Editor's Introduction - Volume 7

Academic Freedom in an Age of Mistrust
By Jennifer H. Ruth

In the movie The Big Short, Steve Carell’s character Mark Baum interviews a group of Florida brokers. When they speak openly about preying on immigrants and strippers for subprime mortgages, he turns to his own colleagues in astonishment: “I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?” “They’re not confessing,” they tell him. “They’re bragging.” Released in 2015, this movie about the financial meltdown of 2008 arguably also goes some way towards explaining the political meltdown of 2015-2016. “Whatever lies at the end of this surprise-filled electoral season,” The Hedgehog Review editor Jay Tolson writes, “most observers would agree that it has already exposed a widespread distrust of those whom we selectively call our elites.” Why should professionals—whether they be financial brokers or politicians, lawyers or academics—be trusted when they don’t seem to understand their function in a complex global system any better than we do and feel no obligation beyond their own interests? In this environment, anyone claiming disinterested expertise is laughed out of the room as either a con-man or a naif.

“Disinterestedness is usually thought of as antithetical to politics,” Bruce Robbins writes, and this has always been a problem for career politicians—the more they profess their concern for the citizenry, the more self-serving they are liable to appear. It makes a grim sense, then, that at a time when faith in the possibility of disinterestedness is rock-bottom, many people might prefer to vote for a businessman over someone with a background in what is called public service. When moral seriousness looks like self-interest cloaked in disinterest, lack of seriousness becomes a refreshing trait. Brexit and the reaction against globalization, as many commentators have noted, demonstrate a similar suspicion of people professing to know what’s good for the world since what’s good for the world happened also to be what’s good for these people more than for others. “The liberalisation of trade and capital flows may have started to equalise wealth across continents,” Mark Mazower writes, “but they have brought a new degree of inequality within countries, eroded the prospects of middle-class life and finished off what was left of working-class communities in the old nineteenth-century industrial heartlands of the west in particular.”

This atmosphere of acute mistrust poses a problem for the concept of academic freedom even though the concept incorporated a healthy degree of mistrust in the first place. Academic freedom is necessary, the logic went, because we are world-weary enough to know that:  1) powerful forces will seek to influence what faculty say, write, and do; and 2) faculty are no different from others in their susceptibility to self-interest. Given that faculty are unlikely to behave disinterestedly if it interferes with their livelihoods, they need academic freedom in the form of job security to be responsible stewards of the common good in teaching, service, and governance. Faculty must be secure enough so that, if they deem it necessary, they will bite the hands that feed them: the administrators, the state, the public with its tyranny of opinion, the corporate donors, the tuition-paying students, etc. Today’s surfeit of mistrust might have reinforced the desirability of academic freedom but it hasn’t. Carefully cultivated spaces of disinterest look instead like oases for the privileged.

It is in this context of suspicion of authority that the essays here must be read. Each essay is shaped in one way or another by it. The essays are organized in the following way: those with an international focus come first; historical analyses and theoretical treatments second. Readers will be immediately struck by the differences between the two groups. Essays written from outside the United States—those written in and focused on Hong Kong, India, and Africa—take for granted that academic freedom exists to protect universities from powerful interests warping the work within them. They take the concept as an unalloyed good for granted precisely because they are far from being able to count on its material existence. Those written from within the United States have more freedom, it is fair to say, to challenge the concept’s legitimacy and test its paradoxes, inconsistencies, and potential hypocrisies.

Perhaps the following conversation might dramatize the different reality in which some faculty in the United States in particular (and possibly the West in general) exist as contrasted to the one inhabited by many of our peers elsewhere. When an American friend returned from a conference in Hong Kong, I asked him about the conference’s roundtable on academic freedom and the university. He complained that there was “a lot of hand-wringing.” A few of them from the West, he continued, tried to “push” the Hong Kong-based professors by asking them what was the worst that could happen if they lost academic freedom. The gulf between the Westerners knowingly exasperated with the hyping of academic freedom and their Hong Kong counterparts could not have been greater, it seems. Rightly disgusted with trends in the West that exacerbate a shameful inequality inside and outside the university, Western academics are trying out the position that academic freedom is a bankrupt liberal concept— some variation of an abstract formality masking concrete inequities or a vestigial luxury that most teachers manage without just fine— while the Hong Kong academics are trying to preserve the concept and its indispensability as Beijing muscles the city-state’s universities under tight control.

Johannes Chan is a major reason why the professors in Hong Kong are wringing their hands, though surely readers will consider the figure of speech deeply mistaken after reading “Academic Freedom, Political Interference, and Public Accountability: The Hong Kong Experience.” Chan and his co-author Douglas Kerr spell out their concerns for academic freedom in Hong Kong, punctuating their essay with three incidents, one of which is Chan’s own blocked bid for a Vice-Chancellor position at the University of Hong Kong. It is hard to exaggerate the stakes—for both academic autonomy in Hong Kong and Hong Kong’s political future more broadly—of this moment in 2014-2015 when pro-Beijing forces assembled to stop a pro-democracy law professor from assuming a top managerial position in academia. The incident raises fundamental questions about the “One Country, Two Systems” policy agreed upon when Britain handed Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. “One Country, Two Systems” assured Hong Kong citizens that their economic, legal, and political cultures would continue unmolested until 2047 when the agreement expires. In retrospect, Chan and Kerr write, the policy looks like nothing “less than a utopian desire to square the circle” with an academic tradition founded on perpetual open debate in one corner and a one-party state that does not tolerate dissent and claims the authoritarian’s right to define what constitutes dissent looming in the other. Hong Kong’s situation forces us to ask: Is academic freedom possible in non-pluralist, non-democratic countries? One need only look at the mainland to know what could happen if Hong Kong loses academic freedom. It is what happens every day in Chinese universities where Chinese historians are prevented from searching whole swaths of their past, where every department has a Party representative with as much say over hiring as the faculty actually trained in the department’s discipline, and where Party directives are received each month dictating what should and should not be discussed in the classroom.

What is the relationship between a nation-state’s political structure and the quality or degree of academic freedom enjoyed by its universities and the faculty housed in them? In their essay “Debating Academic Freedom in India,” William Tierney and Nidhi S. Sabarhwal write, “When countries have different political traditions, one may well understand, but not necessarily agree with, differences in how academic freedom gets enacted on college and university campuses.” “Can we assume, however,” they continue, “that academic freedom in the world’s largest democracy is more similar than different from academic freedom in other democratic nations?”  Not necessarily, they answer as they assess the situation in India. After differentiating what they consider academic freedom to be from what it isn’t, the authors identify specific areas of concern through an analysis of troubling incidents in India, often incidents involving religious censorship or fear of religious violence.

If we need analyses of how a nation-state’s political organization influences the possibilities for, and forms of, academic freedom in its universities, then we also need analyses of the role and effectiveness of international attempts to support academic freedom globally. Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua’s “A Review of Academic Freedom in African Universities Through the Prism of the 1997 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation” researches how well Africa is living up to the United Nations’ Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel. Adopted in 1997, the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation “marks a watershed moment in the evolution, consolidation, and standardization of the principles promoting academic freedom in the world,” he writes, and “[n]ow that Africa has returned to an ethos of a democratic culture and a refinement of the role of the university in the globalization era, the time has come for it also to be assessed on its level of compliance.” Focusing on the four indicators of institutional autonomy, institutional governance, individual rights and freedoms, and tenure, Appiagyei-Atua provides a careful overview by nation, showing both the significant progress that has been made but also where improvements are required and, further, recommending how such improvements might be encouraged.

For Appiagyei-Atua, international organizations set benchmarks that facilitate progress as countries work toward them. Aleksandar Jokic, by contrast, raises questions about the validity of international norms that invariably originate within specific (usually Western) national traditions and cannot be understood independently of geopolitics. His essay “Lost in Post-Cold War Transitions: The Limits of Freedom in Scholarship” asks the provocative question whether limits on academic freedom might be warranted when academics join forces with NGOs to promote “transitional justice” in countries other than their own. To what extent are these academics and the philosophies they espouse “export items” of Western foreign policy? Boundaries between various actors—government, non-profit, academic—are indispensable if we are to maintain the credibility of academics, as Pierre Bourdieu has shown and upon whose work Jokic draws here. Jokic defines four constraints that he argues should be in place to support “a morally permissible international activism.” More than any other in the volume, Jokic’s essay challenges readers to consider how a concept that emerged out of a universalist tradition and claims disinterestedness can transcend its nationalist bias in action.

The tension between disinterested universalism and national interests at the heart of academic freedom is not just philosophical but also material. “The principle of academic freedom articulated a vision of the university that was at once immune to these powerful [national] interests and that promised to serve them,” Joan Scott has written. Jokic’s title refers to “Post-Cold War Transitions” but many would argue that there is nothing “post” about the Cold War at all. The competing ideologies are no longer adequately captured, if they ever truly were, by the terms “communism” and “capitalism” but the fact that liberal democracy has not put an end to history means that the universalist pretensions of academic freedom will continue to arouse suspicion in international contexts, even as these pretensions are often critical and productive (such as in the case of the Hong Kong academics fighting to retain a space independent from China’s one-party state but also irreducible to any other state’s ideology). It is interesting to think about the dominant narratives we have to justify academic freedom and that are discussed in Henry Reichman’s “Academic Freedom and the Common Good: A Review Essay” in light of the global issues raised by the preceding essays. In his review of eight recent books, Reichman finds that the “[m]ost significant are those who seek to link the professional and the political—sometimes awkwardly but, I will argue, in the end persuasively— by joining professional privilege to higher education's contribution to ‘the common good.’" But we might ask, as Reichman does implicitly with his quotation marks, whose “common good”? That of the people who share our borders or that of humanity at large?

Reichman analyzes a spectrum that runs from those who see academic freedom as akin to the First Amendment’s freedom of speech to those who, like Stanley Fish, would restrict academic freedom within narrowly-defined disciplinary boundaries. Reichman finds most persuasive a middle ground in which academic freedom is justified as academic (thus subject to peer review and other forms of professional regulation and not simply “free speech” like any other) but not “merely academic” insofar as it is in the service of the “common good.” Such approaches “embrace the internal tensions and paradoxes of academic freedom by rooting it in professional autonomy, but linking that autonomy to broader expressive rights in service of a common good.” Compelling defenses of academic freedom, in other words, do not need to resolve irresolvable tensions between the particular and the universal but they must explain how professional protocols—such as the tenure system—give faculty a measure of credible independence and authority that, in turn, allows them to enhance a free society’s “democratic competence,” to borrow Robert Post’s term.

John K. Wilson’s “AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles: Conservative and Radical, Visionary and Myopic” shows how one of the AAUP’s earliest statements enabled progress in some areas but suppressed it in others. We can see, he argues, some of the current controversies with academic freedom reflected in this early document. More specifically, he applauds the document’s far-sighted incorporation of extramural utterances as activity warranting the protection of academic freedom but argues that its failure to consider forms of discrimination as violations of academic freedom has hampered the AAUP to this day.  B. Robert Kreiser’s “Championing Academic Freedom at Rutgers: The Genovese Affair and the Teach-In of April 1965” also turns to the past to illuminate the present. Kreiser meticulously documents the controversy surrounding Eugene Genovese’s remarks critical of the Vietnam War and, importantly, the Rutgers administration’s handling of the affair. Under enormous political pressure to denounce Professor Genovese, the administration steadfastly defended his right to exercise his academic freedom. “At a time when the academic profession—indeed higher education more broadly—is facing serious challenges, with the erosion of academic freedom, evisceration of tenure, and assaults on shared governance,” Kreiser writes, “champions of the academic enterprise, and especially of academic freedom, are sorely needed.” The fascinating Genovese Affair is an object lesson in how, at the height of a national crisis, American faculty and administrators defended a professor’s right to challenge orthodoxy.

The volume’s final essay, Bruce Janz’s “Free Space in the Academy,” explores an alternative way of conceiving academic freedom, one that moves us away from a default version of “negative freedom” (i.e., freedom from interference) towards a more positive one. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s idea of the “virtuality,” Janz proposes that we think about academic freedom as “moments in which the creation of new concepts allows a new problematic (that is, new kinds of questions and the intellectual structures around them) to take hold,” changing “the intellectual playing field.” These moments are made possible through reflections on place, on where we are in space, and how our thinking is shaped by where we stand. In constructing what he calls “philosophy-in-place,” Janz is one of a growing group of critics who ask us to think in more material terms about academic freedom.

Taken as a whole, the essays in the volume prompt reflection on a divide increasingly manifest among commentators on academic freedom—that is, the divide between those skeptical of the ideal and those who believe it more indispensable than ever. Towards the start of this introduction, I suggested that academics in the United States have more latitude to explore the concept’s weaknesses than do academics elsewhere. I believe this to be the case but putting it this way risks caricaturing critiques that are, in fact, reasonable and necessary responses to the dramatically deteriorated circumstances we face in the United States. In “The Fallacy of Academic Freedom and the Academic Boycott of Israel,” Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman asks: “Is academic freedom a right or a privilege? Should some academics be granted academic freedom when others do not have access to it? At whose expense shall academic freedom be sought?” “Expense” is the salient word here. If academic freedom sometimes seems like a bankrupt ideal, then that’s largely because countless universities fear bankruptcy—absurdly, in some cases; legitimately, in others—and have gutted their faculty infrastructure. The context for Knopf-Newman’s questions is the Boycott Divestments Sanction Movement but the material reality affording academic freedom to a few faculty in some places but denying it to many others is to be found everywhere within the United States. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, when the 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure enjoyed widespread support and the tenure system came to be established virtually everywhere, the expense of academic freedom went largely unremarked, even as in fact the money for it was evaporating and colleges and universities were hiring a cheaper, “invisible” workforce deprived of it.

Rights are traditionally understood to extend to an entire group—not to single out a few of its members for special treatment. Today, the majority of American faculty are excluded from the tenure system. In “Does Academic Freedom have a Future?” Henry Reichman writes, “If, as the AAUP has argued, the tenure system provides the most reliable protection for academic freedom—especially if that system can be supported by the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement—then academic freedom today may be as endangered as it has been at almost any moment since the AAUP’s inception.” The beneficiaries of the tenure system “have been looking inward too long, protecting our right, rather than using it,” Aaron Barlow writes, and, given this, how can academic freedom not look more like a privilege than a right? We have, Barlow continues, laid ourselves “open to caricature.”

Is the divide between liberal defenses of academic freedom and their materialist critiques largely illusory, though? When we return to the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, we see that “freedom” and “economic security” were bound together from the start. John K. Wilson’s essay in this volume shows us how the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure cleared ground for much of the important work the AAUP would undertake over the next decades. The 1940 Statement did the same. It, Christopher R. Vials writes, “arguably deployed a material concept of freedom that dreamed a bit beyond the dominant liberalism, especially since it held freedom as collectively secured.”

Perhaps it will seem counter-intuitive to end an introduction to a volume largely taken up with global issues by redirecting our attention to the domestic crisis of contingency but when one leaves the American context, one experiences a boomerang effect. One finds oneself in places where the fight for academic freedom relies upon an image of what existed in American colleges and universities at the height of the tenure system. It might smack of American exceptionalism to say this but the stakes of the erosion of tenure in the United States are greater and extend farther than many of us realize. It is fitting, I think then, to end my introduction by seconding Reichman when he says that “there is no more critical task in the defense of academic freedom today than a renewed fight to make the overwhelming majority of faculty appointments once again full time and probationary for tenure.”


Barlow, Aaron. “The Responsibility Behind Academic Freedom.” Academe Blog, July 9, 2012.

Knopf-Newman, Marcy Jane. “The Fallacy of Academic Freedom and the Boycott of Israel.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 2008: 87–110.

Mazower, Mark. “Trump, Le Pen and the Enduring Appeal of Nationalism.” Financial Times. April 29, 2016.

Reichman, Henry. “Does Academic Freedom Have a Future?” Academe, November–December 2015.

Robbins, Bruce. “The Logic of the Beneficiary.” n + 1. Issue 24, Winter 2016.

Scott, Joan. “Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 2, Summer 2009: 451-480.

Tolson, Jay. "Meritocracy and Its Discontents." The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016, vol. 18, no 2.

Vials, Christopher R. “The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Contradictions of Academic Freedom.” Journal of Asian-American Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, February 2016: 117-122.