“Uncomfortable Truths” about Academic Freedom

“Uncomfortable Truths” about Academic Freedom

We’ve discussed academic freedom at Daily Nous before (for example: Thoughts on Academic Freedom, Are We Being Chilled?, Strategies for Keeping WarmMicroaggressions and Academic Freedom). One thing I’ve been concerned with is the extent to which the very few actual cases in which a professor’s academic freedom has been violated owing to the expression of unpopular or discomfiting ideas has contributed to a culture of fearful academics who see self-censorship as their best option. As I said in “Are We Being Chilled?”:

First, if it turns out that there are very few actual examples of faculty being punished by their institutions for the expression of the ideas, then that finding—in conjunction with the widespread evidence of faculty openly expressing and defending all sorts of ideas—should give us some reason to think that the fear is misguided. Second, we should be on guard against a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reticence begets more reticence. If the worry is indeed that faculty are no longer comfortable expressing certain ideas in their research and teaching, this is not something that will be improved by faculty not expressing these ideas; it will just make it less and less comfortable to do.

If we are interested in defending academic freedom, and if we take the creation of a culture of fear to be inhibiting the exercise of academic freedom, then we have a reason to combat what contributes to the creation of that culture of fear. One thing that contributes to it are a few actual violations of academic freedom. We should fight such violations. But another thing that contributes to it, I think, is an exaggerated sense of the danger.

I see this culture of fear in various contexts, and would be interested in hearing ideas for how to combat it, knowing that there can be a tension between vigilance and confidence.

In doing so, we shouldn’t lose sight of another threat to academic freedom. That’s the message of Simon During, professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, in his review of two recent books on academic freedom.

Despite entertaining the idea 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,

he writes that

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.

He also raises this “uncomfortable truth” about academic freedom:

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.

In an ideal world, perhaps, there’d be an equality of academic freedom across positions and institutions. But an upshot of During’s observation could be that, in the real world, protecting and increasing academic freedom for all depends on inequalities that render some individuals and institutions free enough from being overly reliant for their survival on public opinion and its conformist tendencies.

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