Editor's Introduction - Volume 8

A Fragile Freedom in a Precarious Republic
By Jennifer H. Ruth

As I write this introduction, Donald Trump has sparked outrage by saying “there’s blame on both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017. Expressing hatred for groups of Americans and opposing that hatred register as two morally equivalent viewpoints in circles in which the President of the United States moves. Meanwhile, the alt-right groups organizing this rally and others elsewhere regularly say they are fighting for “free speech.” That is to say, a phrase that has long referenced an absolute good–independent political expression–has been commandeered for use as an intimidation tactic.

How did we get here? Does the reality that speech is not free actually have something to do with it? I am not talking about the alleged scourge of political correctness but about the fact that speech unencumbered by associations with the market no longer exists in contemporary America. Arenas like politics and higher education, the legitimacy of which rested on the ideal that they were above or beyond money, are now controlled by it. Everyone always understood that despite the corrosive effect of money, these sectors of society required it, but this was not the same thing as presuming them to be dominated by it, as we tend to do today. After Citizens United and the rise of the “dark money” lobbyist, after state divestment from higher education, the explosion of student debt, and the adjunctification of the professoriate, politics and higher education are unambiguously big business, generating winners and losers.

When no space deemed independent remains, academic freedom becomes difficult to define, not to mention protect. This makes sense when you consider that the primary rationale for academic freedom is that it enables scholars and teachers to pursue the common good, but the very belief that a “common good” exists is hard to sustain in polarized eras. Such a belief perhaps requires a middle-class majority but the middle class in America has shrunk. In 2013, President Barack Obama identified the economic inequality beginning in the 1970s and accelerating dramatically in recent years as a “defining challenge” for the country. “A dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility,” he said, “has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain—that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.” According to Jacob Hacker in The Great Risk Shift, the economic inequality we are experiencing is coupled with a rise in economic insecurity as the last generation has seen “a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.” “Today’s individuals,” Pankaj Mishra elaborates in The Age of Anger, “are directly exposed to [the shocks of modernity] in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only war of all against all.”

In her essay “Oppenheimer’s House; or, the Contradictions of Academic Life from the Cold War to Neoliberalism,” Susan Hegeman gives a fascinating account of the transformation of academic freedom as the Cold-War era—in which the state was simultaneously the primary support and threat to academics—gave way to a neoliberal one in which universities “are now organized on the managerial model of the for-profit corporation.” “Forget public committees and denunciations of anti-Americanism; an unprotected adjunct instructor can now be fired just because she used a curse word in class,” she writes. A literature professor at the University of Florida, Hegeman was raised by research scientists in Berkeley who had reason to believe that their house had been used by the government to spy on Robert Oppenheimer in a house below. With her knowledge of her parents’ generation of academics as well as her own, Hegeman explains how we moved “from a postwar situation in which direct abrogations of academic freedom in the form of state-sponsored investigations coexisted with the understanding that college campuses were places that were largely governed by the faculty . . . [to] a situation in which, in the absence of the kind of direct attacks experienced under McCarthyism, academic freedom . . . is now seen in some quarters as an unneeded luxury.” She charts how faculty have lost the control over university governance they maintained in the post-war period and reflects on how academic unions and collective bargaining can help faculty reassert authority. “In a managerial climate that celebrates ‘flexibility,’” she writes, “academic unions and collective bargaining have, at the very least, a vital role to play in simply establishing and enforcing the stable ground rules of academic employment and basic norms of academic freedom.”

Echoing Hegeman’s concern about the professoriate’s tenuous grasp not only on the exercise of academic freedom but on the concept itself, Andrew Ross writes that “academic freedom is not well understood in the United States (not even by academics themselves) and its capacity to be communicated intact across borders is by no means guaranteed.” In “Repressive Tolerance Revamped? The Illiberal Embrace of Academic Freedom,” Ross provides an invaluable analysis of the problems ensuring academic freedom that have plagued the various universities experimenting with outposts in illiberal societies in Asia and the Gulf states. From the outset, faculty at the core universities were deeply skeptical since “wherever basic speech freedoms were lacking—and this was certainly the case in Singapore, Dubai, Doha, Beijing, Riyadh, and Kuala Lumpur—it seemed unlikely that the more recondite academic freedom rights would be easily recognized, let alone rigorously observed.” Administrators countered critics by swearing academic freedom would be vigilantly defended, but the truth is, as Ross writes, “it is simply not in their power to ensure this,” a reality demonstrated in 2015 when the United Arab Emirates barred entry to Ross himself and the NYU-Abu Dhabi administrators were helpless to prevent or reverse the state’s decision. Ross documents a number of ways in which academic freedom is profoundly compromised at and by these ventures—from who can teach (which devolves into who can get visas), who can research (as Ross’s own experience attests), how knowledge can be distributed (it cannot be shared with the public but is strictly restricted to campus members only), whether extramural speech is protected (it’s not), to the virtual epidemic of self-censorship that invariably undermines these institutions. Perhaps most disturbing is the boomerang effect by which the toleration of such compromises normalizes illiberalism in the home country. “Herbert Marcuse,” Ross reminds us, “argued that capitalist democracies exercised their most subtle forms of domination when promoting liberal tolerance of repressive views or practices.” Ross asks, “Is it too early to draw a direct correspondence between the establishment, in illiberal societies, of liberal institutions like universities and contemporary art museums and the escalation of domestic repression?” The answer gets clearer by the day.

Ross mentions that concerned faculty at NYU insisted that NYU-Shanghai and NYU-Abu Dhabi employ faculty on the tenure system. Given what we know about how easy it is to terminate contingent faculty for political reasons and how this reality encourages self-censorship, this intervention was critical. However, to some degree, it turns out to be toothless because if a faculty member cannot get a visa from the country in question due to work she’s already published or loses her visa at a later date for work on sensitive subjects, the point is moot. An NYU-Shanghai tenure-track faculty member addressed the issue of visas in a recent Asia In-Depth Podcast, saying:

If I’m going to publish something, is that going to hurt me? Should I self-censor myself? There is no difference between me being in the U.S. or being here, or being in Amsterdam, because if I’m in Amsterdam and I publish, let’s say, an article about an extremely sensitive topic in China, I might not get a visa anymore to go to China. So I might choose to self-censor myself, I might choose to take that risk. That's the exact same choice I have here.

Is it the exact same choice, though? Numerous scholars of China who hold tenure at institutions outside China refuse to self-censor despite the risk. Jeff Wasserstrom, a tenured historian at UC Irvine, has written about the calculations involved in his own decision to not self-censor (and so far he has still received visas), as has Perry Link (who is denied visas). Is the calculation really the same when your job is within the country in question? The relativizing tone of the NYU-Shanghai professor’s comments and of those I’ve heard from others (self-censorship happens everywhere, academics in illiberal countries commonly say) confirms Ross’s thesis that these institutions have a perniciously normalizing effect. This is especially disturbing when we consider that where tenure can protect faculty, only a minority of them have it. With authoritarianism endangering the United States, we must get our own houses in order, and this means that we must improve job security for faculty here.

In “Collective Bargaining, Shared Governance, and Academic Freedom: Creating Policies for Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track Faculty at the University of Delaware,” Gerald Turkel describes successful efforts at the University of Delaware to do just that—strengthen job security for non-tenure-track faculty. In the 1990s the University of Delaware experienced a boom in students. Concerned that the increase was temporary, contingent positions were created to satisfy the need. More than a decade later, the temporary faculty were effectively permanent but without the protections claimed by tenured faculty. “The gulf between faculty with tenure as a condition of continuing employment and faculty in contingent positions undermines both formal and informal conditions for academic freedom,” Turkel notes. This untenable situation exists at countless colleges and universities that experienced the same kind of growth over the same years. Many of these colleges and universities have tried to redress the situation with varying degrees of success. Turkel provides a case study of how policies stabilizing non-tenure-track faculty can be, and were, formulated and implemented. Primarily through collective bargaining, but also working with governance bodies and administrators, faculty at the University of Delaware were able to pass a policy that “establish[ed] a coherent framework for faculty status based on activities and performance, and . . . [secured] the fundamentals of academic freedom for a major segment of the faculty.”

Turkel also covers a number of tensions that developed when provisions in the collective bargaining agreement ran afoul of academic norms in some academic departments. Perhaps most significant is the rift that emerged over continuing non-tenure-track faculty’s involvement in promotion and tenure decisions. A resolution introduced in the faculty senate sought to limit voting on department promotion and tenure committees “to those faculty who are at or above rank to the position for which the candidate is applying, and in decisions that involve the granting of tenure, limited to those faculty who hold tenure.” The resolution was defeated but the question is an interesting one that has yet to be satisfactorily resolved in my opinion, because it can be articulated in two conflicting but comparably compelling languages, both of which we use when discussing academic freedom— the language of professionalism wherein candidates for promotion and tenure have the right to be evaluated only by people whose fitness for judgment is demonstrated by their having attained a similar or greater level of expertise and the language of equality wherein departmental governance is the province of all department members equally.

In “An Evolution of Principled Futility: The AAUP and Original Sin,” Don Eron tackles the same problem –the problem, it is fair to say, on which the future of academic freedom depends—of non-tenure-track faculty’s lack of such freedom. Eron takes us back to a fundamental contradiction in the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which asserted, as Eron writes, “that academic freedom is the necessary precondition for the transmission and pursuit of knowledge, yet academic due process (the safeguard of academic freedom) is the privilege of only one tier.” When the tenure system was strong, this incoherence could be overlooked but, given that it now might be seen to enable the post-1970s neoliberal tactics of “flexible” hiring, the original sin must be addressed. There have been attempts to do this. “Subsequent AAUP documents, responding to the decline of tenure with increasing degrees of alarm, have attempted a forlorn balance: resolving the original contradiction while maintaining significant distinctions between part-time and full-time faculty,” Eron writes, continuing; “As such, these statements recommend partial measures (increased but limited protections) that often conflict with the accompanying rhetoric.”

While the policy for full-time non-tenure track faculty that is the focus of Turkel’s essay significantly increases job security and due process protections, it does not confer tenure and, thus, would qualify as only a partial measure. Eron insists that we stop equivocating: either tenure is required for academic freedom or it’s not. And if it is (and it is), then we need to not only convert contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure but eliminate distinctions between full-time and part-time faculty that allow for differential treatment. Anyone in a department using different standards and procedures for hiring and evaluating contingent faculty than for tenure-track faculty knows that such changes would— certainly, should – necessitate costly and labor-intensive reforms to its practices but that does not justify our avoiding the challenge.

Like Gerald Turkel’s essay, Saranna Thornton’s contribution to the volume offers a case study in how to address a significant problem and strengthen academic freedom by improving policy through the skillful use of shared governance. In Thornton’s case, the problem faculty at Hampden-Sydney College addressed was a weak sexual harassment and discrimination policy, the vagueness of which potentially jeopardized the academic freedom of faculty. In “Complying with Title IX while Protecting Shared Governance, Academic Freedom, and Due Process: A Model Sexual Misconduct Policy,” Thornton provides a detailed description of the process by which faculty revised the policy and the content of the revised policies themselves. Her account is an excellent model for faculty facing similar challenges at their institutions.

The final three essays of Volume 8 contribute to scholarship that clarifies the bases for, and the scope of, academic freedom and distinguishes it from related forms, such as free speech and intellectual freedom. In “Intellectual Freedom, Academic Freedom, and the Academic Librarian,” Jesse D. Mann differentiates intellectual freedom, which has a basis in the First Amendment, from academic freedom, which on most accounts does not. Understanding the differences between the two types of freedoms, Mann maintains, will aid academic librarians in particular, since the library is arguably the site of greatest overlap between the two. Mann also considers the greatest challenges academic librarians face when exercising both academic and intellectual freedom. David Moshman also discussesthe relationship between intellectual and academic freedom in “Academic Freedomas the Freedom to do Academic Work,” an essay, offering an elegant definition ofacademic freedom “most simply and fundamentally, as the freedom to do academic work.” Moshman provides a useful overview of the literature on the subject as he elaborates on the definition. His is a holistic view of academic freedom: “Its legitimacy at each level depends on whether it protects academic freedom at all levels,”he writes.

In the volume’s final essay “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom,” Joan W. Scott takes up the issue with which I began this introduction: the championing of “free speech” among the alt-right. These groups allege that universities and colleges stifle free speech. Implicit in this accusation is the presumption that sites of higher education should be places that foster “free speech.” Scott explains what they’re getting wrong. Whereas free speech “means the right to one’s opinion, however unfounded, however ungrounded,” academic freedom defends the “thoughtful, critical articulation of ideas, the demonstration of proof based on rigorous examination of evidence, the distinction between true and false, between careful and sloppy work, the exercise of reasoned judgment.”

Scott’s is a personal as well as academic work, reflecting on her reaction to her father’s firing for insubordination sixty-five years ago when he refused to cooperate in an investigation of alleged communism in New York City public schools and her reaction today to the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent actions of his administration. Now, as then, she feels “diffuse anxiety; a sense of fear in response to an indeterminate threat; dread about what would come next.” Like Hegeman, in the volume’s first essay, Scott thoughtfully engages the long history of challenges to academic freedom and the changing nature of the battle we must continue to fight. “Free speech makes no distinction about quality; academic freedom does,” Scott writes. All opinions are not equal when they step into the classroom or onto the pages of a journal. Another way of putting this might be that the equivalence of two conflicting sides—say, expressing hatred and protesting hatred—must be demonstrated, not just declared.


Hacker, Jacob S. The Great Risk Shift. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Link, Perry. “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier”. ChinaFile website, April 2, 2002. http://www.chinafile.com/library/nyrb-china-archive/china-anaconda-chand....

Mishra, Pankaj The Age of Anger. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Wasserstrom, Jeff. “Why Aren’t You Banned Yet?” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 16, 2015. http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/provocations/arent-banned-yet/.