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Why Academic Freedom Matters

Joanna Williams, September 2016

Why Academic Freedom MattersToday’s universities are driven by the demands of fee-paying student customers who expect satisfaction from their student experience and managers who expect obedience to the bureaucratic demands of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and its latest off-shoot, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In this rapidly changing higher education landscape, the belief that, at some level, academic freedom matters, represents an important continuity with the past. This historical tie, even if its existence is only rhetorical, makes possible an evaluation of change. The confidence of those within universities to test and to defend academic freedom reveals much about their status within higher education institutions. Likewise, the changing arguments made in defence of academic freedom and the particular issues that are taken up in its name offer insight into the role and purpose of scholars and scholarship.

As Cheryl Hudson and Alan Ryan explore in Why Academic Freedom Matters, the American Association of University Professors published its Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure a century ago. In the UK, however, more generous state subsidies and the enmeshing of the professoriate within the political establishment meant few such formal statements were deemed necessary.

It was only with the gradual unravelling of the post-Second World War political and economic consensus that academic freedom really became a matter for explicit discussion within universities and the public sphere more broadly.

In 1966, Lord Robbins, as President of the British Academy, gave a lecture in which he declared: ‘The demand for academic freedom in institutions of higher education is not the same as the demand for freedom of thought and speech in general: it goes considerably beyond that principle. It is not merely a demand that the academic, in his capacity as a citizen, shall be free to think and speak as he likes; it is a demand that, in his employment as an academic, he shall have certain freedoms not necessarily involved in ordinary contractual relations and that the institutions in which he works shall likewise enjoy certain rights of independent initiative not necessarily granted to other institutions which are part of the state system.’

The confidence with which Robbins claimed that academic freedom goes ‘considerably beyond’ freedom of speech is sadly lacking today. yet, even as he made such a bold declaration, Robbins also sounded a warning: ‘At the present day there are some to whom the concept of academic freedom, so far from being an ideal to be supported, is something which should definitely be opposed. The belief that academic life should conform to central regulations and disciplines is not something which is only to be found east of the Iron Curtain.’

This challenge to a culture of managerialism within higher education will no doubt resonate with many in academia today. However, Robbins also outlined why academic freedom was so vulnerable to bureaucratic challenge. In a statement that has proved to be sadly prophetic, Robbins argues academic freedom is most easily threatened when, ‘the search for truth and values is subordinated to the exigencies of particular ideologies’.

Clearly, as Philip Cunliffe suggests, there has never been a ‘golden age’ of academic freedom. In different economic and political eras, different threats to academic freedom have prevailed. As the chapters in this book demonstrate, the threats to academic freedom today are as wide ranging and the arguments mounted in its defence are as various as they have ever been.

The erosion of institutional autonomy

Despite widespread fears over the impact of a rampant free-market ‘neo-liberalism’ upon higher education, a significant threat to academic freedom today comes from attempts made by government ministers to regulate the sector in order to meet political, social and economic objectives. over recent decades, the erosion of institutional autonomy has occurred in conjunction with the withdrawal of directly-allocated state funding. Such regulation, as Tara McCormack and Rania Hafez indicate, poses its most explicit challenge to academic freedom with anti-terrorism legislation. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 led to the implementation of the Prevent Duty designed to tackle the perceived threats to UK security posed by religious extremism and radicalisation on campus.

Prevent puts the onus on universities to vet external speakers and bar anyone who may be intent upon radicalising students. often academics are themselves external speakers and are thereby recruited into monitoring and checking on each other. At the same time, lecturers are also expected to monitor the attendance and behaviour of the students they come into contact with and report to the authorities any international students on visas who fail to attend or students who are present but act ‘suspiciously’.

The story of the Staffordshire student who was investigated after being spotted reading a book on terrorism in the university library is indicative of how surveillance changes the relationship between academics and students. This is detrimental to the trust necessary for learning and teaching.

Recent government policies also contribute to the erosion of academic freedom in less explicit ways. Repeated attempts have been made to increase the competitiveness of the nation’s higher education sector and to make universities more responsive to external demands from the state or from industry. This has led to shifts in the sector’s funding away from ‘block grants’ based primarily on student numbers towards more market driven approaches intended to promote competition for fee-paying customers and research income. As Anthony J. Stanonis shows, the REF, with its target-obsessed measurement of outputs and impact, has brought into existence a cadre of administrators and academics recruited to strategise about the most effective route to institutional success. This involves encouraging the submission of papers to an increasingly narrow selection of journals and ‘gaming the system’ to enhance the likelihood of publication by selecting topics and referring to papers with an appeal to the editorial stance of the journal. The exercise of academic freedom is suppressed by the drive to ensure conformity to the demands of the all-consuming REF.

At the same time, the funding of teaching in higher education has shifted on to students as individual customers of a particular institution. This has contributed towards a relentless focus on student satisfaction with academics expected to demonstrate their responsiveness to the demands of the student voice. As the status of students within the university is elevated, the capacity for lecturers to teach and assess what and how they choose to do so is compromised. Again, an army of managers and administrators, many of them fellow academics, is on hand to ensure institutional success in satisfaction league tables. As a result, teaching has become commoditised into learning outcomes that can be known in advance and allocated credits and contact hours which can be publicly advertised in student charters and key information sets. The freedom of academics to follow an interesting line of argument to its logical conclusion, or to be idiosyncratic and spontaneous in teaching or assessment methods, has suffered as a result.

Students as censors

The desire of universities and some lecturers to appease rather than challenge students is not just driven by changes to government legislation. As Kathryn Ecclestone and Jenny Jarvie indicate, there is also a growing perception, often among more politically radical academics, that students are vulnerable. This leads to a growing demand to turn lecture theatre and campus into a safe space. Course content may come with ‘trigger warnings’, advance notification if potentially distressing topics are likely to be covered, and lecturers tend to think carefully before including material likely to upset the sensibilities of some students on the curriculum. Academics may begin to self-censor so as not to cause offence.

When academics support the perception of students as vulnerable they are not then in a position to challenge demands for censorship, or attacks on academic freedom, that arise from students themselves. There have been high-profile cases of students’ unions banning from campus anything from newspapers, songs, greetings cards and hats to fancy dress costumes, on the grounds that they objectify women, promote rape culture or demonstrate cultural appropriation. This new form of campus censorship extends into re-writing history with the demand for statues, such as that of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, to be removed if the ideology of the person represented does not meet the political standards of the students of today.

Such campus censorship often hits the headlines when high-profile speakers are ‘no platformed’, or in other words, banned from speaking on campus. James Heartfield explores how, in october 2015, the feminist philosopher and intellectual Germaine Greer made the news when students at the University of Cardiff launched a petition to stop her giving a lecture on the subject of ‘Women and Power’. Students were offended by the prospect of Greer’s presence on campus because of opinions about transgenderism she had expressed many years previously. Greer had not been planning to talk about this particular issue in her Cardiff lecture. Few academics publicly defended Greer’s reputation or her right to accept an invitation to speak in a university. Her freedom to talk about a topic she had spent her life researching was at risk of being curtailed and hardly anyone made the case that this was an attack on academic freedom.

The ongoing campaigns that have emerged in the US and the UK against ideas that are labelled as offensive by a vocal minority of students close down debate and discussion on campus. They perpetuate the notion that words can wound and that vulnerable students need to be protected from ideas, or knowledge, they consider distasteful rather than university being the best place in society to discuss, question and challenge everything in the interests of promoting understanding and the pursuit of knowledge. The role of the academic risks becomingless concerned with prompting debate or pushing the boundaries of knowledge into new areas and more to do with shielding students from ideas that may upset them. When universities are happy to put ideas beyond discussion their mission is no longer education.

In general, academia poses little challenge to censorship that emanates from within the student body. Academics who consider students to be vulnerable, and that words and ideas can endanger an already fragile sense of self, often actively support bans. Alternatively, some lecturers will argue that students have a right to no platform speakers and that doing so is actually an expression of their free speech. others simply consider it none of their business. The contorted logic by which censorship comes to be considered a demonstration of free speech suggests book burning is similarly an example of free expression. It is an undemocratic and elitist means of by-passing debate in order to prevent certain views from being heard. The argument that students have a right to decide who can and cannot speak on campus is symptomatic of the privileging of the student voice on campus. This has been paralleled by a decline in the status and influence of academics at an institutional level. Nonetheless, it is a cowardly abdication of responsibility. Academics should be developing in students an intellectual robustness and an ability to argue against ideas they find unpleasant rather than tacitly supporting the censorship of challenging views.

Academics as censors

Some scholars are reluctant to criticise student censors because they have political sympathy with the causes the students espouse. They consider that the specific principles, be they pro-feminist, pro-transgender, anti- Israeli, or anti-sexist, trump the more fundamental demand for academic freedom. Academics unable to defend the significance of any particular disciplinaryspecific body of knowledge, or the relationship between knowledge and truth, have reached a consensus that all knowledge is subjective, partial and political. To this end, they reject the need for academic freedom as a means of allowing the advance of knowledge through competing contestable truth claims. In its place comes the promotion of skills and values. If all knowledge is political then knowledge that supports the rights of historically disadvantaged or minority groups is more morally virtuous than knowledge that appears to defend those in more privileged positions. Students pick up on this message in the lecture theatre and enact it in practice.

When academics tacitly support student censors, they find that the terrain to participate in debate is closed down for them too. As Jane Weston Vauclair and Jason Walsh show, the logic of arguing that some debates are too dangerous to be held on campus means that not only students are prevented from taking part in debates but academics are too. They either find themselves ‘no platformed’ or that the debates they had wanted to participate in are cancelled.

Academics who think that political principles trump academic freedom end up censoring each other. One example of this can be seen in scholarly debates around the issue of rape. The widely held assumption that ‘rape myths’ are prevalent and dangerous is used to close down debate as all discussion can be said to perpetrate such myths and therefore contribute to a climate whereby women feel responsible for their own rape and do not report crimes.

In October 2013 Helen Reece, a reader in Law at the London School of Economics spoke at a public event entitled ‘Is Rape Different?’ She argued that the prevalence of rape myths is overstated and that some attitudes described as myths actually reflect reality. A group of feminist critical lawyers based at the University of Kent published a response to the debate which acted as a petition calling for the LSE to ‘ensure that the ideas disseminated [at the debate] do not feed dangerous stereotypes about women being responsible for the sexual violence perpetrated against them’. This was a call from one group of academics to restrict the freedom of a fellow academic to participate in a debate on the assumption that a free discussion of the issue of rape, particularly one that involves members of the public, is somehow dangerous. We see that, however well-intentioned, the threat to academic freedom in this instance comes not from national government, university managers or students but from fellow scholars.

A further argument, again made by academics seeking to restrict discussion of rape more broadly and the publicity around the LSE debate in particular, was that the freedom afforded to a few individuals in positions of power (academics) served to undermine the more general free speech rights of rape survivors who perhaps lacked the confidence or security to discuss their situation openly. The argument was made that only by restricting dominant opposing voices could the free speech of the more vulnerable hope to be safeguarded. However, as soon as speech rights are set in opposition to one another in this way then an individual or a group is left responsible for deciding who gets to speak based, presumably, on the proposed content of the arguments or the identity of the speaker. As academics are, by definition, most often the ones in powerful positions when discussing issues with the public – and for a good reason, they have done the research in this area – any attempt to distribute speech rights based on power is a threat to academic freedom.

Ultimately, following the logic of this argument, free speech for some becomes free speech for no one as all are expected to comply with the moral framework determined by a ‘dictatorship of the virtuous’. In academia, just as in society at large, which voices get heard has never been determined on the basis of the moral status of the speaker or the virtue of the subject matter. While this may be unfair, and is certainly not always nice, it is only through a clash of competing views that new ideas can challenge and, based on the validity of the arguments proposed, perhaps even supersede previously held orthodoxies. For this reason, it is always in the interests of underrepresented groups and minority views for there to be more free speech rather than less.

The tendency for academics to police themselves and each other means that formal restrictions on academic freedom, although problematic, are actually rarely needed. one danger is that self-censorship becomes a routine part of academic life. New lecturers quickly learn how to avoid upsetting the student-customers who pay their wages and how to please the peer reviewers who will green-light their work for publication and them for promotion. They learn how to comply with all manner of speech codes, safe space and anti-harassment policies. routine self-censorship not only does away with the need for too many overt restrictions on academic freedom, it also reinforces an intolerance of dissent.

In June 2015, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt was publicly criticised by fellow scientists and academics following remarks he made about the ‘problem’ of women in laboratories. That he is married to leading immunologist Mary Collins and has a track record of supporting and advancing women’s careers in science did not prevent a public outcry over the supposedly damaging impact of his unguarded comment. From social media to mainstream newspapers Hunt’s remarks were dissected and he was condemned for being an old white man with views that were a relic of a bygone era and needed to be purged from academia. When Hunt’s resignation from his honorary position at University College London was accepted, rather than defending his right to free speech, a number of prominent academics expressed satisfaction that he had demonstrably been punished for his crime of sexist speech. As a result of being called out for using the wrong words, Hunt lost his job and his reputation. He is now better known for being sexist than making scientific breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. Tim Hunt’s case is illustrative of how certain views come to dominate higher education. New academics quickly become aware of this consensus and learn that their lives are easier, and their careers progress more smoothly, if they keep quiet and do not say anything controversial.

The empty rhetoric of academic freedom

Today, some scholars explicitly criticise the concept of academic freedom. It stands accused of propagating a liberal view of the scholar as an autonomous individual, travelling free from experiences of prejudice and unencumbered by practical and emotional commitments through a politically neutral intellectual terrain. Academic freedom is criticised for reinforcing the right to a platform for those who are already in dominant positions and doing nothing to challenge the structural inequalities that make it more difficult for less powerful groups to have their voices heard. Omar Barghouti, a founding committee member of the ‘Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’ suggests, ‘academic freedom is sometimes in conflict with basic human rights’ and concludes, ‘when such conflicts occur it must be that basic human rights are the more important good to defend’. The American literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish has caricatured this argument as meaning, ‘while academic freedom is usually a good thing, when basic questions of justice are in play, it must give way’.

Alongside such criticisms of academic freedom sit attempts to redefine what the concept means. With its epistemological basis undermined, the rhetoric of academic freedom is increasingly attached to principles that run counter to free speech and free expression. Academic freedom is reimagined as a matter of social justice and called upon to silence supposedly powerful groups while allowing the voices of previously underrepresented groups to be heard.

Attempts to redefine academic freedom as a matter of justice arise most clearly in campaigns to boycott Israeli universities. Proponents of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) argue that Israeli universities receive government funding in return for playing a cultural role propagandising on behalf of a state that engages in systematic acts of oppression against Palestinians. They claim that interaction with the rest of the world legitimises and politically-neutralises Israeli universities and, by default, the nation state. Attempts to defend the academic freedom of Israeli scholars are frequently rejected outright with the claim that because the Israeli state prevents Palestinian professors and students from attending universities, travelling to conferences, and engaging in scholarship, then Israeli academics have no right to academic freedom themselves.

BDS proponents argue that restricting the academic freedom of Israeli scholars as a result of political and military decisions, that most did not instigate and many may not actually support, is justified when seen in comparison to the scale of human rights abuses conducted against the Palestinians. However, imposing constraints on Israeli academics as a punishment for the
sins of the nation introduces political conditions upon academic freedom. What should be, within the academy at least, a universal right to further the pursuit of knowledge, comes to be defined politically and selectively, applicable only to those who share the ‘correct’ views or live in the ‘correct’ part of the world. Butler’s desire for ‘a more inclusive version of the doctrine across national borders and along egalitarian lines’ uses equality and inclusivity to argue for some speech to be silenced so the voices of others can be heard.

The introduction of political judgement negates the concept of academic freedom. As Fish indicates, it brings about a complete reversal in the definition of academic freedom, ‘from a doctrine insulating the academy from politics into a doctrine that demands of academics blatantly political actions’. BDS supporters ask fellow academics to make judgements about who gets to speak, whose research gets published, and what students are taught, not on the basis of what is considered most useful in advancing knowledge and arriving closer to a (still contestable) truth but on the national identity of the speakers and the political views they espouse. Not only is this antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge it is also inherently undemocratic.Questions as to whose view of justice should prevail and which views are unacceptable are rarely raised when a prevailing political consensus is assumed.

Why academic freedom matters

A fundamental tenet of academic freedom is that all truth claims are contestable and nothing should be beyond question. It is only correct that this questioning is turned on the principle of academic freedom and that scholars consider the assumptions inherent within the concept itself. The notion of academic freedom that emerged within the academy over a century ago was built upon a particular view of scholarship that assumed objectivity and political neutrality in the knowledge pursued. It is always useful to shine a light on these assumptions and question whether knowledge is, or indeed ever can be, objective in its truth claims. Likewise, it is important to question whether the traditional notion of academic freedom supports a particular political perspective and prevents other views from being heard.

Those who argue for academic justice play a useful role in pointing out that the assumed objectivity of scholarship inherent in the concept of academic freedom can mask work that is not politically neutral but instead confirms existing power relations. However, rather than striving for more objective research, proponents of academic justice seek instead to make explicit the political values that underpin scholarship. This paves the way for academic work to be judged not on the basis of its intellectual contribution to the pursuit of knowledge but according to the sympathy or otherwise for the position espoused.

The aim to be more critical, better to challenge existing norms and to arrive at superior understanding, is to be welcomed. Indeed, it must drive academic work and can best be achieved by questioning the assumptions that underpin what counts as scholarship. However, arguing for academic justice is not the same as arguing for better, more objective knowledge that brings us closer to truth. It is a call on scholars to abandon objectivity altogether in favour of taking a political position that has been pre-determined by others. The assumption of objectivity inherent in academic freedom was not always met and did indeed provide a veneer of neutrality for work that was political. However, challenging this by abandoning objectivity and establishing a political position not only prevents academics from aspiring towards contestable truth claims, it enforces consensus and political conformity on academic work that curtails questioning and criticality from the outset.

Academic freedom matters because it allows for the unrestricted pursuit and passing on of knowledge. Knowledge advances through the freedom to provoke, cause offence and upset the status quo. There is simply no point in higher education without academic freedom. Universities risk returning to being medieval institutions, only instead of paying homage to the church they now worship at the altar of ‘progressive’ opinion.

To reinvigorate academic freedom, scholars need to recognise threats to academic freedom for what they really are and not allow academic freedom to be redefined as restricting free speech. The prevention of offence must not be placed above the right to debate. The pursuit of knowledge, rather than the promotion of values, skills or personal behaviour must lie at the heart of the university. This requires a concept of knowledge that is neither fixed for all time nor reducible to ideology. It is the social composition of knowledge – collective individual reason tested out in the marketplace of ideas – that gives it the status of truth albeit a truth that remains permanently contestable. Academics need to treat students and members of the public alike as capable, intelligent, rational and autonomous individuals, capable of engaging in reasoned debate. They need to encourage the free exchange of ideas rather than looking to close down debates. Most importantly of all, academic freedom only survives through being continually exercised in the classroom, in scholarly journals and in the public square. If not exercised, academic freedom becomes reduced to rhetoric or dead dogma. It is up to scholars who care about academic freedom to make sure this does not happen.

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

Joanna Williams is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury 2012). She is the education editor of Spiked and a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Kent. Joanna regularly contributes to national higher education debates and her research has been published in a number of academic and popular journals.



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