Academic Freedom as Democratization

Faculty must be involved in all aspects of university decision-making.
By Christopher Newfield

Academic freedom underwrites free speech on cam­pus but should not be equated with it. Important corrections of this equation, by Robert Post and others, have helped define the distinctive identity that academic freedom actually has and yet have kept the spotlight on academic freedom as a right to research and publication. In this article, I would like to push the term in another direction, by looking at academic freedom through the lens of democracy. I will consider academic freedom as a mode of collective governance of knowledge produc­tion. In the contemporary university, disappointment with the leading professional proxy for democracy— “shared governance” embodied in faculty senates—has convinced many, if not most, faculty members that pro­fessional practice is irrelevant to and often the enemy of democracy and social justice. While sympathetic to this view, I want to suggest that we can undo the underlying opposition between professionalism and democracy by making academic freedom a bridge between them.

The Governance Catch-22

Let’s begin by considering two statements. The first is from a senior leader in the University of California’s systemwide faculty senate, who is discussing attempts to get faculty participation in a presidential search that is controlled by the board of regents with a neomedi­eval absolutism.

I entirely agree that the strength of our behind-the-scenes lobbying is really going to depend on how much pressure the Regents feel from the bottom up. I know this has been discussed off-and-on at various times but I get the sense from [campus senate] chairs that one of the challenges they face is that there is such widespread cynicism and skepti­cism about this search from the faculty side that it’s hard to get people involved. This creates a kind of Catch-22 where faculty, who are already often over-burdened and demoralized, don’t want to get involved because they think (perhaps correctly) that their voice won’t matter and it’s hard to con­vince the Regents to listen to us because not a lot of faculty are speaking out. Not quite sure how to break out of that particular spiral.

The term catch-22 comes from Joseph Heller’s 1961 World War II novel of that name, in which a pilot’s request to avoid dangerous missions by rea­son of insanity proved that he was sane, causing the request’s rejection.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

Faculty are crazy to get involved in institutional governance, because it wastes precious teaching and research time. But if they don’t, then regents and trustees will make decisions that drive them crazy, particularly by failing to hire a president who would get more public money to support what faculty should be doing, which is teaching and research. So, faculty must get involved, but . . .

Open political systems can avoid a catch-22 by allowing those subject to the rules to become their author and change them through a political process. Public universities are catch-22 institutions in which it seems that “all [one] had to do was ask,” and yet one has no recourse when rejected or ignored. Each level has decision-making rights over the one below, a fact that is not changed by the informality that distin­guishes academia from Heller’s military. The structure is a cascade of top-down appointments: in many states, governors appoint governing boards, governing boards appoint presidents, presidents appoint senior administrators, senior administrators appoint deans and other mid-level administrators, who in turn have formal decision-making rights over faculty appoint­ments. To repeat: it is sane for tenure-track faculty members with busy, interesting careers to avoid stag­ing their own lack of governing power by engaging in faculty governance, and it is also crazy.

Here’s the second statement. It seems to ratify the choice of faculty to avoid governance precisely in order to pursue professional goals.

[A core] function of the modern university is to develop experts for the use of the community. If there is one thing that distinguishes the more recent developments of democracy, it is the recognition by legislators of the inherent complexities of economic, social and political life, and the difficulty of solving problems of technical adjustment without technical knowledge. The recognition of this fact has led to a continually greater demand for the aid of experts in these subjects, to advise both legislators and administrators. The training of such experts has, accordingly, in recent years, become an important part of work of the universities; and in almost every one of our higher institutions of learning the profes­sors of the economic, social, and political sciences have been drafted to an increasing extent into more or less unofficial participation in the public service. It is obvious that here again the scholar must be absolutely free not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no mat­ter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion. To be of use to the legislator or the administrator, he must enjoy their complete confidence in the disin­terestedness of his conclusions.

The writers’ founding assumption is that because modern society is complex in all dimensions, it requires the continuous input of specialized expertise. Universities produce the knowledge and the knowl­edge workers on which modern societies depend for their basic operations. But universities can do their bedrock social job only if the authorities have “complete confidence” in their research results. This confidence, in the standard view, depends on the objectivity of the expertise, which requires that the academic seek the condition of being apolitical and value-free. In this model, the perception of objectivity depends on the academic researchers’ disinterestedness in politics, including the institutional politics of the university.

What I’ve just written is a misreading of the term “disinterestedness.” The second statement was writ­ten a century before the first and comes from the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. In a tradition that was codified for the English-speaking university by John Henry Newman in the mid-nineteenth century, disinterested means uncoerced by authorities external to the research process. Disinterested scholars are ones who have not been forced to particular conclusions by direct or indirect pressure from people or institutions with power greater than their own. In this tradition of university theory, one is “disinterested” when one’s thinking remains undetermined by the pressures that inevitably work on it. The disinterested scholar is the one who is “absolutely free”—not free of bias or view­points, but free to follow one’s framing assumptions, observations, and inferences, and free to respond to professional peer review.

The AAUP established itself and codified academic freedom because society has in general not cared about the freedom of research or teaching and to the contrary has accused academics of elitism, entitle­ment, selfishness, arrogance, hostility to democracy, and refusal of accountability. This indifference and hostility has made it fairly easy to pressure and cajole scholars in the hope that they will become more compliant.

The pressure may come from outside the university or inside it and may be direct or indirect. We might imagine the direct pressure expressed by a sponsor’s explicit prohibitions, like the federal government’s preventing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on the health effects of firearms. Direct pressure can also be subtler and more affirmative, like advocacy foundations that fund research reflecting their prior assumptions whose policy conclusions are predictable in advance. An example is the majority of foundation-funded ed-tech research, which presumes in advance the efficiency, desirability, and inevitability of online instruction and funds research that will advance and promote it.

Indirect pressure, including the desires and inter­ests of the researchers themselves, can dodge the main point of professional training, which is to learn to bring one’s interests and biases to consciousness so one can see how they are affecting one’s research design and results and can then try to correct for them. The first thing we now know about this is our failure to correct—our failure to use professional skills to see past our interests and limits. Evidence of failure abounds: there is the whiteness of tenured faculty ranks, which has been sustained across the many decades since racial integration became a for­mal societal goal. This fact challenges the claim that professional expertise can compensate for racial and cultural bias.

The record of academic professionals on trans­forming their institutions to overcome racist exclusion—mediocre at best—saps the confidence of academics themselves in the benefits of allowing “the scholar [to] be absolutely free.” Whatever racial jus­tice we demand for society we don’t seem to demand for ourselves—or our institutions. If this is the case, then why fight to protect professional judgment from external threat? Defending academic freedom seems a bit beside the point of the weaknesses of the professo­riate itself—that is, beside the point, to modify George Lipsitz, of its “professional investment in whiteness.”

Knowledge and Political Struggle

Today it is relatively easy for us to see the limitations of the idea that academic freedom leads to progres­sive public knowledge. Research often seems at loggerheads with both democracy and social justice. With the heroic effort of many scholars and activists, we now know that knowledge comes from political struggle as least as readily as it comes from aca­demic research. This is especially true of knowledge of a particularly transformative kind—what Michel Foucault called “subjugated knowledge,” “those blocs of historical knowledge which were present but disguised within the body of functionalist and system­atizing theory” and which emerged precisely through political struggle. US history offers many examples. Ida B. Wells had founded her antilynching campaign, grounded in documentation and publication, as a grassroots network about fifteen years before Dewey and his contemporaries founded the AAUP. Universi­ties did not champion the antilynching cause. In the nineteenth century, Marxian and socialist critiques of capitalism were far more likely to exist outside the university than inside. Similarly, anti-imperialist dis­course had been developed and circulated by Samuel Clemens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other writers and researchers with little help from the period’s universi­ties. When W. E. B. DuBois decided to serve as direc­tor of publicity and research for the newly founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and to edit The Crisis, he quit his academic job at Atlanta University. Bringing this tension between research and democracy to a head, Linda Tuhiwai Smith began her book Decolonizing Methodologies by writing, “From the vantage point of the colonized, a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism.” Academic research now regularly appears as either unhelpful or opposed to democratic struggles for justice, recognition, full inclu­sion, or decent accuracy in representation.

Is this true—that the root problem with profes­sional expertise comes from inside the house? Is the academic “professional-managerial class” its own worst enemy? Has it shown its true colors by consent­ing both to racial stratification, as I’ve mentioned, and to the conversion of most of its professional peers into contingent teaching labor?

There’s a complex question of causality here that can’t be resolved with a “yes-and-no” answer. I know few academics who would give a uniform yes to these questions: they don’t want to generate a left-wing echo of the right-wing’s forever culture war that casts the university as the great betrayer of popular hope. But internal misgivings and critiques abound. I do know many academics who are ashamed of or angry about the effects of their own institutions, and I am often one of them. Many faculty members are hostile to their own institutions’ performance. One serious effect is that academic freedom seems to many of its main beneficiaries to be a somewhat undeserved buffer from pressures for positive change.

But there’s no evidence that academic freedom as such is the primary cause of the whiteness of the senior faculty or of adjunctification. Primary causes include society-wide racism that flows through institutions, very much including the university; the intimidation of administrators by market ideology and austerity; and the antidemocratic structure of university manage­ment. These limit the ability of academic freedom as a set of material practices to enable the pursuit of truth and justice at the same time.

I rally my own will to advocate academic freedom with a series of steps. The first is to affirm my belief that intellectual freedom is a general good. Academic freedom is the special theory of intellectual freedom for all, inside and outside the university. I don’t see academic freedom as a unique entitlement. I see it as a specific institutional formation that needs to be pro­tected for the sake of university knowledge production and instruction. As a specific case, it has a purpose beyond its literal use, which is to serve as a model or type or foreshadowing of intellectual freedom as a general social right, for mechanics, caregivers, sex workers, farmworkers, insurance actuaries, real estate agents—everyone. I’ve written about “tenure for all”—the end to at-will firing for all industries—and academic freedom functions in an analogous way, as one template of freedom of thought, absolute in principle, that will vary in implementation across vocations, nations, and cultures.

The next step can be stylized as a transition between the two excerpts I discussed previously. The first anticipates the defeat of the faculty’s idea at the hands of the governing board’s superior power. It has no audience. According to another of Heller’s charac­ters, “Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” The second passage, by John Dewey and his colleagues, defines the audi­ence as the nonacademic “community.” It also has a different understanding of the role of defeat.

The AAUP’s founders wrote, “The scholar must be absolutely free not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion.” Accepted opinion will often, if not always, reject the scholar’s findings—think of W. E. B. DuBois’s claims that African Americans played a major role in the Union victory in the Civil War and that Reconstruction had been a success, or of findings that leaded gasoline was damaging the development of tens of millions of children, that tobacco smoking increases cancer risk, or that fossil fuel use accelerates global heating. The whole point of being “absolutely free” academically is not to avoid defeat but to survive it, again and again and again. Academic knowledge will be defeated by boards, executives, pundits, politicians, preachers, and the public at large. And yet it will persist, and struggle, and find movement allies and be improved by them, and improve itself and, under conditions of relative noncoercion inside and outside the university, gradu­ally gain acceptance. Through a long process it will become effective. Direct politics is a way to escape the catch-22 of shared governance. The university at least nominally sponsors another way, which is academic freedom as a conduit of public knowledge. Academic knowledge earns protection on that basis.

The third step is yet to come. It is to reduce coercion inside the university by democratizing its governance. Many of the threats to academic freedom come from outside the university. These would be less of a problem if faculty had more direct control over the responses made to them. At the moment, responses are controlled more or less unilaterally by senior administrators and governing boards. Faculty mount rearguard actions, but nearly always in reaction to a decision that has already been made and without any ability to change the decision.

We’ve seen a series of these incidents in recent years. They include the 2014 case of Steven Salaita, whose faculty appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was undone on the basis of the governing board’s objections to his extramural criticisms of Israeli policy and politicians on Twitter; the 2017 case of George Ciccariello-Maher, who was removed from the classroom by officials at Drexel University for his tweet, “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide”; the 2018 case of Randa Jarrar at California State University, Fresno, whose president declared her tweets denouncing Barbara Bush in the wake of her death to be “obviously contrary to the core values of our University”; and the case of Tommy Curry at Texas A&M University, whose president in 2017 sided with right-wing bloggers in claiming that Curry’s radio comments on the film Django Unchained “stand in stark contrast to Aggie core values” and assured Aggies that their “core values are very much intact”—presumably in spite of Curry’s effort to destroy them (Curry quite rationally left Texas A&M and now teaches at a university in Scotland).

In all of these cases, faculty members critiqued and denounced the administrative denunciations, but it was too late. The tactical damage had been done. By repudiating their professors, senior administrators invited further individual attacks as well as further distrust of higher education. (Contrary examples prove the playground rule that standing up to bul­lying usually makes bullying stop, as when Syracuse University chancellor Kent Syverud defended professor Dana Cloud from attacks over a controversial tweet on the straightforward grounds that “our faculty must be able to say and write things—including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable—up to the very limits of the law. The statement at issue is, I believe, within those limits.” The attacks died away.)

Beyond the tactical folly lies damage to faculty confidence that university leaders will defend academic freedom on their own. We can see how high the stakes are when we note that academic freedom shades into a much broader range of experiences that are lumped together under the term “climate” and that shape the institutional lives of faculty of color, queer and transgender faculty, and others. These include micro­aggressions, subtle forms of disrespect, and the lack of racial and gender parity in faculty hiring. Of course, faculty members play a big part in perpetuating such problems. But the opacity and autocracy of academic power make it difficult for faculty to self-correct or to imagine that effort would bring correction. Hence the relevance of the concept of catch-22.

A New Democracy Movement

Highly publicized examples of administrations in unilateral retreat have a chilling effect on their institu­tions, but how widespread is the problem? The higher education scholar Nicole Rangel studied this topic for her doctoral thesis. Having conducted a series of detailed interviews at three flagship research universi­ties, she concludes as follows:

Describing their experiences exercising academic freedom in controversial ways, participants from across the academic ladder feel immense pressure to “not rock the boat.” Many spoke to how they believe their practice of “rocking the boat” has negatively impacted their promotion process and/ or job prospects, as well as their sense of belonging within their home departments. Some found/find their home departments so hostile that they have left and/or are considering leaving their institu­tions. Participants claim to have been subject to censoring, and at times to be self-censoring. They do not feel the academy encourages ethical risk-taking. . . . Another significant theme that emerged was the phenomenal growth of the contingent workforce who, more often than not, lack aca­demic freedom protections and are vulnerable to nonrenewal at the end of any given academic term. Participants assert that [this] . . . poses a serious threat to academic freedom and shared governance.

Assuming these findings are representative of most US faculties, I see only one solution to this tacit curtailing of academic freedom: a dramatic increase of faculty power within the institution. Faculty would need to construct a political body in which tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty work equitably together. Shared governance should be replaced by cogovernance, defined as joint decision-making rights over both policy decisions and specific cases, including decisions that affect the public standing of the institution.

This shift would have at least two initial ben­efits. First, it would reduce the institutional suffering that results from the everyday experience of chronic powerlessness within the faculty’s own professional domain. This unhappiness has drained energy from the academic imagination.

Second, such a shift would reconnect teaching and research to its various publics. The pipeline is now controlled by an institution’s top officials and specialized staff in communications, marketing, and fundraising. The faculty’s lack of influence over public contacts dilutes academic freedom, defined correctly as producing knowledge for the whole society. At one point in his recent book, The Future of Academic Freedom, Henry Reichman invokes the research of Hans-Joerg Tiede to argue that the AAUP’s founders were “actually not at first chiefly concerned with aca­demic freedom . . . [but with] professional autonomy, their true goal. Their concern was not only to identify means and methods of insulating the scholarly enter­prise from corporate power but also . . . to unleash scholarship to challenge that power and its growing influence in the polity.”

Academic freedom seeks to support scholarship that is disinterested in the sense of being uncoerced by external or internal powers. It can do that only if it can level the relative powers enough to prevent or forestall coercion. And that requires a democracy movement within universities.

This movement would obviously be complex and have many dimensions. It would be a diverse process on the home front that would include democratizing departmental decision-making processes, fostering greater openness in daily relations among ostensible colleagues, holding more reciprocal discussions between faculty and deans, encouraging regular and open com­munication between the divided halves of the student experience (the academic departments and student affairs), and promoting egalitarian interactions between faculty and staff. Among all these possibilities, I’ll single out two areas that need special attention.

The first is administrative searches. Although faculty and other academic staff share voting rights in searches for the presidents of universities in France and other countries, they have rarely held such rights in the United States. Top-down appointment power has often produced mediocre decisions even when governing boards and other senior officials sought consensus-builders who would consult with all sectors of the university community. This is because nondem­ocracy reinforces epistemological bubbles that restrict the arrival of information from the world outside the governing microgroup. Today, governing boards are increasingly prone to seek presidents who will repre­sent outside interests over and against the interests of faculty, staff, and students in their own institutions. Many seek wielders of executive authority devoid of knowledge of academia. Although they would never put a career cardiologist in charge of a hedge fund, they now regularly put corporate managers, politicians, and military commanders in charge of universities.

Such decisions are possible and plausible to boards because faculty are generally absent from every stage of the discussion. For example, as of this writing, the University of California is searching for a new presi­dent. Under existing procedures, the chair of the board of regents appoints a special committee to consider candidates. All voting members are regents. Other advisory committees are formed, including an Academic Advisory Committee (AAC) for faculty, with one and sometimes two members from each of two campuses. A faculty of over ten thousand members is represented by about a dozen people, only one of whom, the commit­tee chair, ever meets with the special committee. The regents’ special committee currently insists that the one faculty member, the AAC chair, will not review applica­tions, attend search committee meetings, or vote: one faculty member is one too many. Even minimal faculty participation is subject to an ongoing—and asym­metrical—power struggle. All AAC members operate under a confidentiality agreement that prevents any meaningful communication with the faculty at large and undermines their representative function. The roles of committees for students, staff, and alumni are even more restricted.

This procedure has been followed in the past. It has produced a series of presidents unable to say things that political and business leaders didn’t want to hear. At the top of my own list of unsaid truths is the neces­sity of tax-based funding to support high-quality and accessible public research universities and the failure, over decades, of high tuition and private revenue streams to do the job. These presidents didn’t have the knowledge base to say this or the scholarly ethics that enjoins academics to say the truest things they can, no matter how unwanted their statements are. Academic executives, revolving at a distance from scholarly life, engage in marketing and impression management, confirming popular views even when those views damage their own institutions. Faculty-administrative parity on search committees would bring to bear the standards and priorities of the everyday university— higher standards, rooted in local knowledge, that governing boards generally lack. A general univer­sity election would also work better than the closed, autocratic appointment process: candidates selected through a vote representing the whole university would be more knowledgeable and more effective representatives of the interests of that university—and, indirectly, of society.

A second area that needs special attention is faculty cogovernance of budgeting. Administrators have been under continuous fiscal pressures for many years and have had to downsize or close academic programs, often unwillingly. Whatever the circum­stances or intent, budget-driven changes directly affect the academic freedom of faculty to teach and conduct research in particular areas. And yet faculty members rarely see campus, divisional, or departmental budgets and almost never combine financial with academic decision-making. Administrators prepare budgets in advance, and then faculty members make academic choices inside a preestablished fiscal envelope. The effect is that faculty members do not coauthor aca­demic decisions upstream, when budgetary parameters are being set.

In 2016–17, I chaired the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities. We drafted and approved a “Statement on Resource Allocation and Academic Freedom” that sought to address this issue. The statement reads in part:

The MLA is on record expressing concern when external funding agencies intervene in academic processes. Academic freedom may also be affected by procedures that are internal to colleges and universities themselves. The Association’s concern extends to restrictions on freedom to teach, learn, and research that are imposed through internal resource allocation. . . .

The MLA calls on college and university admin­istrations to acknowledge that academic freedom protections cover the financial management of the academic processes of teaching and research. Administrations must work with faculty senates and faculty members to ensure that financial data are available to faculty, and to develop the finan­cial competence that will allow faculty members to participate in the financial decisions that affect their academic units and shape patterns of research funding across disciplines.

It will take some time for faculty members to connect, routinely, curricular and hiring decisions to financial choices they make in a cogoverning relation­ship with administrators. But it will truly improve effectiveness and justice in resource allocations—and make everyone’s jobs less frustrating in the bargain.

To have full academic freedom, university gover­nance must be democratized. Moving from “shared” governance to cogovernance would generate simulta­neous benefits for knowledge, students, faculty, and society as a whole.

Christopher Newfield is Distin­guished Professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He covers higher education on the blog Remaking the University, and his most recent book is The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016). His email address is [email protected].