Stop Hyping Academic Freedom

Universities may be among the oldest of our institutions, but they have changed significantly during the millennium or so since they were established. Roughly speaking, the history of the European ...

Universities may be among the oldest of our institutions, but they have changed significantly during the millennium or so since they were established.

Roughly speaking, the history of the European university proceeds through four phases.

First, the medieval ecclesiastical-juridical phase in which, first in Italy and gradually across Europe, universities were granted and then claimed privileges from sovereign authority, often on the model of the guild. At this time, their primary purpose was to prepare students for careers in the law, medicine, and most of all the church.

Second, their enlightened phase, first reached in Protestant Germany, when they distanced themselves from theology, and proclaimed Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn). In this form, they also certified prospective “cameralists”—state bureaucrats.

Third, their research phase, famously associated with the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810, in which they came to be conceived of as expanding knowledge through scientific method. At this point, academic knowledge came to be considered both an end in itself and a public or social benefit, even a benefit for humanity. Under this rubric, universities, at their purest, trained future academics.

And today, gathering speed especially in Anglophone countries, something new: the university’s neoliberal or corporate moment, in which universities, reaching half the population or more in developed economies, are thought of as, and organized like, businesses. Under this rubric, higher education’s immediate purpose is to enable individual students to succeed in the labor market. As such it is considered to be a private rather than a public benefit. Its value is what students are willing to pay for it, and its ultimate function is to contribute not to disciplinary knowledge, or to society, or to humanity, but to national economies.

Academic freedom came late to this history. It was established barely a century ago, in the US, primarily in the battle between capital and labor, when members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), John Dewey prominent among them, resisted attempts by trustees such as Jane Stanford, widow of the eponymous university’s founder, to prevent socialists from obtaining academic appointments. But it drew on earlier phases of university history. From the medieval university it took the notion that professors may claim privileges for themselves; from the enlightened university the notion that academic knowledge should be freed from external constraint; and from the research university the notion that only if independent from external control could researchers expand disciplined knowledge for human betterment.

Over the past century, academic freedom itself has changed. Originally, it was quite a limited concept, claimed only for public utterances that adhered to certain protocols, especially academic neutrality and peer review. It was, we might say, granted only to statements in the disciplinary true. Then, in the ’70s, some scholars jettisoned the ideal of neutrality and began to establish sub-disciplines and post-disciplines that saw themselves as, and were, politically engaged. As Joan Scott makes clear, feminism in particular came to understand disciplinarity itself as an authoritarian structure that could constrain engaged knowledge production.1 So academic freedom was now claimed not just for disciplined truth, but for critique or, more mildly, for “critical thinking.” At this point, then, academic freedom came effectively, but not without dissent, to be conceived as a “freedom of speech” along the lines enshrined for all citizens in the American constitution.

Today most of us understand academic freedom as such a right: the right for professors to mount critique of pretty much anything at all without risk of their employer’s reprisal.

But this is too simple. Over its history, academic freedom also became fused with three categories that are in fact institutionally and conceptually external to it: in the 1940s, with academic tenure, and more recently, with university autonomy and “shared governance.” These days academic freedom is routinely conceived of as a right secured by a particular kind of employment contract (tenure) as offered by institutions over whom no external authority can exert control, and inside of which faculty themselves contribute to substantive decision-making. This is the understanding that guides the editors and authors of the two books under discussion here, Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole’s Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, a collection of essays by eminent professors and senior administrators, and Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments.

Nonetheless the concept of academic freedom remains fragile and opaque. On the one hand, bound to tenure, shared governance, and autonomy, academic freedom is now often regarded as the academy’s essential “legitimating principle,” as Bérubé and Ruth put it. But in fact it is far from globally universal. In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, where universities are under effective control of neoliberal states, academic freedom has no legal standing, although lip service may be paid to it. About half of the European Union has it constitutionally enshrined in one form or other. The other half does not. UNESCO does not include it in its charters, and it has little acceptance in the developing world. In these countries, tenure and shared governance are rarely in place either.

In the US itself, academic freedom has been only spottily applied. To take an obvious historical instance: during the Cold War, many communists and communist sympathizers were sacked by universities, often with little resistance. In 1951, for example, Professor Dick Bradley, Chair of the NYU German department, was sacked for his political activity (he was a communist), without the AAUP intervening on his behalf. And professors are still occasionally suspended, if not dismissed, for what they say.2 Donors continue subtly to shape what happens in certain universities.3 And, arguably, both human-research review boards (IRBs) and student trigger warnings shrink academic freedom further, if only through their “chilling effect.”

In sum: we can say that academic freedom exists on three levels. It is a practical principle, since appeals to it do often actually work and have some legal support. It is also an ideal, since it is in fact so often waived. And finally, it is a fetish, since many American academics ignore the large historical and geographical swathes of university life that float free of academic freedom, in order to claim, against much evidence, that academic freedom is essential to what the university is.

We might also speculate that academic freedom may remain alive despite its lack of real legal or administrative backing because, especially in the humanities, what academics say or do rarely touches governmental or business power structures. Why not allow them freedom?

The more fragile, opaque, and merely gestural academic freedom becomes, the more attached academics become to asserting it. At least so Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? leads me to think. Admittedly, the volume covers a great deal of ground, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Its contributors include historians, literary scholars, philosophers, legal academics, and sociologists. Some deal with academic freedom’s history. Some with its extent and legitimation. Robert Post contributes an informative essay on its relation to the law and the American constitution. Jon Elster tries to persuade us that “obscurantism” (i.e., difficult theory-writing) is itself an impediment to freedom. One, by Akeel Bilgrami, examines different concepts of liberty philosophically.

But more urgent and current threats to academic freedom lie at the volume’s heart. An eye-opening piece by Columbia Law School professor Philip Hamburger shows how the IRBs that must approve publically funded (but increasingly not only publically funded) research on human subjects in practice restrict projects. Jonathan Cole discusses efforts by creationists to influence what is taught in some universities. Essays by Noam Chomsky and John Mearsheimer discuss threats to academic freedom that flow from the situation in Israel, as in recent cases like that of Norman Finkelstein, who was denied tenure at DePaul University because of his critique of the Holocaust industry, and of Juan Cole, whose job offer from Yale was rescinded following his critique of the US’s Bush-era Middle East policies, as, more recently, was Steven Salaita’s at the University of Illinois after his anti-Zionist tweets. In a similar spirit, Judith Butler responds to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is attempting to prevent institutional and disciplinary bodies (not individual academics) from engaging with their Israeli counterparts. (In this context it is worth remembering that the Israeli university system does formally acknowledge the principle of academic freedom, even as it is often ignored and attacked there, as Adi Ophir and Feras Hammami have shown.4)

Under the neoliberal rubric, higher education’s immediate purpose is to enable individual students to succeed in the labor market.

Persuaded that academic freedom is at risk, the book also attempts to discover how committed to academic freedom academics actually are. It offers a preliminary report on a questionnaire distributed to Columbia professors that tried to elicit what respondents thought about tricky cases in which the ideal of free enquiry meets resistance from other legitimate principles. So far, however, the results are inconclusive.

Yet, as a defense of academic freedom, this volume is more phatic than enlightening, more declarative than persuasive. It repeatedly asserts how important academic freedom is and exhibits, as I say, acute sensitivity to its vulnerability. But it does not succeed in analyzing or refining the concept. What is it, exactly, that we are to rally around? It is not all clear. It doesn’t help that freedom is itself such a muddy concept, philosophically speaking.

Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? contains another crippling gap. After all, the greatest threat to academic freedom does not come from review boards or Zionists or from politics more generally. It comes from the corporate university, where professors often work under one-line management systems in which they are subordinate to, or “report” to, a Chair/Head or Dean who has incontestable authority over them and, in principle at least, is able to direct their teaching and research. This is now the case in the UK and Australia, for instance. (I myself have such a line manager.) Obviously enough, academic freedom can find no foothold in such an organizational structure, where faculty are employees with the same, but no greater, rights than any employee in any corporation. In principle at least, they can be ordered to do pretty much anything, so long as it’s legal.

Bilgrami and Cole’s book is largely oblivious to this development—the one partial exception is an essay by Matthew Goldstein and Frederick Schaffer, who work, tellingly, not for a private research university but for CUNY. They deal, interestingly, with legal issues concerning academics who are public employees.

Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? fails to confront the most potent contemporary threat to academic freedom because it is written from the heights of the US system. Most of its authors hold very senior positions at Columbia or the University of Chicago, the kinds of institutions protected by inherited prestige and endowments, where shared governance, institutional autonomy, and responsibility for disciplinary flourishing do indeed hold on. But it is dispiriting to see how blind the collection is to the university world beyond.

This cannot be said of Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s fascinating book. At its heart, it addresses a specific situation: Ruth’s efforts to deal with the problem of excessive adjunct hiring when she was chair of the English department at Portland State University. As it turned out, these efforts failed because her solution of pooling part-time positions into tenure-track, full-time, teaching-intensive lines threatened too many of her colleagues, adjuncts included. For those already tenured it meant more teaching, while for the adjuncts it meant the loss of some positions. Facing this impasse, Bérubé and Ruth have published their book to push their case for teaching-intensive positions further.

Academic freedom exists on three levels. It is a practical principle, an ideal, and a fetish.

What has this to do with academic freedom? Bérubé and Ruth believe that their argument is strongest when framed in relation to it. For them, good university instruction requires the full institutional support of modern American academic freedom: tenure, shared governance, and autonomy. But adjuncts on fixed-term contracts have only very compromised claims to those institutional struts. And so, the argument goes, they are unable to teach without constraint. The authors hope that pointing this out will persuade colleagues and administrators to recognize the full value of tenure-track, teaching-intensive lines that can make a claim to academic freedom.

I wish Bérubé and Ruth well with this argument. But one has to wonder whether their assertion that academic freedom is essential to full academic life will wash. After all, as I say, in much of the world, where there is no such freedom, corporatized universities still provide society with what it requires of them. Or to put this in today’s managerial lingo, the metrics show that such corporatized universities are adequately accountable to their various stakeholders. We know that pressures toward corporatizing the university sector are also mounting in the US, especially in the public system. So a more practical strategy to fix the adjunct problem might be one that submits to work within the new university system—by, for instance, agitating for the agencies that rank universities to include the percentage of classes taught by full-time professors as a metric in their ranking criteria. The US News ranking model does not do this, although the QS World University ranking model does. That might reduce the percentage of adjuncts in the system, since rankings do matter to those who run corporatized universities.

The issues that these books raise extend beyond fixes for the current university system, whose shape and future professors do not control. In the end, academics’ proclamation of their freedom as a privilege or right, even where it has some legal backing, is unlikely to resist the university system’s corporatization, except perhaps in rich and prestigious private research universities. This means that the relation between truth-telling, freedom, and power for professors will have to be rethought.

That rethinking was in fact begun 30 years ago by Michel Foucault in the lectures he gave at the Collège de France in the last years of his life. There he turned to the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia, the practice of truth-telling by individuals. More particularly: unpalatable truth-telling to the powerful, truth-telling that lacks professional or legal sanction, and places those who utter it at risk.

This is not the place to offer an account of Foucault’s history of parrhesia. It is enough to say that in his final lectures he does seem to be thinking of the corporate university-to-come, in which truth-telling is, once again, urgent, individualized, and risky, in large part because it now needs to be directed not just to governments, or to political interest groups, or even to donors, but to university managers and to ourselves.

As a final word, let me take a stab at one such uncomfortable truth, one about academic freedom itself. In the contemporary US academic system, where the richest, most prestigious, and therefore most oligarchic universities are most protected from corporatization and can therefore best maintain shared governance, disciplinary expertise, academic autonomy, and free enquiry, academic freedom becomes not just a regulatory ideal but also a badge, a marker of prestige not wholly dissimilar to others. As a result, affirmations of academic freedom uttered from the most privileged universities, however necessary they are to maintaining academic freedom’s credibility, are also tinged by—how to put this?—a certain smugness. Perhaps even by a certain hypocrisy, at least to the degree that such affirmations are blind to how widely and effectively the academic system may function without autonomy, shared governance, and freedom, and blind too to the extent to which academic freedom is a function of money and prestige. And if you find this statement discomfiting, consider as proof that discomfiting statements, which depart from sanctioned and disciplinary truths, do indeed involve a certain risk, sometimes to academic freedom itself. icon

  1. See Scott’s essay “Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom,” in the Cole and Bilgrami volume under review.
  2. See, e.g., Colleen Flaherty, “Suspended for Blogging,” Inside Higher Ed, December 18, 2014; Derryck Green, “Duke University Professor Suspended for Writing Comment About Black People on NYT Article,”, May 17, 2015.
  3. See, e.g., Ed Pilkington, “Koch Brothers Sought Say in Academic Hiring in Return for University Donation,” Guardian, September 12, 2014.
  4. See Adi Ophir, “The Israeli Council for Higher Education Versus Ben Gurion University,” Universities in Crisis, October 2, 2012; Feras Hammami, “Calls for Academic Freedom: Reflections on Palestine and Israel,” Universities in Crisis, November 29, 2012.
Featured image: Gustav Klimt, Jurisprudence (1907). One of a series of paintings Klimt made for the ceiling of the University of Viennas Great Hall. Condemned as pornographic, none of the paintings would go on display in the university. In May 1945 Jurisprudence, along with Philosophy and Medicine, was destroyed by retreating SS forces.