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Academic Freedom As Democratic Imperative

By Dan Colson

Dangerous Professors: Academic Freedom And The National Security Campus. Malini Johar Schueller and Ashley Dawson, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

In the wake of George W. Bush’s two terms as president, Barack Obama’s election, the rise of the Tea Party, an economic collapse, and the recent conservative landslide, Dangerous Professors: Academic Freedom and the National Security Campus offers a timely series of essays that collectively elucidate the intersections of state power and academic freedom, of right-wing propaganda and scholarly autonomy, of the university space and competing visions of democracy. With a title echoing David Horowitz’s shrill warnings against rampant leftism in academia, the book, edited by Malini Johar Schueller and Ashley Dawson, assembles voices that provide both a counterpoint to the right wing’s disingenuous and stultifying rhetoric of academic freedom and a historical-theoretical primer on progressive efforts to maintain higher education as a locus of critical thought.

After an introduction that signals the editors’ postcolonial orientation and situates the book as a response to contemporary attacks on academic freedom, the articles are divided into four sections. The first section includes essays that define academic freedom from various historical and theoretical stances. The second focuses on culture wars, from Bill Mullen’s analysis of W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings on education to Sophia McClennen’s examination of American studies after September 11, 2001. The third considers the effect of the increasingly corporatized university on academic freedom. The fourth section contains essays by Ward Churchill and Robert Jensen, who discuss the current climate of academic freedom through their personal experiences on state university campuses. The collection’s divisions, however, are not indicative of major thematic differences. Each of the sections addresses the work’s dominant concerns: the distinction between free speech and academic freedom; the effect of entrepreneurship and corporate-style administration on the modern university; the relationship between international events, US foreign policy, and contemporary threats to academic freedom; methods for protecting academic freedom; and the specifically democratic nature of academic freedom.

The last of these tropes is perhaps most compelling, because for academic freedom’s advocates, its proper definition depends upon the reconciliation of academia’s uniqueness with the desire for more perfect democracy. Since, as every contributor to Dangerous Professors seems to agree, education is a key component of a free society, the fight for academic freedom is a struggle to maintain an atmosphere in which unpopular views are speakable. For Cary Nelson, academic freedom is the right for educators to advocate for scholarly and political positions—which in his view are inseparable—within the bounds of disciplinary standards. In other words, academic freedom is a professional right that makes sense only in the context of a self-governing faculty. The practice of academic freedom and the practice of political freedom reinforce one another, because professors are free to create a space of scholarly (political) inquiry.

For Nelson, the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom as a professional right is not only the most expedient means to achieve this but also the most logical. Susan Valentine and Michael Palm—both veterans of the New York University graduate student strike—seek to “redefine academic freedom as campus democracy,” however. They see academic freedom not as a professional right achieved through disciplinary expertise but as a synonym for expansive shared governance, a radically democratic campus on which decisions are made through discussion, disagreement, and consensus instead of by administrative fiat. The need to define academic freedom as part of democracy thus leads to two potentially contradictory concepts: academic freedom as a professional right that promotes a public good (that is, functional and improving democracy) or as the practice of campus democracy as such.

The interstices of democracy and academic freedom are further complicated by McClennen’s “E Pluribus Unum / Ex Uno Plura,” which attempts to strike a balance between the necessity for government involvement in the university (mainly through funding) and academia’s imperative to challenge nationalistic and oppressive instantiations of governance. Similarly, R. Radhakrishnan warns against nationalism by focusing on “bias” as a discursive construction always defined against an “Archimedean” norm—a privileged, powerful stance politically constructed as apolitical. Educators must recognize and resist this putatively unbiased position if we wish to “decolonize” knowledge, an act of politics “with a difference.” This difference echoes the editors’ insistent claim that “knowledge in the academy cannot be decoupled . . . from social justice.” Schueller, Dawson, and most of their contributors imagine the struggle over academic freedom as a key, yet not circumscribing, element of “campus democracy,” a blanket phrase covering all the issues this collection links to academic freedom.

The nature of this democracy is unclear, though. Democratic mechanisms were abused to terminate Churchill. Jensen laments professional apathy, thus revealing campus democracy’s functional limits. And many of the state and quasi-governmental interventions that Dangerous Professors challenges are direct products of American democracy and its conservatism. As the nation moves even farther right, the appeal to democracy, campus or otherwise, raises as many issues as it answers. Most pressing, can campus democracy coexist with national democracy?

For those well versed in the discourse of academic freedom, this collection will not be groundbreaking. Unfortunately, too few grasp the stakes or recognize the tenuousness of academic freedom as a pillar of academia. Dangerous Professors provides an advanced overview of the threats to academic freedom and ways of defending it. The book has two particular strengths. First, it is constructed around an identifiable, unapologetic political position. The editors’ progressive, left-leaning views are clear in the introduction and the selections, and the current trend of American politics places them in an uncomfortable, even dangerous, position. The Lynne Cheneys and David Horowitzes of the world are seen as the enemies of academic freedom, and these essays pull no punches. Second, though the various contributors appear to be political allies, read together they demonstrate the contentious work of defining academic freedom. It is an unsettled question both theoretically and practically, an idea and approach that must be interrogated constantly. On both counts, Dangerous Professors is a text about academic freedom and an example of academic freedom: the editors advocate a position, but do so through the juxtaposition of multiple voices. Their text synechdochically figures the importance of defending and using academic freedom.

Dan Colson is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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