using reliable information in one’s researches as well as avoiding self-deception or wishful thinking for any reason. I need to emphasize that academic freedom of scholars cannot be restricted on the grounds that they are unserious, insincere or inaccurate. For first, the definitions of these three virtues can easily be manipulated by anyone, including university administrations and state officials in order to restrict academic freedom. Second, academics are not obliged to gain the public trust. Therefore, while it is desirable for academics to have these three virtues and gain the public trust, their academic freedom cannot be restricted based on any of these virtues.

In Western Europe and North America, many universities are now mainly criticized on the grounds that conservative and religious voices are underrepresented, professors do not create an appropriate atmosphere where students can express their unorthodox opinions without fear of harsh reactions from their teachers, syllabuses do not take into consideration different moral and political backgrounds or beliefs of the students. Moreover, many university professors mention the importance of protecting academic freedom against those groups which claim that social justice (which is a vague term) trumps the academic search for truth and professors ought to reject those ideas from which some group of (historically disenfranchised) people can be offended. While these are interesting as well as heated topics in the West, only a number of them are to some extent relevant to the case of Azerbaijan, which will be discussed in the rest of this article.

Justification of Academic Freedom

Since my goal is to demonstrate that academic freedom is the most important value for a university, my defense of free expression should be understood within this framework. More precisely, I am defending the freedom of each and every scholar within and outside the borders of universities. I am not attempting to find a value free justification of academic freedom because I will appeal to some values in order to defend academic freedom. When a philosopher tries to persuade others to accept any value by appealing to another moral or political value, their argument loses its strength; for unless we accept the moral or political values appealed to, we are not going to be convinced by the philosopher. For instance, if a philosopher justifies their argument on utilitarian grounds that free speech is a value because, at least, it tends to increase the general well-being and happiness of the public, we would say that their argument is begging the question for those who reject utilitarianism. The argument may or may not be true and from a historical point of view, and probably one can even find strong historical evidence in support of this utilitarian argument. However, unless we accept the utilitarian premise that maximizing utility is a morally right action, we would not be persuaded by the conclusion concerning the importance of free speech in general or academic freedom in particular.

Nevertheless, to some extent I avoid this difficulty of defending a value by appealing to another value because I defend academic freedom based on six different grounds. I portray one form of inconsistency in the arguments of the critics of academic freedom. With this argument against inconsistency, I show that it would be unreasonable for a university to restrict academic freedom of its scholars. By doing so, I presume that you accept that one ought to be consistent in their arguments. For example, if you open a restaurant, I would reasonably assume that you want to earn money by selling food and beverages to your customers. However, if you sell bricks and cement in your restaurant, a reasonable person would suggest you to change the name of your establishment from a “restaurant” to a “building/construction materials shop.” If you refuse to do so, you would not be taken seriously and probably would be mocked. For a restaurant has a different function than a construction materials shop. Similarly, with the argument of consistency, my aim is to show you that if you name your establishment a university or an academy or any form of higher education institution, then you have to defend academic freedom.

In addition to the argument of consistency in which I appeal to the value of consistency, I propose rationality, open-mindedness, libertarian, utilitarian, and creativity and diversity based arguments in defense of academic freedom. If you accept the value of consistency, you would have already been convinced by my arguments. However, if you believe that consistency does not matter, then I hope to convince you by appealing to other values. First, those who accept that we should not be dogmatic or irrational in our beliefs, would also accept my arguments in favor of open-mindedness and rationality, which aim to avoid dogmatism and irrationality. Second, those who accept that liberty matters and in our decisions first we ought to consider whether it increases or decreases the limits of our liberty, would also accept my libertarian defense of academic freedom on the grounds that the activities of scholars cannot be restricted because doing so would violate their fundamental moral rights. Third, those of you who assert that we are morally obliged to increase the general well-being and happiness of our society would be convinced by my utilitarian defense of academic freedom on the grounds that allowing scholars to freely inquire produces desirable outcomes for the whole society. Still if you reject the values of consistency, open-mindedness, rationality, liberty, and utility, do not give up because I hope, at least, you value creativity and diversity. If you do value them, my last argument will definitely demonstrate to you the importance of defending academic freedom by articulating how allowing various frameworks of investigation would contribute to creativity and diversity in academia.

The argument of consistency is that it is inconsistent with the idea of university, according to which universities should have a purpose to benefit from the intellect of its scholars, to restrict academic freedom. Universities hire scholars based on their expertise in their particular fields and by doing so, universities pay them in order to listen to their opinions, which tend to be valuable, justified, and true. In this case, it is unreasonable and self-defeating to restrict the freedom of your scholars because by restricting academic freedom, you would also restrict the productivity of the people that you pay with the hope that they will make contributions in their fields and transmit the valuable outcome of their or others’ researches to their students. To put it differently, with all due respect, university administrators, which restrict academic freedom, keep a dog while they bark themselves (Moodie 1996, 141). Academic freedom should not be perceived as a privilege of academics because it is a necessary “condition for being able to do the job for which the university exists” (quoted in Moodie 1994, 141). If you hire people to search for the truth and bring new insights, then allow them to properly do their jobs.

In addition, as said, one of the most accepted justifications of academic freedom is that scholars cannot effectively inquire and strive for knowledge if their freedom is restricted. Under these circumstance, scholars would face serious challenges if they write anything against the accepted orthodoxy. After all, the purpose of academic freedom is to allow scholars to freely inquire and reach the logical conclusion of their inquiry without concern for its social, political or moral implications. A free inquiry is one in which you follow your argument to its logical conclusion. If, during this process of inquiry, you realize that due to its political implications, you will be persecuted, then obviously it is not a free inquiry. A critic of academic freedom would say that the job of academics is merely transmit the orthodoxy to their students without adding anything. This claim can easily be countered by saying that job of scholars is not “merely passing on truth received from the past” but participating in the production of knowledge (Moodie 1996, 137). An academic is not just a university teacher, first and foremost, academics are researchers. Thus, universities should make the necessary arrangements in order to create incentive and time for scholars to do research.

The argument of open-mindedness is that if you believe that your opinion is true and that any challenging opinion ought to be suppressed, then you contradict your belief that your opinion is true because unless you question your own opinion, you can never be sure whether it is true or not. Opposing academic freedom as well as free speech on the grounds that any criticism of the opinion that you believe to be true is false is based on the assumption of infallibility. However, your opinions are not infallible and nobody has the “authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging” (Mill 2009, 30). In order to know every detail of our subject, we need to be acquainted with all different opinions about the subject matter. As a result of these exchanges of ideas, we can (1) test our knowledge about the subject and be sure that our opinion is true, (2) we can modify some aspects of, or (3) totally alter our opinion if we are convinced by justified criticisms concerning some shortcomings of our arguments. In any of these three cases, we will improve our knowledge and, at least, we will come closer to the truth about the subject. Therefore, you would be dogmatic if you deny the chance of others to express their criticisms about the opinions that we believe to be true.

The previous argument is based on, I believe, a reasonable assumption that nobody’s opinions, including yours, are infallible. However, some people may claim that, for instance, they worship the only true God and they are absolutely sure that what their God has said is true. Similarly, some people might say that for some reason they are special and they are much better than all other humans in terms of intellect and other relevant features. Now I am going to present you the argument of rationality.[ii] For the sake of argument, let us suppose that indeed you have found the true God or you are a superhuman; in other words, you or your beliefs/opinions are infallible. Here I am not dealing with questions over the possibility of you finding the true God or being a superhuman – I am just supposing them. Even if your opinions are infallible, would not you like to prove their infallibility to other people, if they criticize you, and convert them to your religion or make them to accept your superiority over them?

Reasonably people disagree with one another on a variety of issues and if your opinions are infallible, it would better to explain them their mistakes in order to prove them that your opinion is true. By doing so, you would help them to dismiss their wrong opinions and turn to your true opinion. Otherwise, people would not believe the truthfulness of your opinion, which is “held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds” (Mill 2009, 89). But if you insist that you do not need to prove yourself, then would you like to live in a society where everybody believes that their opinions are true and nobody tolerates one another? Would not such a society be undesirable since nobody agrees with anybody on any issue? Or would you like to live in a society where even all people with infallible opinions welcome any criticism because they are sure that they can prove themselves and change others’ opinions? If, nevertheless, you choose the second society and still insist that your opinions should be exempt on your claim of infallibility and any criticism against your opinions should be suppressed, your argument would simply be unsubstantiated because nobody has a monopoly on truth or morality.

The fourth argument in favor of academic freedom is the libertarian argument that all individuals have a right to express their opinion on any issue and their right to free speech cannot be violated. In the libertarian conception, you are free do to whatever you want as long as you do not harm others. And here “harm” means physical harm or threat rather than hurting someone’s feelings. While most libertarians only accept negative freedom (freedom from; absence of obstacles), some contemporary libertarians, also accept positive freedom (freedom to; existence of power to do something). According to the taxonomy presented by Jason Brennan, in a broad sense, there are three schools within libertarianism: classic liberalism, hard libertarianism, and neoclassical or bleeding heart libertarianism (2012, pp. 8, 29). While all three value liberty, hard libertarians usually defend liberty on deontological grounds, while the other two emphasize the teleological value of liberty, that is, they argue that liberty tends to produce good outcomes. Here I will only summarize the deontological defense of liberty, which asserts that people have inviolable rights; thus, you should welcome any challenge to your opinions not simply because it would give you a chance to prove yourselves, but because you have no right to suppress your critics or impose your opinions on them against their will.

According to the libertarian argument, you do not have a right to threaten or physically stop people to express their ideas. As one individual cannot suppress the opinions of the others, a collective cannot suppress the opinion of an individual. As John Stuart Mill points out, “if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (2009, 29). Besides, even if you believe that, for instance, X is the most esteemed value of a society Y, and if you suppress the rights of just one person, the society Y will remain peaceful, you cannot violate the rights of that person in order to increase or protect utility (in this case, peacefulness). For individuals are ends rather than means for greater goals; you cannot violate moral side-constraints (Nozick 1999, 29).

The fifth argument in defense of academic freedom is the utilitarian argument, which asserts that morally right choices are ones that maximize the well-being and happiness (utility) of oneself as well as the public. Universities, because of the research of their scholars, are the leading institutions in the production of knowledge and discoveries, which ultimately benefit the whole society. And without academic freedom, scholars cannot realize their full potentials. Therefore, for the sake of maximizing the general utility – discovering the truth and bringing new insights to particular fields – universities should protect academic freedom. This argument can be summarized by saying that “a failure to defend dissenting voices (…) places at risk the greatest engine for the creation of new ideas and scientific innovation the world has ever known” (Cole 2015, 41). As said before, in the argument of consistency, a scholarly inquiry is not free if scholars are concerned about the political, economic or moral implications of the logical conclusions of their enquiry. And unless academic freedom is protected, scholars will have less incentive to do research and even if they do, they will be reluctant to publish their results because of their fear of persecution and intimidation. In short, for the sake of general benefit and development, academic freedom should be protected.

My last argument is based on the value of creativity and diversity of opinions and methods in academia. Academic freedom encourages scholars to freely express themselves and use various methods in their researches. Bilgrami points out that other than suppressing the defenders of counterevidence and counterargument, there is another, less obvious and subtler version of academic unfreedom in which “alternative frameworks for pursuing the truth” fail to be “visible on the horizon of our research agenda” (2015, 19). This primarily happens because the mainstream academic consensus “discourages the development of [alternative] frameworks” and members of this consensus usually are reluctant and unable to recognize their upstream position, which makes it difficult for them to see the downstream, namely the alternative frameworks at all (Bilgrami 2015, 19). While we need to understand that the situation of academic freedom in Azerbaijan can perfectly be described with words such as “persecution,” “intimidation,” “political pressure,” “suppression,” “brainwashing,” etc., it is necessary to recognize that academic unfreedom is also possible when a scholar “working with unorthodox frameworks of research is looked upon with perfect sincerity by professionals as someone unfortunate and alienated and to be pitied as irrelevant or outdated rather than bullied and hounded” (Bilgrami 2015, 22). In other words, academic unfreedom in Azerbaijan is blatantly obvious and primitive. Nevertheless, both in its “primitive” and “sophisticated” versions, academic unfreedom is harmful in terms of creativity and diversity. If academic freedom is protected from suppression as well as the abovementioned dogmatism, then we would have an academic with creative and diverse opinions and research methods.

Effects of Academic Unfreedom in Azerbaijani Universities

Unless Azerbaijani public universities protect the academic freedom of their scholars, these universities will simply continue to waste the taxpayers’ or the public’s money without participating in the production of knowledge. Similarly, if private universities in the country aim to be universities instead of just being “diploma machines,” which distribute worthless diplomas in exchange for money, first they have to preserve academic freedom among other things such as investing in technology and innovation. University is not an economic enterprise and if a private university owner runs it as a restaurant, then she does not understand the purpose of university at all. In addition, unless both public and private universities protect academic freedom, they would also waste the money and time of their students; and more importantly, they will continue to prepare incompetent graduates with diplomas for the job market and these incompetent “experts” will most probably fail to deliver the goods or quality service to their customers.

The activities of Azerbaijani scholars are usually restricted on political grounds. For example, in December 2013, Baku State University (BSU) “deprived unified opposition presidential candidate Jamil Hasanli of his teaching position by refusing to assign classes to him” (USDS 2014). Or, in 2016, philosopher Yadigar Turkel was allegedly dismissed from the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences (ANAS) on the grounds that in one his books he characterized Heydar Aliyev’s coming to power in 1993 as a coup. Although the legal reasons behind his dismissal were unrelated and Turkel himself denied these allegations, before his dismissal Khalig Bashar, his colleague from ANAS, explicitly said that the scholars of the ANAS Institute of Philosophy denounced Turkel’s “unsubstantiated” claims concerning the late President Aliyev and the Institute emphasized that “someone with the morality of Turkel cannot work in our ranks” (Moderator 2016). The ANAS preferred the easy, lazy, and cowardly option: silencing an academic instead of debating him. Silencing someone requires crude power while debating requires intellect.

In another case, historian Altay Goyushov was dismissed from BSU, the first and the biggest university in Azerbaijan, because of his political ideas, harsh criticism of the government, and finally, due to his article published in Foreign Policy in which he argued that the Azerbaijani government is hypocritical in its commitment to democracy while it suppresses the opposition and free media in the country (USDS 2014; Goyushov 2014). Thanks to BSU, Goyushov was proven right. The University attempted to dismiss him a few times before the publication of this article. In one of these attempts, Abel Maharramov, the then rector of BSU, alleged that Goyushov missed his own classes and there was no political reason behind his dismissal; however, Maharramov’s statement clearly demonstrated the true rationale behind his action. In one of his interviews, he highlighted his priority for an academic by stating that “it seems to me that national fervor should come before knowledge [and] intellect” because, he continued, “the Azerbaijani youth have more problems (…) for example, American youth are not concerned about protecting their homeland, there is no nation in [the United States of] America, but a civic position (…) however, our youth have to protect the country.” The former rector also added that “If [Goyushov] is strongly attached to his homeland, if he is committed to education, if he has national fervor, he will remain in the university” (Maharramov 2015 emphasis added). I would like to elaborate on these comments by Maharammov and Bashar concerning the priority of national affection for academics and the evaluation of scholars’ morality based on their loyalty to the former president but I am confident that their statements speak for themselves.

Academic freedom is also restricted by university rectors and deans who believe that they have the right to do whatever they want without considering the interests of scholars. Regardless of your field – be it history, political science, biology, physics, chemistry, geography, literature, etc. – as a scholar, you will be persecuted or intimidated or “advised” in the rooms of rectors or deans if you dare to criticize your own university. It is almost unimaginable to criticize your rector or dean. Hierarchical structure is so vivid that it is not even necessary for a scholar to be told that the rector or dean cannot be criticized – it is just obvious. For instance, rectors or deans can enter the class and ask teachers or students questions whenever they want without any permission from teachers. Some of them believe that they can even scold the teachers if they wish to. Rector’s receptions are usually the best place for observing the rigid discipline in Azerbaijani universities and the rectors’ degrading treatment of their “subjects” (see also, Goyushov 2011).

One of the side effects of academic unfreedom is that universities fail to provide quality education to the students and, as a result, they prepare incompetent graduates who hardly understand the core principles of their professions. Since my field is political science (theory) and political scientists are more famous in the public at large, I think it is appropriate to give a few examples in order to demonstrate the incompetence of some of these experts. For instance, let us take a look at Professor Fikrat Sadixov, a former diplomat who received his bachelor degree from Oriental Studies of BSU and his master degree from the English Department of the Azerbaijan University of Languages, teaches at the School of Political Science at one of the private universities in Baku. In one of his interviews he responded to the question “is not it necessary for political scientists to receive relevant education?” by saying that “political scientist should be accepted by the public [and] the main criterion for a political scientist is the public acceptance of his comments” (Ahmadli 2016 emphasis added). Another well-known Azeri political scientist/political expert Elxan Shahinoglu, who graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics of BSU and teaches at the same place as Sadixov, responded to the same question by claiming that “readers should decide whether to accept a person who received different education [other than political science] and then switched to political sciences” (Ahmadli 2016). Arzu Nagiyev, a self-described political analyst rather than political scientist, simply said that this skill “is actually a gift from God” (Ahmadli 2016). Elshad Mirbashiroglu, who works at the ANAS Institute on Human Rights, said that Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan was “a fake leader” who “was the tool of foreign powers.” He also added that “as a result of color revolutions in Post-soviet countries, the people [of Georgia and Ukraine] did not achieve anything” (Ikisahil 2018; for more information about the language used by political scientists and experts, see Novruzov 2018).

These comments from political experts demonstrate the current situation in just one field and other fields, especially the humanities, in Azerbaijan are not different from political science in terms of their quality. If you have studied at an Azerbaijani university, I believe you have many incompetent teachers that the whole class was aware, and possible, made fun of. Many of these experts teach at universities because either university administrators do not find professional political scientists, or they also do not understand the incompetence of people they hire, or they believe that the most important thing for a university teacher is not expertise but something else such as loyalty and “being a good human.” These experts are also invited to TV programs to give political comments, journalists interview and introduce them as experts, or, at least, they are accepted as authoritative figures as political scientist by the society.

Their answers are so ridiculous and self-defeating that I will not comment on them. My point is that academic freedom, among many other things, is necessary to prepare professionals in all fields. Unless then, for instance, Azerbaijani public would assume that an expert’s ability to comment on political issues is a Divine gift, or something of which quality should be decided by non-professionals, that is the public, or political expertise does not require a proper education. What these incompetent experts can teach to university students or the public?


The purpose of universities is to preserve the intellectual tradition, discover truth, and bring new insights. For this they need to be free from political, economic, ideological, religious or other forms of restrictions. Universities are not a place for political propaganda, economic gain, ideological and religious indoctrination. The most important value for a university is academic freedom, which creates appropriate condition for the production of knowledge and free discussions. I want to highlight that if you aim to criticize me on the grounds that consistency, rationality, searching for truth, liberty, utility, creativity and diversity are not values, it would not be enough for you to rebuke my defense of academic freedom. What you need to show is that (1) university is or should be a place where these values are not desirable and (2) the function of the university is something other than the production of knowledge.

The rigid discipline of Azerbaijani universities and the unfree relationship between high ranking administrators and scholars, a relationship that is based on the domination of the former over the latter, not only stymie academic discussions and development, but also squelch the liberty and creativity of scholars. Distressing conditions of academic freedom in the country vividly demonstrate that those who are responsible for this situation do not care about the abovementioned inconsistency in their illogical approaches to higher education institutions. Other than the value of consistency, we also know that they do not value rationality, open-mindedness, liberty, utility, or creativity and diversity. All this leaves a reasonable person with no choice but to strongly believe that Azerbaijani universities are nothing but a façade of a university; they might be used for many purposes such as legitimizing the current power structures but they are clearly not used for the purpose of free inquiry.

There are some bright Azerbaijani scholars – I had an honor to meet with some of them – who have to be cautious because of possible political implications of their ideas or researches. Some of them even cannot work at universities due to academic unfreedom in the universities and intolerable behavior of incompetent rectors and deans, who run their respective education institutions as a family restaurant. While the current unfree situation of Azerbaijani universities is mainly the result of political unfreedom in the country, incompetence and inappropriate behavior of university rectors and deans contribute to academic unfreedom, too.

In 1892, William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, highlighted that “when for any reason (…) the [university] administration attempts to dislodge a professor because of his political or religious sentiments, at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university” (quoted in Stone 2015, 5). Then is there really a single university in Azerbaijan? Since a good deal hangs on our returning a negative answer, university administrators first need to understand the vital importance of academic freedom and make necessary arrangements in order to transform their nameless buildings into universities.

[i] In this paper, I do not discuss university autonomy, namely the right of higher education institutions to freely take their decisions, and academic rule, which among other things includes preparation of course materials, student admissions or exclusions, professional appointments within the university, standards for the evaluation of students and their works, “the detailed allocation of resources between competing uses within a department or faculty” (Moodie 1996, 131).

[ii] When it comes to academia, rationality is an important value. There might be some people who say that “I do understand that rationality is important but I do not care about it; for me it does not matter.” For example, I might say that “the world will be destroyed soon.” Yet if I do not have any evidence, and if I do not allow anybody to criticize my opinion or ask any question, how can I know that my opinion is true? I might say that “I just feel like it” but it would not be an argument, it would be just a feeling, which is irrational. Then I might say that “I say the world will end soon and I do not have any evidence to support my opinion, also I will suppress any dissenting opinion; nobody can dare to challenge me. I do not care about being consistent in my beliefs or arguments. So, shut up! And accept my opinion without questioning it.” In this case, one would be right to say that I do not value rationality. I use the “value” of rationality in this sense.


AAUP. “AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles.” The American Association of University Professors, 1915.

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