“Academic freedom” – the position of the University

The University of Bern responds to the open letter on “academic freedom”. The presentation of certain circumstances in the open letter is one-sided and facts are omitted. The University of Bern notes that it cannot detect any erosion of academic freedom in its institution and that the freedom of research and teaching is guaranteed at all times at the University of Bern.


Universitätsgebäude Bern
Main building University of Berne © University of Berne

The University of Bern responds to the open letter on “academic freedom” as follows:  

It is a matter of great concern to the University of Bern to classify the points raised in what was declared an open letter. It is doing so in a transparent manner by making its considerations accessible to the public.  

The open letter is entitled “In defense of academic freedom in Switzerland”. Academic freedom is indeed a significant and valuable asset. In this process, it is important to be clear on what precisely the content of academic freedom is and what its limits are.  

Constitutionally anchored academic freedom protects the selection and methodology of objects of research, the interpretation of results obtained and their communication. The University of Bern is in favor of freedom in research and teaching at all times. This is of fundamental interest to the University and society, and as such is to be absolutely defended.  

The University of Bern is keeping the open, wide-ranging discourse and debate alive. In this process, it expects tolerance of other opinions and approaches. The University of Bern is of the opinion that nobody should be attacked just because they are working in a particular field of research as the freedom of research also includes the freedom to research a whole range of different areas, with a whole range of different scientific methods.  

The central issue of all academic activity is that it is scientifically guided. The University of Bern strives for the diversity of perspectives and methods which are embedded scientifically. The academic nature of all disciplines can and should be debated and criticized; this must take place on the basis of academic standards and findings, and not on the basis of moral aspects or political leanings. Science and academia in general must be measured against this standard. 

Politics, the media and the general public, as well as members of the University, are free to debate where normative positioning within science begins and where scientific analysis ends. Science and academia are obliged to become involved in this debate and present their point of view with scientifically based arguments. 

Furthermore, the University cannot fail to note that the presentation of certain circumstances in the open letter is one-sided and that facts are omitted. In this regard, the University would like to make a note in particular of the following:  

The mentioned administrative investigation at the University of Bern was not initiated because of “critical scholarship and teaching” nor because of the “broader political climate”. It was initiated because a lecturer in the Institute for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Societies (ISNO) made unacceptable postings on X (formerly Twitter) in October 2023, and accusations were made against the Co-Director of the ISNO from external and internal parties. An external administrative investigation is a legally established and proven way of clarifying incidents at an institution to obtain a solid basis for further action. 

The University takes sanctions because of specific incidents, consolidated investigation results and a comprehensive legal assessment. The lecturer mentioned was dismissed because of the unacceptable postings. Nobody was, or will be, penalized because of public pressure. 

Based on the findings of the report from the administrative investigation at the ISNO, the University Executive Board has decided to close the institute in its current form. This takes account of the desire to expand the previously very narrow object of research and teaching, and integrate the academic field into a broader context of religion, language, and historical perspective. The dissolution of the ISNO is not about hindering academia and teaching, but, on the contrary, expanding them and strengthening them in their diversity. The faculty will present a structural report outlining the reorganization of the academic field by the end of June 2024.  

The media play an important role in our society. Their independence and freedom must be respected at all costs. The University cannot and does not want to exert any influence on reporting or content of the media. It is, however, in the interest of the University and its duty to make academic and scientific achievements visible and make research results and scientifically based expertise available to society. 

If scientists become involved because of their own research results or scientific expertise in their own subject area, this is absolutely desired. The University of Bern encourages its researchers to do so. The University itself answers all media inquiries clearly, truthfully and as transparently as possible, and supports researchers in any uncertainties with regard to media inquiries. It fulfills its duty of care and protects its researchers within the bounds of possibility if these are unjustifiably attacked or vilified, for example with the working group “Hate speech”.  

Opinions on debates outside one’s own research activity are protected by the freedom of opinion. In accordance with the Bernese Personnel Act, however, University employees are obliged to protect the interests of the University of Bern. Any personal opinions expressed are to be declared as such. Any criticism of society, economics or politics has to be scientifically founded if it is to be expressed by researchers in their role as members of the University. Researchers, particularly in prominent areas of research, must be aware that their opinions can quickly become the focus of the media. 

Researchers bear the responsibility for their scientific activity and the exercise of academic freedom. They move in a broad legal framework that gives them protection. They also vouch for results they have found as a result of their scientific activity and for the appropriate communication. They sign with their own name for scientific results and expressions of opinion. Anonymity, especially on the part of tenured professors, does not do justice to this responsibility and creates an atmosphere of mistrust. 

In summary, the following must be noted:  

The University of Bern cannot detect any erosion of academic freedom in its institution. The freedom of research and teaching is guaranteed at all times at the University of Bern. It is necessary to protect and defend this important and indeed essential accomplishment for a university as shown above. All employees at the University are called upon to do this.