University College Dublin president Andrew Deeks privately told staff in the university’s politics department that their concerns about threats to academic freedom, from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, were an “overreaction”.
Academics expressed concerns after The Irish Times reported the chief executive of Huawei Ireland had written to Minister for Defence Simon Coveney about an article by a UCD academic criticising the company’s ties to the Chinese government.
In a letter to The Irish Times on March 1st, Prof David Farrell, head of the UCD school of politics, said Tony Yangxu writing to the Minister and others over the academic article was a "highly unusual step".
Prof Farrell said the move from Huawei represented a “direct threat to academic freedom of inquiry and comment in Ireland”.
Prof Farrell sent an email with a draft of the letter to UCD president Prof Deeks, seeking his support in the matter on February 25th.
In response, Prof Deeks said while he understood the “emotion” that the issue had stirred up, he did not think Huawei’s intervention was an attack on academic freedom.
“While in my opinion the letter by Mr Yangxu was an overreaction to an academic article, also in my opinion your letter is a similar overreaction,” he told Prof Farrell.
“I would not characterise a letter disputing an academic’s opinion as an attack on academic freedom,” he said.
Prof Deeks said academic freedom meant universities had no right to take disciplinary action against staff over their opinions.
“I am regularly approached by external people who wish the university to do just that, and in more recent times by internal people also, but I hold to the above principles of academic freedom,” he said.
The internal correspondence was released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information Act request.
Prof Deeks said academic freedom “does not protect academics from criticism by others”.
There was nothing to suggest Huawei had made “direct threats” against Dr Richard Maher, the author of the article.
In his letter, Mr Yangxu said the academic’s claims were “false attacks” on the company, and requested the Government’s “full support in mitigating the damage that has been done”.
The letter was sent to Mr Coveney, Department of Defence secretary general Jacqui McCrum, and Defence Forces chief of staff Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett.
The article by Dr Maher was published in the Defence Forces Review journal last December. It argued Huawei’s “murky ties” to the Chinese government meant giving the company access to Ireland’s 5G mobile network posed “serious and arguably unmanageable security risks”.
Mr Yangxu said the academic freedom and freedom of expression was “a two-way street”.
UCD has developed strong links with China itself in recent years, and has long hosted a Confucius Institute on its south Dublin campus.A three-storey temple-style Confucius Centre was built on the Belfield campus to house the institute, part funded by Beijing.
Researchers from UCD and other Irish universities are taking part in an online conference today on academic freedom and intellectual dissent, which will include addresses from US social critic Noam Chomsky and President Michael D Higgins.