Academic Freedom under Threat

By Keith E. Whittington

The Future of Academic Freedom by Henry Reichman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom by Joan Wallach Scott. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.


In this pair of new books, Henry Reichman and Joan Wallach Scott offer timely meditations on the threats to academic freedom in American universities today and how we should think about them. Both authors believe that universities are in a particularly vulnerable position at the moment and that the professoriate has a political target on its collective back. The books do not cover all the ills of American higher education in the early twenty-first century, but they do provide a good entry point into debates about the scope of intellectual freedom enjoyed by faculty.

Reichman is well positioned to produce such a book. An officer of the AAUP and the chair of its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure since 2012, he has substantial experience with the many challenges now facing university faculty in the United States. His book, filled with examples of the concrete problems bedeviling universities, reflects that practical engagement. It takes an accessible and clear-eyed approach to introducing and thinking through various contexts in which academic freedom is under siege.

It is not too much to say that Reichman’s book should be read by every professor working in the United States. For several years, I organized a professional development workshop for the doctoral students in political science at Princeton University. Over time, I gradually added materials on academic freedom, but I now regret that we had not made consideration of academic freedom a core part of that professional training for the students who would in a few years enter the ranks of the faculty. A book like this would have been an invaluable entry point.

The book is organized as a series of questions across ten chapters, and Reichman’s approach is to help the reader see the complexity of the issues, the urgency of grappling with them, and some reasonable paths forward. He begins with the basics before moving on to particular types of controversies. Appropriately enough, the first chapter quickly sketches out some of the current challenges facing the American professoriate, especially surrounding academic freedom, and makes something of a plea for the continued relevance of the AAUP more than a century after its founding. Academic freedom had to be fought for and won, he reminds us, and it will likewise have to be fought for if it is to be preserved. The second chapter considers what academic freedom is and how it should be justified. Much of this chapter is an extended dialogue with the literary scholar Stanley Fish and the First Amendment scholar Robert Post, both former deans, though numerous others make an appearance, including Joan Wallach Scott. Fish, in particular, has defended a relatively restrictive vision of academic freedom, and Reichman walks readers through the competing positions and argues that Fish’s conception of what professors do and why is too cramped.

The subsequent chapters build on this starting point and work through how we should think about academic freedom principles in various contexts of contemporary disputes. Two chapters focus on extramural speech. First, Reichman reviews the many AAUP statements on the right of professors to speak out in public as citizens without fearing for their jobs and the proper scope of protections for such speech. It is an interesting starting point, since extramural speech is somewhat removed from the core concerns of protecting scholarly inquiry in the classroom and in research, but it has long been an area of intense controversy. The controversies surrounding such speech are not going to die down anytime soon, as Reichman makes clear in the next chapter, which looks specifically at social media. The chapter spends a fair amount of space examining how students and outsiders use social media to harass faculty before circling back to the issue of how professors themselves use social media (and at times get themselves in hot water when doing so). It also includes an extended discussion of the highly publicized Marquette University case and the ultimate legal vindication of conservative faculty blogger John McAdams.

The next two chapters focus on questions of funding and their implications for the independence of universities and academic freedom. The first assails the Charles Koch Foundation, which has been criticized for wrangling agreements with universities that give the foundation too much influence over how its grants are spent. The chapter also leaves some space for a response from the grant recipients, however, and gives consideration to other kinds of donors who might also be using money to drive the scholarly agenda. The next chapter provides a critical look at the rise of online curricula as a cost-saving move that has often had the effect of outsourcing teaching and sidelining faculty for dubious educational benefits.

The following two chapters focus on students, with one asking whether and to what degree students enjoy academic freedom and the other considering the place of outside speakers on a college campus. The title of the first—“Do Students Have Academic Freedom?”—is somewhat misleading, since the chapter does not spend much time on knotty issues that might arise around a notion of student academic freedom, such as what rights undergraduate and graduate students might have in the classroom or in their own academic writing. Instead, it pivots to the more general issue of campus free speech, including the rights of protesters on campus, the rights of student journalists, and conservative complaints about interference with their free-speech activities on campus. Reichman is skeptical that there is much of a problem here, and he is quite critical of the views of free-speech libertarians as they are reflected in the University of Chicago statement and the activities of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The accompanying chapter on outside speakers is critical of disruptive protests and the possibility of the heckler’s veto being used to shut down controversial speech on campus but in general finds the problem to be overblown and more ideologically complicated than is usually recognized in the media.

The final chapters turn to unions and the Trump administration. The first discusses the AAUP’s own relationship to faculty unionization and the internal disagreements over whether the organization’s goals are best served by collective bargaining within individual institutions or by advocacy for universal professional standards. The AAUP, and the book, ultimately has settled on pursuing both strategies. The final chapter reviews the AAUP’s concerns with political threats to universities over the past few years, some but not all connected specifically to the Trump presidency. The concerns here are various, from the move toward greater privatization of higher education to hate crimes on college campuses to efforts to weaken tenure protections at public universities.

The Future of Academic Freedom is wide-ranging but hews particularly closely to the AAUP’s position on these issues and the organization’s activities around them, often sprinkled with Reichman’s own experiences, whether in his institutional or his professorial role. There are certainly points to disagree with here, but Reichman generally takes care to let the opposing sides have their say. The book provides a valuable introduction to the controversies roiling academia, though I doubt conservatives will be persuaded that their concerns about campus culture are misplaced.

Joan Wallach Scott’s new book, Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom, addresses concerns related to those taken up by Reichman’s book and can usefully be read alongside it. Like Reichman, Scott has long been active in the AAUP and has served as chair of Committee A. And she, too, is a historian by training, in her case a pioneering feminist historian, which may give her a particular interest in the relationship between the words in the title of her book.

Scott’s book is less systematic than Reichman’s and more reflective. It began as a collection of essays, but the chapters fit together well without much overlap and none feel particularly dated (though the book does feel shaped by the frequently referenced battles of the 1980s and 1990s). Like Reichman’s book, Scott’s book is motivated by a sense that universities are facing a new and serious threat, and that the gains that have been won for academic freedom across the twentieth century are in real danger of being eroded in the coming years. Her general target is “neoliberalism” and a sense that the political right has denigrated the mission of universities and professors to advance the common good. She fears a hollowing out of universities as they are transformed to provide vocational training for individual consumers. With that change in mission, academic freedom becomes an unnecessary luxury.

One frequent and interesting theme of these essays is the tension between academic freedom and the organization of academia into disciplines. Disciplinary knowledge is the essential context and bulwark of academic freedom. As Scott notes, the movement on behalf of academic freedom in the early twentieth century was often justified in terms of protecting the scientific advancement of knowledge from the intervention of outsiders with no relevant expertise for assessing how that process of knowledge accumulation and dissemination should be conducted. Disciplines legitimate the autonomous activity of scholars, but they also constrain it, since stepping outside the disciplinary lines might undercut the very basis of that autonomy. This can create real difficulties when the scholarly disciplines themselves are in upheaval. When new scholarly activity emerges between and across disciplinary boundaries and new upstart approaches to knowledge shake up disciplinary orthodoxies, the foundations of academic freedom might feel like they are being shaken as well. Thus, not only did outsiders like conservative politicians react negatively to the rise of postmodernism in the humanities, but so also did many insiders like the well-established humanist scholars who were supposed to certify and pass on disciplinary expertise. Scott emphasizes that academic freedom exists to protect challenges to orthodoxy in all its forms, including challenges to orthodox ways of knowing. If the scholarly enterprise is not to become hidebound, it must be open to internal dissent and recognize that even its own most cherished assumptions can be called into question.

One essay takes up the complicated question of civility and emotional well-being in academia. The starting point is the 2014 case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A core argument put forth by the board of trustees for rejecting Salaita’s appointment was the claim that his vituperative public statements on social media about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were so uncivil as to make potential Jewish students feel vilified and demeaned. Scott uses the Salaita case to open up a broader discussion of the growing emphasis on the feelings of students in universities and the accompanying demands for codes of behavior by faculty that would cater to those sensitivities. Scott emphasizes that demands for civility were often advanced by pro-Israeli groups who sought to characterize the other side in their political disputes as anti-Semitic. More generally, she frames the demand for greater sensitivity to student feelings as an outgrowth of the neoliberal characterization of higher education as an economic service being delivered to individual consumers. If the customer is always right, he or she should not be made to feel uncomfortable, in the classroom or anywhere else on campus. Moreover, Scott appeals to arguments that see individualized complaints of harmful speech on campus as missing the more important structural systems of power in society. While some of these arguments have merit, laying responsibility for the rise of campus speech codes and the policing of microaggressions on individualism and neoliberalism seems to be at best a rather partial analysis of the phenomenon.

The final sections of the book take more explicit aim at the Trump era. The concluding essay bemoans the frequent confusion of free speech and academic freedom. Scott correctly emphasizes that the concepts are not only different but also can be in tension. The democratic egalitarianism that underlies a right to free speech is quite different from the disciplinary hierarchies that justify and circumscribe academic freedom. She is particularly concerned with conservative activists who, in the name of campus free speech, want to elevate the unfounded opinions of college sophomores and right-wing ideologues, presumably at the expense of scholarly free inquiry and academic freedom. The implications for the latter are not always clear in the discussion, and unfortunately Scott skips lightly over the model campus free-speech legislation being advocated by conservative interest groups without providing any real analysis of what exactly might be wrong, or right, with such proposals. What role free speech might have on a college campus she does not say. That there might be legitimate concerns about the intellectual climate on American college campuses is left unexplored. The book wraps up with a transcript of an interview of Scott by Bill Moyers (which was also previously reprinted in this magazine) on Republican criticisms of public education broadly and higher education particularly.

Scott is inspired by and hopes to remind us of John Dewey’s democratic rationale for academic freedom. Democracy needs its dissenters, its critical thinkers, its gadflies. At their best, universities resist the regimentation and homogenization of social thought. They provide refuge to those who would challenge orthodoxies wherever they might be found, who will raise up new ideas and be skeptical of old ones. Democracy will be revitalized and strengthened through such encounters, even if that means tolerating the countercultural and restraining the power of majority opinion. It remains an attractive and important vision, but one that has always been hard to realize in practice.

These two books challenge us to think through the responsibilities of academic life, to recognize the threats to it, and to act to defend and preserve institutions of higher learning that can continue to play an important role in advancing the frontiers of knowledge and confronting intellectual complacency. They are provocative in the best sense, stimulating us to see what might be overlooked and to think more carefully about things that might be taken for granted. Both might be characterized as hopeful, but they are hardly optimistic. They do at least put us in a better position to take on the challenges of the future.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. His email address is [email protected].