Saving the Seed Bank and Defending Academic Freedom

By Diane Kemker

Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism by Julia Schleck. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022.

Julia Schleck’s Dirty Knowledge: Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism mounts a creative and spirited defense of a particular theory of academic freedom using a “seed bank” metaphor that is the first meaning of her title. As she puts it, in the university “we generate and house an extraordinary biodiversity of ideas.” The title’s second meaning, and much of the book’s argument, is more familiar, based on the idea that the knowledge produced in the academy is not “pure” or neutral but inherently political.

Schleck sets out to distinguish her approach from two other dominant understandings of academic freedom. The first, based on the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure and the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, depends primarily on a public-good rationale, with a high degree of consensus about the aims and purposes of university education. The second, emerging with the rise of the neoliberal, corporatized university in the 1980s, is a more individualist notion, one that mostly collapses academic freedom into something like the First Amendment right to free speech.

In a prior era, she says, “everyone agreed that an educated citizenry was a necessary part of a democracy . . . and that universities were the proper place to acquire this education.” Today, she argues, “We need to abandon the language of neutral expertise and of work undertaken in service of some vaguely defined public good.” Schleck enumerates the familiar arguments against the supposed neutrality or purity of the knowledge produced in the university but argues that this approach is a poor foundation for defending the university given that “the public cannot agree on what constitutes its own good right now, on a very fundamental level, making the public good a massively contested area.”

But Schleck agrees with many academic observers that the neoliberal individualist approach, which frames education transactionally and prioritizes return-on-investment, is no better and may be considerably worse. For Schleck, neoliberalism or the academic sector’s embrace of capitalism, by “radically changing the terms of [the academic] employment relationship . . . has essentially destroyed academic freedom in today’s institutions of higher learning.” She explains, “As a larger and larger segment of the professoriate lacked the employment situation on which the guarantee of academic freedom rests, it became necessary either to face the fact that an increasing majority of the faculty also lacked academic freedom, or to embrace a definition of academic freedom that circumvented the need for this employment relationship” (emphasis added). With tenure and academic freedom inextricably linked this way, something called “academic freedom” can survive in an adjunctified world only if academic freedom itself is somehow redefined—although Schleck does not make clear why those practicing and advocating for adjunctification would feel the need to preserve academic freedom at all.

In any event, the errors of conflating the First Amendment and academic freedom are numerous and well-documented. The weakest part of this book is the author’s attempt to set up a contrast between academic freedom as a “collective” employment condition of the tenured, on the one hand, and some neoliberal notion of individual rights assimilated to the First Amendment, on the other. Schleck’s particular approach takes the unnecessary step of characterizing the former as collective and the latter as individual. But the signal feature of First Amendment (and other constitutional) rights is that they restrain the government. As a result, the speech-suppressive or speech-punishing conduct of private actors, including private employers, simply cannot violate the First Amendment. With respect to public institutions, of course, the analysis is necessarily more complicated—again, not by the question of whether the right is properly understood as “individual” but rather because a public university is both an academic employer and an instrumentality of the state.

Schleck thus misconstrues Rob­ert Post’s famous work in this area, which emphasizes that because academic disciplinary norms govern knowledge production in the university, academic freedom is substantively different from First Amendment protection for speech. While all ideas may be equal from the point of view of govern­ment regulation (from which they are protected), they need not be thought of as equally valuable from the point of view of knowledge production or academic expertise. For that reason alone, academic freedom is not and cannot be reduc­ible to the First Amendment right of free speech—but not because academic freedom is not (properly understood) as an individual right.

From a legal point of view, treating academic freedom as part of faculty working conditions—regardless of tenure status—does not make it fundamentally differ­ent from other individual rights guaranteed by contract. Violation of an employment contract by the employer is, theoretically at least, remediable by a lawsuit; such lawsuits are brought by damaged individuals to vindicate their indi­vidual rights.

The far more useful point Schleck makes is that academic freedom must be thought of as an economic rather than a political right. When academic freedom is understood properly as an aspect of faculty working conditions, and not just a contract term, the connection between contingency and the lack of academic freedom is straightforward and clear. That some contingent faculty may have academic free­dom conferred upon them as an express condition in their short-term contracts or in faculty handbooks is a paradigm case of a purely formal right with no substance. But here, Schleck does not go far enough because any critique of the emphasis on formal (or contract) rights applies to the tenured as well. With the ever-present threat of being replaced by contingent faculty, the prohibi­tive cost and difficulty of litigating against an academic employer, and some universities’ open (and often uncontested) defiance of their own academic freedom policies, it is not only the precariat who lack aca­demic freedom in a genuine form.

The book presents a much stronger, brisker argument when it reaches chapter 4, where Schleck articulates her own view of academic freedom. Casting aside nostalgia for past public-good rationales that might or might not have had broad support decades ago, she seeks to offer “a case [for academic freedom] . . . that will be persuasive within an academic capitalist regime” without capitulating to those market-driven norms and values. This is a case the (tenured) faculty must make for themselves, as no one else will. Unfortunately, Schleck does not do so herself until the last ten pages of this 120-page book, and what she offers is primarily a metaphor, albeit an interesting one: “The university is a knowledge seed bank.”

This “seed bank” is a public good “as defined in economics: a resource that, like public infra­structure, benefits all without direct cost to the individual and without being diminished by its use by any particular individual.” She provides timely examples of this seed bank idea—including prepandemic aca­demic research that proved useful in combating COVID-19—and focuses on its value in an unknown future with new challenges. In her view, “Neoliberalism . . . creat[es] a monoculture”—perhaps evident in the ways that universities con­cede to market demands for some programs at the expense of oth­ers—that “endangers us all in ways we cannot predict.” By contrast, in her conception of the university as seed bank, “The rampant intellec­tual diversity we house will provide the ideas necessary to surviving coming droughts, floods, diseases, and other world-altering events, both literal and metaphorical.” She further asserts, without extensive argument, that “the university is the place uniquely qualified to host such activities” because it “is a melee of ideas, embodied in a professori­ate that fights hard for them.” This argument, however, is circular: the university is “uniquely quali­fied” in this way only if academic freedom is preserved there, and it is surely difficult to square this rosy characterization (or is it an aspira­tion?) with Schleck’s own description of the adjunctified institutions in which most faculty work today.

In the end, Schleck’s argument is not especially radical, and her prescriptions are mostly familiar: unions and tenure. She writes,

In practice, the employment protections needed to ensure that the members of the professori­ate as a whole feel empowered to be champions for their form of the best, for their form of life, have not changed. Professors cannot be overworked, under­paid, at-will employees and do this necessary work. Academic unionization will effectively push back on some of these conditions and should be vigorously pur­sued. We must also continue to make the case for tenure, or some similar mechanism for continued employment regardless of the popularity of a professor’s ideas and teaching so as to recover the intellectual freedoms tenure was designed to foster and protect.

At the same time, the “tool” she offers for making the case for academic freedom—the provoca­tive metaphor of the seed bank, which can help “avoid a danger­ous intellectual monoculture” and instead protect and preserve even “the strangest, least useful, and most contrarian of these plants to ensure that we have the diversity we need to survive the coming storms”—is surely likely to flatter those academics who recognize themselves and their fields of study in that description.

Diane Kemker is a visiting professor of law at the Southern University Law Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she currently teaches courses in law and society, evidence, and tax law, from her home in Los Angeles. Her email address is [email protected].