back to

Stop hyping academic freedom


At Public Books, Simon During, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, questions a sacred cow of the university: academic freedom. During suggests that academic freedom has been emptied of its meaning and now serves to legitimate neoliberal education reforms:

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. Donors continue subtly to shape what happens in certain universities. 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?

Image of NYU via