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Friday, August 6, 2021

Why Professors in Algeria Have Given Up on Free Academic Inquiry

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Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network.

A question has haunted me since I was a student: What does it mean to be a professor?

Initially, I imagined that a professor must be a person who is passionate about research, motivated by hope, rushing to the university library, obsessed with books. Once I became a Ph.D. student, I saw things in a less rosy light and thought that a professor’s life might be miserable and full of disappointments. Since becoming a professor, I have come up with a more serious possibility. Ours is a noble profession but it involves a lot of complacency and superficiality; it does not reach the heights of enthusiasm or the depths of despair; it is based on acts of complicity.

I reached this conclusion while contemplating researchers who were stuck in the maze of the Algerian university, those who had left, and those who take power in the academic world.

The changes which brought us to where we are today are well known. The university was and is still a scene of political tensions. But it has become an arena of conflict in which the moody, opportunistic and circumstantial logic of politics surpasses the sober vision of science and the search for knowledge, better ways of living and a greater focus on human concerns. (See a related article, “In Algeria, the Academic Year Gets Off to a Chaotic Start.”)

Since the university abandoned the path of the knowledge in favor of politics, it has turned into a factory for producing new forms of authoritarianism and hierarchy. Those with the power of decision control a network of relationships and stand above those who seek knowledge. They prefer to have good relations with government officials rather than with academics, who are the new proletariat within universities, and representatives of its working class.

Learning Not to Ask New Questions

In order to enjoy living in a space that might seem safe, but is in fact suffocating with polluted air that generates tragic stories, professors gave up on their dreams of a free, human and cognitive life.

The latest of those stories concerns a colleague whose Ph.D. thesis was refused by a university which claims that she addressed a politically banned topic. In fact, the thesis does not go beyond examining the media coverage around the election of a former president. It contains nothing designed to offend decision-makers who expect researchers to support their views and not to ask new questions.

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