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On Academic and Other Freedoms

Thomas Docherty, September 2016

Why Academic Freedom MattersWhy should the issue of academic freedom be of interest to anyone other than an academic? For most people, the idea of being able, as a paid employee, to criticise the conditions of knowledge and normative modes of behaviour in one’s institution will seem perverse. As Stanley Fish puts it: ‘Why should members of a particular profession be granted latitudes and exemptions not enjoyed by other citizens? Why, for example, should college and university professors be free to criticize their superiors when employees in other workplaces might face discipline or dismissal?’

For many of those other citizens, the cries that academic freedom is under threat might well be met with ‘and so it should be’. Employees everywhere might like the idea of being able, with impunity, to criticise freely their conditions, or the general state of worldly affairs, or their boss without fear of jeopardising their position. Indeed, it is a fairly safe hypothesis that, for most citizens, academic freedom might well look like the icing on the already extremely privileged cake that is being enjoyed by well-paid and comfortable employees in our universities.

Against this, we have the very clear historical statement that university professors are, indeed, exceptions in some way to the general rules governing employment. One of the earliest formal investigations into the nature of academic freedom is to be found in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure laid out by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). There, we find the constitutional claim that, in fact, professors are not ‘employees’ at all.

Precisely one century on, this document raises a number of key issues that are increasingly pertinent in our own contemporary situation. The AAUP document makes a distinction between what it calls ‘proprietary’ colleges ‘designed for the propagation of specific doctrines prescribed by those who have furnished its endowment’, and other ‘ordinary’ colleges. ‘Proprietary institutions’ – which in 1915 meant primarily religious institutions, described as ‘instruments of propaganda’ acting ‘in the interests of the religious faith professed by the church or denomination creating it’ (1915, p. 293) – were becoming increasingly rare by 1915. Where they exist, however, the AAUP Declaration indicates that their Trustees ‘have a right to demand that everything be subordinated’ to the specific ends of the propaganda required by those Trustees.

‘Ordinary’ public institutions are not governed by proprietary interests, and therefore constitute ‘a public trust’. The logic then follows that those who manage such institutions have no moral rights over the activities of their professors. Indeed, ‘All claim to such right is waived by the appeal to the general public for contributions and for moral support in the maintenance, not of a propaganda, but of a non-partisan institution of learning’. Any institution, then, that imposes such restrictions upon its professors is, ipso facto, in breach of public trust, and has effectively if surreptitiously converted itself into a proprietary institution.

According to the Declaration, professors in our regular university sector are not, in the strict sense, employees of their institution, even if they are appointees within that institution. Their responsibilities are not to their boss or line-manager, nor are they even to their institution as such; rather, the key moral responsibility is to the public. Further, that responsibility is realised in the professor’s relation to ‘purely scientific and educational questions’.

Today, however, public institutions worldwide are increasingly determined by the principles of privatisation or of ‘proprietary interest’. The situation is exacerbated further when the ‘proprietary interest’ in question is a fully political interest, governed by the logic of privatisation as such. The consequence of such privatisation is that university management and leadership now arrogates to itself the kinds of control over academic freedom that are more appropriate to an institution designed for the propagation of a doctrine. Structurally, the circumscription and limitation of academic freedom converts the university – and its professors – into instruments for the propaganda of privatisation as such.

In his detailed study of the UK’s political programme of the last half century, including the privatisation of mail, rail, utilities and housing, James Meek provides the figures to show what this means. The process of ‘meta-privatisation’ has been a success: ‘it put more money into the hands of a small number of the very wealthiest people, at the expense of the elderly, the sick, the jobless and the working poor’. Meek follows through the logic of the political economics of privatisation, and arrives at a somewhat shocking conclusion. As he points out, we tend to think of taxation as something that involves government directly. However, ‘If a payment to an authority, public or private, is compulsory, it’s a tax’. After all, if we cannot do without electricity, then ‘the electricity bill is an electricity tax’. The same goes for water, say; and for rail for those who must use the railways. Given the UK’s new tuition fee structure, ‘students pay the university tax’.

The shocking result of this general set of propositions is that ‘meta-privatisation is the privatisation of the tax system itself; even, it could be said, the privatisation of us, the former citizens of Britain’. This contemporary predicament is essentially endorsed by a managerialist structure in our university institutions that demands fealty to brand instead of responsibility towards knowledge for the sake of the general public or taxpayer.

The university institution, in the UK as elsewhere, is increasingly a ‘proprietary institution’; and this means that professors are being systematically perverted in their duties by managements that have either forgotten their moral duty to the public, or are expressly determined to corrupt their institution. The demands of maintaining the ‘university brand’ is symptomatic of this; and, in a series of increasingly brazen moves, institutions worldwide are not just protecting their brand, but branding professors as ‘their’ human resource, their ‘employees’, requiring – in extreme examples – that they even adopt an approved ‘tone of voice’ for public engagements or communications. This represents a systematic attack on the responsibility of the professor; and, with it, a systematic attack on the very idea of citizenship and the university’s relation to the public sphere.

Given these conditions, I will argue that academic freedom is not at all a privilege. On the contrary, it is a very founding condition of the possibility of an academic doing her or his job at all. It is more than a right: it is a fundamental necessity, a prerequisite for being an academic. Further, my claim is that this is of interest not just ‘within’ the walls of the academy; rather, academic freedom is the founding condition of the possibility of social freedom as such. It is that important, and therefore of interest to a general public.

It is not simply an issue of governance; nor is it simply an issue of having the freedom to ‘speak out’ against institutional injustices or failings. It is what makes us – and our institutions – socially responsible; and it should be – must be – the cornerstone of the very existence of our institutions.

The fact that academic freedom exists only in the pious mouthing of regulatory protocols that are easily circumvented or ignored is the real scandal facing the higher education establishment today. That scandal helps explain the general demise of democratic participation in the formation and constitutions of our societies, our living together in free assembly.

The attack on academic freedom, therefore, is an attack on the freedom of people other than academics. Academics are simply the visible collateral damage in a yet more insidious attack on democracy and justice. The attack is the vanguard action of a system in which the substantially privileged – who are not the academic community, but precisely those very wealthy individuals, beneficiaries of the privatisation project referred to by James Meek – maintain their privileges and seek to extend further their own wealth, at the cost of others less privileged. The construction of the image of the academic as privileged is itself a method of diverting attention from the real source of social privilege, which remains class-based and wealth-based.

To defend academic freedom, in these conditions, is to defend democracy, justice and freedom more widely. The sequential logic of my case is laid out in three stages: first, the exploration of how thinking itself is increasingly restricted; second, how free speech is endangered; third, how this leads to a near-criminalisation of free assembly, of communication and thinking-together.

I start from the ostensibly weakest, yet most ‘professional’, account of academic freedom: the idea that it is the freedom to say whatever one finds to be the case within one’s disciplinary domain. Stanley Fish calls this the ‘It’s Just a Job’ school of academic freedom. This account presents the academic institution as broadly equivalent to a medieval guild: it is autonomous in the sense that its practitioners determine its practices, and give legitimacy (or not) to specific actions within its own purview. The practitioners determine their own constitution, in all senses. They determine who can be a member; and the members determine what passes as appropriate and proper action of the institution or guild as such.

This has the attraction of being a modest claim, governed by purely professional interests that serve to respect and even to guarantee guild-autonomy in its fullest sense. However, it quickly runs into the buffers of failed definitions. What are the limits of my discipline? How are they defined? Fish holds that these are consensually agreed by the community of academics already within and constituting my discipline. Yet that is, in the first place, a circular argument: I become a member of the guild by agreeing to the consensual frameworks of the guild’s self-descriptions, and these, in circular turn, are what legitimise my membership in the first place. This is not autonomy; it is a closed-shop mentality, rooted in the refusal to answer to critical scrutiny from those outside the guild. It is governed by the logic of atomisation: to every profession its own closed private space; to every constituent her own private office, doors closed against the world.

Against this, I hold that thinking, as such, knows and should acknowledge no disciplinary boundary whatsoever. Thinking – as opposed to mere repetition of received ideas – is what happens when we are jolted into a perception that could not have been predicted by the established norms of our discipline. This is close to what Jacques Derrida meant when he wrote of ‘the university without condition’, in which there should be ‘an unconditional freedom to question and assert, or even, going still further, the right to say publicly all that is required by research, knowledge, and thought concerning the truth’. In this suspension of conditionality (or suspending of restrictive conditions), research, knowledge and thought are all governed precisely by the breaking or disruption of condition as such. The activity of thinking – and its correlatives of teaching and research – exists precisely when one goes beyond what the disciplinary boundary legitimises as normative. Thinking is of the nature of a material event.

Respect for and repetition or consolidation of the norms of one’s discipline is actually nothing more or less than accounting. The professor becomes what the French system calls an agrégé-répétiteur, whose role is to repeat and require the student to repeat in turn what passes traditionally for accepted truth and knowledge within a discipline. Autonomy here is reduced to self-propagating self-assurance and self-promotion. This is the very definition of privilege as such: the maintenance of a system – like a class-system, say – that one refuses to subject to scrutiny or criticism. Such privilege knows no possibility of thought; and criticism – especially in its form as freethinking, thinking unconstrained and ‘without condition’ – is its anathema.

We can counter Fish’s extremely limiting idea of academic freedom with an example. At the start of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king divides the kingdom, and shares its constituent elements among his three daughters. In understanding this scene, we need knowledge beyond the basics of understanding the semantic content of the words as they are spoken around 1600 and since. That knowledge does not come from within ‘English literature’, but from different disciplinary fields. For example, one of the reasons for the gathering of nobles at the court is that Lear is about to settle the dowry of Cordelia, with two rival suitors (Burgundy and France) in the wings. The disciplines of history and politics make sense of the distinction between those two figures. ‘History’ or ‘anthropology’ yield knowledge of the systems of kinship and property relations, especially in the field of international relations and politics that are shaped by marriage. It is not the case that marriage, as we now know it (based largely on what Lawrence Stone once called ‘affective individualism’ (Stone, 1977)), was always normative. Indeed, for many even at the time of Shakespeare’s writing of this scene, it would have been unusual; and this knowledge allows us to understand more fully Cordelia’s feistiness in the opening scene . History, sociology, anthropology are all involved here, in ‘Eng. Lit’.

To what extent is our understanding of King Lear – that apotheosis of ‘English literature’ – governed by the protocols of the guild? And suppose I try to stage this play now (and any reading of the text is, of course, such a contemporary re-staging), in the wake of the referendum on Scottish independence of 2014, say: is there a contemporary relevance in the idea of splitting up ‘the nation’ even though ‘the nation’ of which Shakespeare wrote did not include Scotland in precisely the same legal ways that it now does? Can we avoid the undisciplined thinking that brings contemporary political debate to bear on the text and our reading?

Fish’s modestly limited position is abstract, reduced to the point of meaninglessness before concrete example. It is simply impossible that when I walk through the doors of my institution, I cede my citizenship of the world and become ‘the professor’. It is yet more impossible that, when I open the pages of King Lear, I become ‘the professor of King Lear studies, Act 1 scene 1 line 1’ and so on. There is an atomisation of the intellect here structurally occluding the fact that to think at all requires, fundamentally, that we disallow intellectual boundaries.

This is also the reason why many university managements prefer Fish’s position. The existing structures and protocols governing academic freedom in our institutions are not only restricted, but also restrictive. Our academic activities are being thereby systematically perverted, through a more general process of atomisation – such as we see in Fish’s preferred ‘Professional/It’s Just a Job’ position – and its political corollary or underpinning in privatisation.

Academic freedom in thinking, then, cannot be circumscribed by disciplinary boundaries. Now, let us examine the very idea of disciplines – and indeed of discipline as such.

The organisation of knowledge into disciplines serves numerous functions. It can be an administrative convenience, allowing for the distribution of budgets, allocation of facilities, and the like. It can also be a way of determining modes of thought: the mode of thinking required for working in a chemistry laboratory, we might say, is not necessarily like that required for work in French language and literature. That is: disciplines establish protocols for academic behaviour, and they can be used to structure and police that behaviour. This is the logical corollary of Fish’s guild-structure. More significantly, though, disciplines produce disciples, followers, within a structural hierarchy of charismatic ‘leaderships’. The clearest example of this occurs within religions, which are themselves sometimes the respectable cover for unpalatable political positions.

This raises the question of how academic freedom interacts with institutional governance; and, in particular, how issues of governance related to behaviour impinge upon our free thinking (as above) and also, now, our free speaking. Disciplining the tongue – our modes of speech – becomes central; and it relates to how leaders govern and manage institutions and the activities of individuals within those institutions.

We typically encourage discipline in the making of an argument or in the explication of scientific experiment. It helps keep our work intellectually focused, gives it a shape and purpose, and allows for a judgement to be passed upon its cogency or coherence. In this sense, discipline is central to argumentative value. This comes close to saying that how we express our thought is as important as the substance of that thought. Yet what we see happening now is that dissident thinking – thinking as such, we might say – is being deemed illegitimate unless it conforms to modes of speech that are validated by our leadership and by the disciplinary value they place on our behaviour, behaviour that we now say has to exemplify ‘the brand’. In short, what we witness here is an extension of ‘discipline’ into its punishment mode, in which our freedom to speak as we wish becomes subject to policed surveillance, under the guise of conforming to the brand or to the image of the institution, as expressed by our management and leadership.

Perhaps the most egregious instances of discipline such as this coming into play have been in the US, where many professors are now finding themselves constrained by ‘Title IX’ provisions of the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Title IX protects people against sexual discrimination and harassment. Increasingly, however, it is being used in a way that collapses the distinction between speech and action, such that speech about sexual discrimination is being described as if it constitutes an act of sexual discrimination as such. The consequence is that freely expressing a view – any view – about matters pertaining to sex, becomes intrinsically damaging to the speaker. The audience may, at some unspecified time and/or place decide that what she or he has heard upsets their intellectual equilibrium; and they can therefore claim to have been harassed by the statement. One especially egregious example is the case of Laura Kipnis, Professor of Film Studies at Northwestern University. And, as with sex, so also with any and all other forms of discrimination. The consequence is that nothing at all can ever be a topic for free discussion in which the speaker is not jeopardising her or his future, her or his standing.

The logical corollary is startling. It means that, for example, we cannot any longer discuss Hard Times, say, in case anyone identifying with ‘the poor’, say, feels that the representation of poor people therein is less than 100 per cent positive. They may declare themselves harassed or victimised by the mere fact of a teacher asking them to read the text without having issued a so-called ‘trigger warning’. Similarly, with any literary text that engages issues of sexual identity, race, gender, class, age, nation or any other concept around which a political identity may be built (which is quite a lot of literature). This is not even to start on the laboratory sciences, where genetics or artificial intelligence or virtually any other scientific activity might cause intellectual upset.

The result is that controversy – engaged speech as such – is eliminated from the institution. Further, not only is controversy eliminated, but so also is anything that might be identified as a cause of political unhappiness. If I effectively bar us from reading Hard Times, say (or if I ensure that, in reading it, we will all feel ‘safe’ because nothing controversial will ever be allowed to enter the discussion), I am ensuring that less time can be given to thinking about the existence of the poor in nineteenth-century literature and culture. I eliminate poverty from social and political consideration. The point of this is to ensure that students and other citizens accept the world as they find it, and give up on any belief that by thinking and talking about problems we might actually change things. What happens in the classroom stays within the classroom; and, crucially, no event of thinking is to be allowed expression in that room, lest someone gets upset now or later.

There is a conflation here of free speech with action. University administration runs a mile from confronting this, for fear of lawsuits and – essentially – for fear of being taken to court for upsetting those private ‘customers’ of our proprietary brand, formerly known as ‘students’.

Universities, it is asserted, need to be ‘safe spaces’. While this once meant that they should be spaces in which one was able to think unusual or dissident thoughts without fear of jeopardising one’s position and livelihood, now it is increasingly taken to mean that they should be spaces in which no one is ever threatened by thinking at all, especially if thinking might force one to reconsider one’s already settled values. How would we, now, ever, read Rilke’s poem ‘On the archaic torso of Apollo’ where, standing before that torso, ‘da ist keine Stelle / die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern’: ‘there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life’.

Art, by definition, is not a ‘safe space’, for it provokes thinking and, worse, the requirement that we assume the responsibility of our freedom. It is this – freedom – that causes such anguish, for it means we must determine and be responsible for our own behaviour. In our time, however, the norms of our proper behaviour are, as it were, ‘outsourced’ to formalized and managed protocols; and we find ourselves no longer responsible for anything, but accountable for everything. Such a position is one that reduces the possibility of both free speech and free action.

Yet, you might say, how can this be so in an age when universities everywhere vaunt interdisciplinarity, and where university managements themselves claim that disciplinary thinking is too restrictive? The response is clear. Once interdisciplinarity is normative, research structures are challenged. The question becomes how we establish priorities for research and for differential funding. Where we once had a ‘conflict of the faculties’ (a two-cultures debate between academic disciplines), we now have something entirely different (STEM against the rest). Governments now arrogate to themselves the right to determine national research priorities; funding agencies (like Research Councils) then follow that lead; and university managers internalise it within institutions. Research itself is no longer based in the free exercise of thought and speech; rather, it is ‘governed’, and governed primarily by financial, monetary and economic interests.

Indirectly, we become precisely the unacknowledged ‘proprietary institution’ in which, as the 1915 Declaration indicated, we are servants and employees of our proprietary masters, instruments now of governmental propaganda. Thus, if the government determines that ‘ageing’, say, is a priority, then our academic work has to be cast under that sign, if it is to have any substantive existence – no matter our own intellectual demands or moral responsibilities. The result is a corrupting of research itself.

Contemporary interdisciplinarity leads also to the elimination of disciplinary departments, and their replacement with interdisciplinary ‘schools’ and ‘colleges’ (of arts/sciences and so on). This weakens disciplinary solidarity, further atomising the institution. Within ‘school’ or ‘college’, collective identities are fractured, and colleagues are increasingly isolated, their only real relation being one of competition and rivalry for funds and institutional prestige.

The result? We weaken and de-naturalise the free assembly of speakers – which might, of course, pass as a perfect description of what a university should be. General freedom of assembly is under threat, as a direct consequence of the weakness of our ideas of academic freedom. The institution replicates the ‘proprietary society’, the privatisation of our social being, where our only relation is one of competitive individualism. Yet, if there is no free assembly, based upon free speech which in turn is grounded in the freedom to think in a dissident fashion, then it follows that, as Mrs. Thatcher once put it, ‘there is no such thing as society’. If this is the case, then there can be no democracy either, and no just judgements (or justice) based on the free expression of freely thought propositions. Society becomes the conformist crowd, following the charismatic leader, no questions asked.

Do we want this? Do we want the corollary of utter conformism to be proprietary interest, especially in its politicised form of acquisitive and competitive individualism? Some people do seem to want this. It is a matter of enormous and grave concern that some of them are running universities.

This essay is taken from the Civitas book, Why Academic Freedom Matters, a multi-author collection which can be bought or downloaded here.

About the Author

Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, having previously held the Chair of English at Trinity College Dublin, and Chair of English at the University of Kent. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Universities at War (Sage 2014); Confessions: The Philosophy of Transparency (Bloomsbury 2014); For the University (Bloomsbury 2012); Aesthetic Democracy (Stanford 2008); and The English Question (Sussex 2007).


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