That the definition of academic freedom varies should not be surprising, since all of the terms involved — the production of knowledge, the common good, academic freedom itself — are abstractions, necessarily open to interpretation. To further complicate things, academic freedom is at once a concept meant to protect teaching and research from the incursions of politics
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That the definition of academic freedom varies should not be surprising, since all of the terms involved — the production of knowledge, the common good, academic freedom itself — are abstractions, necessarily open to interpretation. To further complicate things, academic freedom is at once a concept meant to protect teaching and research from the incursions of politics and a political concept, in the sense that it seeks to specify the limits of powerful external forces (politicians, trustees, philanthropists, parents) on intellectual activity. Its anti-political stance is itself political. The first formulations of the principles of academic freedom in the United States came as their colleagues sought to protect Progressive academic economists (proponents of graduated income taxes, opponents of Chinese labor) from the fury of powerful, entrenched interests who sought their dismissal from faculty positions. Given this history, there is no getting away from politics.
Yet many of academic freedom’s proponents spend a good deal of effort insisting on the impartial or objective nature of academic work — or at least of its disciplinary regulation. In this definition of it, academic inquiry refers to the disciplined knowledge production of researchers and teachers, trained to distinguish truth from falsehood by rigorous analysis. “Politics,” understood narrowly as the First Amendment rights of all citizens to express their opinions, is something else entirely.
Maintaining the distinction between free speech and academic freedom, however, has not been easy. Political anathemas change (pacifism during wartime, membership in the Communist Party, support of civil rights). So does the status of scholarship — its consensus about what counts as truth is regularly subjected to revision and reinterpretation, revisions and reinterpretations which are themselves often influenced by ethical judgments of right and wrong. Three recent books examine this complex terrain from very different perspectives.
The history of academic freedom, as recounted in Daniel Gordon’s What is Academic Freedom?: A Century of Debate, 1915-Present, is about where to draw “the line separating academic inquiry from political activism.” In his view, the line has never been secured; instead, uncertainties pile up. His book is devoted to exploring those uncertainties in a series of historical case studies: whether extramural speech is protected by academic freedom (the firing of Angela Davis at the University of California in 1969), whether free speech extends to the classroom (the educational philosophy of Alexander Meiklejohn); debates about what counts as classroom indoctrination (from the early days of the American Association of University Professors to African American-studies departments); personal “conversion” experiences (from left to right or right to left) as they speak to the place of political activism in the university (Cary Nelson, David Horowitz, and — on the question of Israel/Palestine and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — the author himself).
Gordon begins by claiming his stance is one of “impartiality.” It is anything but. The state of academic freedom changes most significantly for the worse, in his account, when African American studies arrives on the scene and — along with women’s studies, environmental studies, and, eventually, French theory — introduces “cracks” into what had been a prevailing “anti-political orthodoxy.” This claim is puzzling, since there is no “orthodoxy” of this kind tracked in the book. Rather, Gordon shows over and over again that politics are always involved in academic freedom, despite all attempts to separate the two. Still, he somehow concludes that the “problem is that the modern university has made an irrevocable decision to include disciplines that are openly political in their orientation. Once the university consecrates such fields, it can no longer hold up theoretical physics or analytical philosophy as paradigmatic of all ‘academic’ investigation.”
The “studies” programs Gordon refers to sought to expose the ways in which the anti-political orthodoxy covered its own political investments. He does not take these critiques seriously. Despite his claim to impartiality, there is no mistaking Gordon’s preference for the ostensible neutrality he associates with Max Weber and Edward Said. Their investments in the political struggles of their day notwithstanding, such writers “delineated an educational ideal that rose above” politics.
It is that ideal whose loss Gordon mourns, and while he offers no programmatic resolution (the problem is, he recognizes, “unresolvable”), he still considers it the best answer to the question his book title poses. (It is also an ideal that seems to exist for him outside of the history he recounts.) That, of course, contradicts his posture of impartiality, putting him on the side of what might be considered the traditional or conservative view of academic freedom. It’s hard not to conclude from his reading that without those unruly “studies” programs (to say nothing of French theory), there would be a clearer line distinguishing (unacceptable) politics from (acceptable) scholarship and thus fewer “uncertainties” about our definitions of academic freedom.
My quarrel with Gordon is the way he insists on the stark separation between politics (which he consistently associates with “activism”) and scholarship (which is necessarily “impartial”) in his definition of the mission of the university. I read Weber and Said as arguing against state and party interference, but not as prohibiting ever taking positions on the things we teach. Both do warn against professors’ becoming moral prophets to their students, but that is a distinction between indoctrination and what I would argue are the necessarily political commitments of scholarly work.
Critical thinking has always been my preferred pedagogy. But critical thinking implies not just hearing all sides and making up your own mind, not just applying rigorous questioning to things assumed to be true, but also some kind of ethical commitment to exposing the limits of what is taken to be common sense or accepted truth. These days it is exactly that commitment that the right dismisses as “indoctrination” — and that struggles over academic freedom are all about.
The issue, then, is not best posed as political activism versus scholarship but, rather, as the problem of the politics of scholarship — the contests about standards, interpretation, and what counts as truth itself. Those are hard questions that, by positing politics as somehow corrupting the university’s scholarly mission, Gordon studiously avoids.
For Bérubé and Ruth, ethics has to do with combating the discrimination faced by this “diversely situated humanity,” not in the abstract (as, they say, liberal theory would have it), but as a “concrete reality.” That concrete reality refers to “the equality of persons, not the equality of ideas,” and it has to do above all with race. So they ask in the first sentence of their introduction: “Does academic freedom extend to white supremacist professors?”
After giving several compelling examples of such professors (Amy Wax at the University of Pennsylvania; Bruce Gilley at Portland State), whom administrators seemed reluctant to censure, they reply in the negative. The reason has to do less with the potential harm the views of these professors inflict on their students (though that is, of course, a consideration) than with the inaccuracy of their views. Academic freedom, Bérubé and Ruth insist, is not free speech; it does not protect the “shoddy scholarship underlying racist pseudoscience,” and so “should not be taken seriously and legitimated on a college campus”: “Because universities have educational missions, regulation of speech goes with the territory.”
But how far should the regulation extend? It clearly includes invited campus speakers. Racist opinions, since they are contrary to the university’s mission, Bérubé and Ruth maintain, can be legitimately barred despite the First Amendment. Similarly, when faculty express white-supremacist views — whether in their scholarship or in public forums — they, too, are violating the university’s commitment to “equality of persons.” But Ruth and Bérubé don’t use the same test for scholars on the left (examples include Steven Salaita and Johnny Eric Williams). who have been deemed “unfit” to teach on the basis of their extramural expression (letters to the editor, Facebook posts, tweets). In those cases, they say, the validity of the scholarly work is distinct from and should override any excesses in public utterances. They cite the legal scholars Robert C. Post and Matthew W. Finkin to insist (as the AAUP does) that academic freedom covers extramural speech along with research and teaching. The reason is clear: If professors fear punishment for any of their communications (work-related or not), “they will be vulnerable to forms of self-censorship and self-restraining that are inconsistent with the confidence necessary for research and teaching.” The point is that extramural utterances should not be used to judge the quality, indeed the acceptability, of scholarly work.
I don’t disagree, but I’m troubled by the fact that the same test is not granted to those on the right, whose extramural speech is taken to be confirming evidence of their “shoddy scholarship.” I agree with the authors’ insistence that the protections of academic freedom ought to include extramural expression, but I think that has to extend to all parties under discussion.
Bérubé and Ruth avoid the apparent contradiction in their treatment of right and left by taking the position of traditional proponents of academic freedom — that only demonstrated competence and commitment to rigorous analysis justify its protection — but they substitute a test of “equality of persons” for the universe of “impartial” scholarship (“equality of ideas”). To do otherwise, they maintain, contradicts existing institutional commitments to ending discrimination on campus, now embodied in offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion (abbreviated as DEI) — regular, but nonacademic, features of most universities and colleges.
Bérubé and Ruth invest faculty governance with a potential that exceeds the problem they want to address.
In the post-1960s’ university, they point out, “Two moral goods are potentially in conflict, or at least can be viewed as in conflict: freedom of thought and freedom from discrimination.” The book can be read as a call to bring academic freedom into compliance with DEI commitments by using tests of scholarly rigor to make what are undeniably “political” judgments, or else by using tests of political correctness to infer what counts as good scholarship. Whichever way it is done, the quality of scholarly work is measured in terms of its potential effects on the “equality of persons” in the existing social world.
In an effort to maintain the autonomy of faculty, presumed, at least in principle, by theories of academic freedom, Bérubé and Ruth suggest that these judgments be a matter not of administrative oversight, but of faculty governance. They endorse the 2020 Princeton University faculty letter that called for an antiracism faculty committee to spell out and then monitor guidelines for assessing racist teaching and writing, and they cite other examples of such attempts. In that way, they think, academic decisions would be left in the hands of peers, who are in the best position to bring disciplinary and scholarly criteria into the determinations of value and so to decide whether the protections of academic freedom are warranted.
Faculty governance is always to be preferred to administrative control of scholarly matters, but Bérubé and Ruth invest it with a potential that exceeds the problem they want to address. Aside from the fact that they assume a unity of purpose on the part of faculty that is not, at least in my experience, to be relied upon (faculty are, for the most part, if not divided, then indifferent to these matters in the new climate of corporate control), they leave aside a number of disturbing issues, among them how to decide what does and does not constitute racism. Early in the book, the authors distinguish between racism and “things like opposition to affirmative action or advocacy for restrictions on immigration,” which are “subjects about which there can be legitimate political disagreement.” But they draw “a line in the sand” “when it comes to the assertion that Black people are biologically or culturally less capable of self-government than others.” That is the clearest indication they give of a distinction among ideas that are politically disputable, on the one hand, and patently false, on the other.
Things become more complicated, however, when they get down to specifics. They unpack an article by Lawrence M. Mead on “Poverty and Culture,” which attributes poverty not to “structural oppression, historical and compounded inequities, or racism,” but to “cultural differences” between the individualism of the West and the supposedly less enterprising, collective cultures of the non-West. Here Bérubé and Ruth cite impressive critiques of the article’s facticity that bring a vast alternative scholarship to bear on the question, but they also acknowledge the impossibility of “canceling” the “white supremacist” logic “baked into the foundations of some academic fields in this country,” on which it is based. Still, they want to make a case that tenure ought not to protect offending professors like Mead: “We can see no sense in which the common good is served by groundless and pernicious beliefs in white supremacy.”
The problem for me — and for others who end up taking what Bérubé and Ruth refer to dismissively as the outdated, if not discredited, “liberal” view of things — is that they assume that we (those of us who share their politics) agree on what counts as “racist,” and on the distinction between “false ideas” and those that are politically and morally acceptable. Does political or moral acceptability determine the truth or falsehood of an idea? Does it do so retrospectively as well as in the present? In so many of our fields, interpretation is the name of the game; how to regulate it according to the criteria Bérubé and Ruth establish? Does the absence of the mention of race (or colonialism) qualify as “racist?” Is the presence of pro-slavery texts in a history course on antebellum America evidence of the teacher’s racism? Should art-history courses continue to teach and display images of women considered by some to be misogynist? Is the study of gender inherently transphobic? Who is to determine what the impact of such material will be on “the equality of persons?” And what of those scholarly fields that seem to have no immediate connection to social justice: Linguistics? Arcane languages? Classic texts of various “other” civilizations? Does a particular line of interpretation that meshes with the one the faculty racism committees have ruled out of order meet the test of white supremacy? Or do the professor’s political commitments (to equality or social justice) determine the nature of his or her offense? Are “false ideas” the property only of those on the right?
Bérubé and Ruth will surely reply (as they do in the book) that we are in a moment — with fascism looming — when we must no longer be complicit with the ideas that underwrite it. “Acknowledging this reality and ensuring that white supremacy or white nationalism in any form does not gain legitimacy in the academy is work white faculty must do.” But how? My own sense is that combating these pernicious movements means not firing their proponents en masse, even as we expose the deep pockets that fund some of their research, but insisting instead on the validity of the critical teaching and writing that we do, and protecting that work in every way we can. Academic freedom is still a principle we can wield in that effort, precisely because of the “uncertainty” of any fixed definition.
Unlike Gordon, who never really asks what that good is, and Bérubé and Ruth, who insist that they know what it is, Schleck makes it the object of debate. The mission of the university is not to serve some presumed public good (as required by state or business or political interests), but to explore its possibilities. In place of “the myth of disinterested purity,” Schleck writes, “we must proudly proclaim that the university is a profoundly politicized arena in which what exactly might constitute the good and who gets to define it are vigorously argued across and within fields of knowledge, in the domains of both research and teaching.”
Schleck firmly rejects Gordon’s endorsement of “impartiality,” which she calls a “myth of pure knowledge production.” “Knowledge production,” she writes, “was never clean, disinterested, impartial, or productive of a universally recognized good.” She also warns against the dangers of “intellectual monocultures” underwritten by special economic or political interests. Although she cites the right-wing Koch Foundation as an example, I read her as also averse to the singular moral-political standards that Bérubé and Ruth want to impose. By depicting the university as a terrain of struggle, rather than a place above the fray, Schleck offers the possibility of thinking anew about the problems it now faces, among them the deterioration of the very grounds on which academic freedom used to depend.
One of Schleck’s contributions is to introduce economics into the analysis of academic freedom — a consideration missing from the other books under review (and, as she points out, from many of the recent works on academic freedom, my own included). She notes that the “employment contract” that underwrote academic freedom in its earliest days (tenure granted to a self-regulating body of what Robert Post refers to as the “competent”) has been abrogated in the new age of the corporate university. When nearly three-quarters of university and college teachers are “contingent” faculty — working without the prospect of tenure, usually on annual contracts — the old idea of academic freedom no longer obtains. In this context, the charge from the right that universities are strongholds of elitist privilege may seem laughable, but it resonates powerfully with those who never went to college as well as those disaffected by mountains of student debt and their own job insecurity.
What’s more, Schleck says, the faculty’s view of itself has also changed. Faculty members used to see themselves as part of a collective whose freedom was granted in return for the assumption of responsibility to further the public good; now they see themselves as individuals claiming rights. It is no wonder, then, that academic freedom and free speech tend to be increasingly conflated. Schleck thinks unionization is only a partial remedy to this situation; it conceives of the faculty as a collective entity but doesn’t address “the broader vision of the university in society needed to justify the special employment protections for which unions fight.”
One of Schleck’s contributions is to introduce economics into the analysis of academic freedom.
None of this will be solved, in Schleck’s view, by economic measures alone. To challenge the university in the age of neoliberalism a broader vision must first be articulated, a new set of premises declared. Schleck doesn’t offer a solution to the material problems she delineates, and she doesn’t pretend to know how to solve the adjunctification of the faculty or the substitution of corporate economic measures for the evaluation of all that we teach and write. Nor does she address the question of how to measure the quality of scholarship. Those looking for practical solutions to the situation she incisively analyzes will be disappointed.
What she does give us is precisely a vision — an imagined set of possibilities — that allows us to search for alternatives to the present depressing impasse at which we seem to have arrived. Her vision is idealized to be sure, but those of us looking to respond to neoliberal de-idealizations may find it a more creative way to think through the alternatives. If debate and contest are the name of the game, the university must commit resources to maintaining fields that operate “against the grain” of neoliberalism’s tests of economic utility. Only then, Schleck writes, will the university help “to ensure a properly diverse seed bank of ideas for the future.” This diversity undercuts the danger of indoctrination that inheres in any intellectual monoculture.
Tellingly, she rejects the metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” and opts instead for the university as a “seed bank,” where ideas are generated not only for immediate use, but for future potential. The last pages of the book are a stirring evocation of this image of the university, where decisions are made by “massive faculty contest[s] over resources of all kinds.” Faculty publish, collaborate, “cross-breed one idea or field with another.” As a result, “the university is a melee of ideas, embodied in a professoriate that fights hard for them, for ideas that encapsulate their way of seeing the world. ... It is the continuing work of current faculty that keeps increasing our stores and varieties of knowledge.” Freed from the requirements of “disinterested purity,” faculty still face the need to justify the positions they take, the ideas they put forth — Schleck assumes, I think, something like disciplinary oversight. But regulation is not part of the image she conjures; presumably, when left to itself, the conflictual process of thought production will yield results always open to contest and change. That is the optimism conveyed by the image of the seedbed: It is ideally, she reminds us, how democracy operates.
According to Schleck, the “hothouse of university life” thrives on the “biodiversity of idea,” that is being snuffed out by the present-minded utilitarianism imposed by funders. Schleck’s vision calls for maintaining space and support for a “wild profusion of plants” — “the strangest, least useful, and most contrarian of these” — because they produce seeds “that someday we as a society will need … to maintain and improve our quality of life, or even …perpetuate our species on earth.” The public good is served best by such an experimental nursery.
There is no yardstick of moral or political acceptability offered here to substitute for the economic; the space of the university allows for all viewpoints to be expressed. Schleck imagines that, equipped with this new vision of the university, academic freedom itself acquires new meaning. It is the freedom we enjoy in the academy when we can “reach for the heavens in our pursuit of knowledge, without forgetting that we are firmly rooted in the dirt.”
Whether, given the assault by the right and the seemingly limitless reach of neoliberalism, Schleck’s vision will get the appreciation it deserves; whether her novel formulation can actually become the basis for strategic thinking about the future; whether academic freedom can be conceived of apart from a protection granted by states or the law — those are questions I cannot pretend to resolve here. But that doesn’t diminish the originality of this book’s conceptualization or what I hope will be the power of its appeal.
Beyond the tired arguments about politics and scholarship that the two other books under consideration here engage but cannot escape, Dirty Knowledge takes us to an imagined alternative that seems to me more promising precisely because, without offering a moral-political endorsement of any given political position, it knows that irreducibly political contests are indeed the terrain of the university. It asks us to think anew about how to negotiate among ourselves and with the public. Schleck’s idealism is also a kind of realism: Hers is both a promising and a plausible vision for the university as a genuinely democratic institution.