The Trouble with Scholar-Activism

By Martha McCaughey

What is Academic Freedom? A Century of Debate, 1915–Present, by Daniel Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2022.

In his new book, University of Massachusetts Amherst historian Daniel Gordon provides a rich account of the various answers to the question, What is academic freedom? Gordon carefully reviews key arguments of leading scholars, relevant court cases, and core AAUP documents, outlining a century of commentary on what constitutes acceptable professional classroom behavior, disagreements over the status of a professor’s extramural utterances, and conflicting views about the purpose of the academic profession. The book will be valuable to anyone trying to understand and contextualize today’s legislative interference with US universities.

Recently proposed or enacted state laws mandate “ideological balance,” abolish tenure, or ban “divisive” concepts purportedly to safeguard free expression from professors who are indoctrinating students and from students who are, as seen in viral social-media videos, shouting down speakers. As historian Joan Wallach Scott, a long-serving former member and chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, has noted, political interference in the academic enterprise now deploys the concept of “free expression” as a weapon against academic freedom. In contrast to the constitutional right of freedom of expression, the professional norms of academic freedom presume that scholars weed out ideas that lack rigor or supporting evidence, or otherwise do not stand up to academic scrutiny, through the application of scholarly method. Professors are judges in their fields of expertise and can hardly be considered oppressive or censorious for rejecting a journal submission or not making our classrooms unrestricted platforms for the expression of student opinions. And yet, as Gordon’s absorbing account shows, there is little agreement about the boundaries of academic freedom’s protections.

Each of Gordon’s chapters lays out disagreements over what university faculty have the freedom to do, beginning with the 1969 decision by the Regents of the University of California not to reappoint Angela Davis, a non-tenure-track philosophy instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles, because of her membership in the Communist Party. After the courts ruled that Davis’s political party membership was constitutionally protected, the regents proceeded the following year not to renew her contract because of the content of her speech, including her statements that academic freedom should encompass engagement in concrete political struggles, on and off campus. Many people can accept that a scholar’s political affiliation should not be the basis for sanction by a government employer precisely because they believe that scholars strive to keep their political views out of their professional roles. But some, like Davis, have pushed us to consider both having our cake and eating it too. Gordon’s examination of Davis’s speeches, a UC regents committee report, and the AAUP’s investigative report on her case offers rich historical evidence of the long-standing tensions around the meaning and purpose of academic freedom.

The book moves from Davis’s case to Alexander Meiklejohn’s midcentury idea that academic freedom protects free learning and a free society—implying that the loyalty oaths of that era undermined both the public’s need to know that professors’ utterances are their own and professors’ ability to make their teaching a form of civic preparation. Meiklejohn, a philosopher and university administrator in whose name the AAUP later established an award honoring outstanding contributions to academic freedom by administrators or trustees, criticized the AAUP for protecting the research enterprise without adequately addressing the faculty’s need to prepare students to be broad-minded citizens capable of self-government. While Meiklejohn, unlike Davis, regarded promoting a political agenda in the classroom as a “pedagogic sin,” he saw at least an indirect link between the faculty and democratic society. The relationship between the US university and democratic society proves to be another unsettled question, with implications for understanding the boundary between academic work and political advocacy.

Gordon demonstrates that the concerns of the AAUP’s founders over intrusions into the academy in the early twentieth century prompted them to portray the faculty as a group of disciplined truth-seekers. The AAUP held faculty accountable to this professional expectation and maintained what Gordon calls “the anti-political orthodoxy” until the early twenty-first century, when its leaders began to relax the distinction between academic inquiry and political activism. Gordon argues that, despite the Association’s earlier concerns that framing the classroom or university research as political would only incite the public and their elected legislators to interfere with universities, the concept of academic freedom articulated by the founders no longer serves to rein professors in.

According to Gordon, Black studies and gender studies prompted many academics to accept that academic freedom includes scholar-activism, an assumption bolstered by postmodern theory that questioned objective truth. He takes at face value the claims some made, often in the 1960s and 1970s, that their academic fields were inherently activist. Although my field of gender studies emerged out of activist demands to correct the sexism of the academy, this effort served to advance knowledge, not to make the university our ideological handmaiden. Similarly, Black studies, as sociologist Fabio Rojas has shown, became a permanent interdisciplinary field of scholarship by bending to academia’s demanding standards, not the other way around. Furthermore, academic inquiry into problems related to gender (for example, sexual violence) or race (for example, housing disparities) is no different from academic inquiry into problems like infant mortality, occupational fraud, or pests on crops. Scholars across all these areas might consult with groups that need their specific expertise—a far cry from infusing academic inquiry with political activism. Consider a 2022 online panel discussion, hosted by the Harvard University Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, with self-described scholar-activists who emphasized that they are scrupulous scholars “driven by data.” One panelist described wanting to be “a footnote to the movement,” producing factual information that can be used, or footnoted, by people engaged in freedom struggles outside of academia. But being a scholar whose work is cited, whether by activists or by scholars, is merely being a scholar. Calling oneself a “scholar-activist” may, in some cases, simply be a feel-good gesture, especially for those doing conventional scholarship.

The Foucauldian insight that avoiding partisan political influence in the classroom still doesn’t avoid politics per se hardly gives carte blanche to be a scholar-activist; it could, instead, be a basis for taking care to avoid political advocacy in one’s work. Gordon’s chapter covering the impact of postmodern thought on our understandings of the boundaries of academic freedom reviews the intense debates in the 1990s over the extent to which professionalism and advocacy could commingle. For instance, paying attention to the social implications and consequences of one’s academic work is professionally relevant insofar as it complements our general spirit of self-questioning. And advocating a position as a pedagogical strategy to engage students is different from pushing one’s opinion as if it were settled truth. Gordon reviews the arguments debating the antipolitical orthodoxy in two important essay collections published in 1996, Louis Menand’s The Future of Academic Freedom and Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Advocacy in the Classroom. Gordon captures the sophisticated arguments of scholars who, in these books, complicated common understandings of academic freedom and activism. Gordon moves on to describe the 2003 Academic Bill of Rights—model legislation championed by conservative activist David Horowitz that purported to protect students from alleged faculty indoctrination, like some legislation we are seeing now in Florida and other states. Gordon notes that, while faculty members often dismissed concerns about imposing an orthodoxy as right-wing hype (just as some do today), “the reality is that we don’t know how widespread and flagrant political activism in the classroom is.” Perhaps some of us are, as Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars put it, “bombastic blowhards and self-righteous bullies.” If self-governing faculty guilds do not concern themselves with checking and correcting for a problem of uncritical conformity, politicians will eagerly step in.

Gordon discusses academic boycotts protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, showing that some academics were happy to endorse scholar-activism as protected by academic freedom when they agreed with the activist agenda, only to question the practice once the activism targeted Israel. In examining the contemporary struggle over academic boycotts among AAUP leaders and others, Gordon demonstrates that not all will agree about when a situation is sufficiently perilous to warrant a suspension of institutional neutrality. He also considers the debate over whether academic departments or associations ought to be making partisan political statements from the perspectives of their academic disciplines, concluding that competing interpretations of academic freedom are rooted in competing understandings of “what it means to call an institution academic.” Whether one sees academic boycotts and political advocacy as proper expressions of academic freedom depends on what one thinks the purpose of the university is and what a professor’s job is. Over a decade ago, literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish counseled professors, “Do your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job, and don’t let anyone else do your job.” Gordon’s book reveals just how little consensus there is on what that job is.

What Is Academic Freedom? points to the need for universities to reckon with their central purpose. Gordon confesses to having originally thought politics in the classroom was “evil”; he now thinks the issue is “unresolvable.” Taking a side on the debate was not his intent, but his thorough coverage of the issues and a final chapter on a speech by literary critic Edward Said, a founder of postcolonial studies, that features a “political activist’s case for neutrality in the classroom” convinced me that our best hope for keeping politicians from meddling with academic pursuits is to be diligent in our efforts to avoid confusing our scholarly work with politics. As I see it, this implies a simple “Fish-ish” proposition: Don’t call yourself a scholar-activist, don’t call someone else a scholar-activist, and don’t let anyone else call you a scholar-activist.

Martha McCaughey is professor emerita of sociology at Appalachian State University and a visiting researcher in sociology at the University of Wyoming. Her email address is [email protected].