The rectors of all the Dutch universities are concerned about the freedom of the arts and sciences. Various developments in the world are threatening this freedom, the Council of University Rectors wrote in the Dutch newspaper NRC on Friday.

Since the financial crisis in 2008 and the Arab Spring in 2010, ‘the world has been moving towards a state of disparity,’ writes the Council of Rectors, which consists of the rectors of all Dutch universities. ‘The inability of Europe to respond quickly and adequately to the flow of refugees, together with increasing East-West tensions, have led to great concern among sections of the population, the strengthening of populist parties and a growing orientation towards one’s own country.’

Implications for academic freedom

The rectors believe that all this will have implications for the arts and sciences. They cite several examples of restrictions on this freedom by national governments. Examples include the sentencing to death of the Iranian Professor of Disaster Medicine at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, university closures and the dismissal of professors in Turkey, and the recent travel ban in the United States.

According to the Council of University Rectors, this infringement of academic freedom comes in two forms. On the one hand, in the explicit form of totalitarian states, such as in Turkey and Iran, where deans and scholars are dismissed and may get prison sentences or the death penalty because they are ‘in league with the opposition’ or are ‘enemies of the state’. The rectors also group the travel ban imposed by President Trump with this form, as it discriminates people, including academics, on grounds of nationality and faith.

On the other hand, the rectors express their concerns about the discrediting of the arts and sciences, for example through social media. Here they cite the denial of facts by climate sceptics, the manipulation of scientific research by the tobacco industry, and once again President Trump with his Twitter tirades about the climate, vaccinations and the environment.


‘All of these developments hinder an open communication and the exchange of ideas, and as a result the freedom of the arts and sciences, and lead to a restriction of the benefits they offer society,’ the rectors write. And this is why they affect us all.

Through their letter published in the NRC, the rectors want to provide a counterweight as they promise to make every effort ‘to protect our institutions against any restrictions of academic liberty and the freedom of debate’. They also call on the Dutch government, other EU governments, the European Commission, the European Parliament and other authorities ‘to strongly oppose any curtailment of academic freedom’.