Book Review: Academic Freedom

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In our first review of the new academic year, Alexis Gibbs reviews two recent publications that address academic freedom: 'Who's Afraid of Academic Freedom?' by Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole, and Joanna Williams' 'Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge'. Joanna Williams also provides this month's Author Interview.

Bilgrami, A., & Cole, J. (Eds). (2015). Who's Afraid of Academic Freedom? Columbia University Press. Pp. 448. Hb £28/$38; Pb £20/$27; ebook £20/$27.

Williams, J. (2016) Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. Pp. 223. Hb. £65/$100; Pb. £20/$30; ebook £6/$20.

The disputed concept of academic freedom resides at a nexus of ethical, legal, political, and educational claims upon its purpose. In reality it is far too mucky an idea to be abstracted from the hotbeds of higher education from which its urgency arises, and therefore a ‘purely’ philosophical take on its importance (which has a kind of forebear in Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties) is a somewhat quixotic quest.

In the 20th century, the United States led the way on steering and defining the remit of academic freedom.  In response to concerns that job security was being encroached upon by external or non-faculty interests, in 1915 the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) published its first declaration of principles. To seek conceptual clarity on “academic freedom”, however, entails the same risks and responsibilities that the term ought to imply. Edited volumes on the subject are, in this regard, perhaps in a position to better reveal its true character through the presentation of conflicting views and varied perspectives, allowing a reader to decide for themselves how best to relate to this slippery concept. Indeed, authorial interestedness frequently emerges - paradoxically - as the very essence of an articulation of academic freedom: any claim as to its importance is one made from the heart of intellectual endeavour as much as its head.  In 1996, Louis Menand assembled a cast of stellar American academics to contribute to a volume entitled The Future of Academic Freedom, with contributions from the likes of Ronald Dworkin, Richard Rorty, Edward Said, and Joan W. Scott. Menand’s own position was uncompromising from the outset: “Coercion is natural; freedom is artificial” (1996, p.3). The volume read as both a love-song and a eulogy for postmodernism, with Rorty’s brand of pragmatism being pitched against Thomas Haskell’s plea for the “authority of experts”.

The titles of the two books under review here attest to the fact that academic freedom exists as something of an interface between the institution of the university and the society it serves, between privileges exclusive to the former (and/or its members) and the need to justify itself to – and not alienate itself from – the latter. This is a fine balance to tread, especially when there are those that see any accountability to public opinion as compromising the integrity of the ideal. The tussle of tenured academics over their exclusive privilege is very much the tradition continued in Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole’s edited collection, Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? The title points both to a widespread fear-mongering aimed at higher education in North America today, and to its roll call of star intellectuals, the academy’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For all their celebrity, these authors (amongst them Judith Butler, Robert Post and Noam Chomsky), do not disappoint in providing stimulating discussions about the nature, purpose, and future of academic freedom in a climate of institutional identity crisis. This latest volume has a number of unifying themes, but two of these stand out as being of particular significance: the professional and intellectual identity of the academic, and the boycott of Israeli universities as the contested site of academic freedom’s remit.

The latter is the subject of ongoing dispute between Stanley Fish and Judith Butler, which is continued in their chapters of the book. It is also the focus of a third essay, by John Mearsheimer, on the Israel lobby within the United States, an analysis that borders on conspiracy theory. Fish develops his earlier argument that academic freedom is variously conceived on a five-point spectrum “from professionalism to revolution” (p. 276). He argues that it is those who assume that academic freedom attaches more to the revolutionary individual (who may need to go against the institution “in the name of a higher obligation” (p. 279)) than it does to the institution (which would therefore stipulate and contain the professional limitations of that freedom), who also take it upon themselves to demand the boycott of Israeli universities.

The question posed by Fish is whether such a boycott is itself either an expression or violation of academic freedom, and whether academic freedom is not being confused with political freedom on both sides of the Atlantic/Mediterranean. For Fish, academic freedom clearly becomes devalued as soon as it engages in political issues external to the profession; on his understanding it is an abstract value, “defined independently of the political circumstances that might attend or frustrate its implementation” (p.283). This is in direct contrast to Butler, who makes the case that academic freedom is always conditioned by circumstance, and that it constitutes a right that can and must be exercised for social change. If there are those in Israeli universities who are preventing the exercise of that right (through the suppression of student groups or challenges to State authority, or through the stranglehold on Palestinian higher education imposed by border controls and embargoes), then the academic community is entitled to respond in kind.

Michele Moody-Adams draws on Stanley Fish’s previous defence of interestedness in her essay on the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom, to make a point that perhaps not many academics would like to concede: that both the content and community of inquiry in academia are defined more by exclusion than inclusion. But, Moody-Adams argues, public trust in higher education needs to be defined by a belief in the non-arbitrary enactment of systems of exclusion, ones that are characterised by “intellectual virtues” and that prevent against wilful discrimination and self-interest. As Fish makes clear, these are not always going to coincide with the democratic virtues held dear by the wider public, which is precisely why academic freedom needs to be protected. On these grounds, Moody-Adams furthers the case for a clear distinction to be made between freedom of speech and academic freedom.

David Bromwich, on the other hand, wants us to appreciate that “the limits of academic freedom should not be narrower than the limits of intellectual freedom” (p. 27), a caution against the “freedom-as-expertise” positions of fellow contributors Fish and Robert Post. Instead, Bromwich makes a plea for the judicious exercise of “the work the mind may perform in the world” (p. 39). Bromwich is unfashionably Romantic in casting the academic as a Caspar David Friedrich-type explorer, rather than someone who can simply justify their job according to the technical requisites of the discipline. But his point is decidedly political; he takes the libertarian view that the borders of acceptable academic encroachment on the public sphere and student exposure to knowledge are being overly policed.

Bromwich’s broadening of horizons would be enough to make legislators uncomfortable: “The only necessary assurance of freedom is the actual existence of this multiplicity of uncorked individuals. One might add that in a country as heterogeneous as the United States, the reality of freedom is supported by the multiplicity of institutions” (p. 30). Bromwich’s idea of multiplicity (which echoes Jurgen Habermas’ views on the subject and surely would be supported by Ron Barnett also; see Habermas, 1987; Barnett, 2000) is certainly attractive, but his elision of academic freedom and intellectual freedom does risk leaving the former a little flabby in its active capacity. Jonathan Cole also insists on multiplicity, and suggests in his chapter that no one individual can truly speak “for” the university: it is a many voiced community that perpetually endeavours to “unsettle” those that would make it univocal.

Joan W. Scott is the only author to have contributed to both the 1996 volume and this latest collection. In both instances she considers academic freedom to be a flexing of the knowledge/power binary muscles, but on this occasion she defines the tension as one between “a theory of faculty rights and…a practice that can defend them” (p. 58). She builds on the notion, expressed in her 1996 chapter, that academic freedom sustains a tension between contingent circumstance and universal ideal, but this time she affirms a notion of “academic responsibility” that mediates between the two, and so integrates an ethical imperative into an otherwise politicised act.

It is no coincidence that the essay that follows Scott’s should be an indirect rebuke of her Foucauldian register, in political philosopher Jon Elster’s scathing dismissal of French (mostly poststructural and postmodernist) intellectuals as “obscurantists”’ and “bullshitologists”. Foucault himself is let off with the charge of “soft” obscurantism, the “hard” moniker being reserved for social scientists that deploy deterministic methodologies or analytical frameworks to achieve easily reproducable and publishable results. Elster’s views could be mistaken for those of an irascible nostalgist (or in Richard A. Schweder’s terms, an “antiquarian”), if it weren’t for the more pertinent points made towards the end of the piece about how circumstances may conspire against emerging academics to confine them to orthodox modes of research.

Joanna Williams would presumably sympathise with Elster’s line here. In Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, she also targets those that risk of bringing the university’s authority for explication and truth-saying into disrepute. But if Elster shares one thing in common with his peers in Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, it is a sense of the enduring purpose of higher education and the importance of academic freedom in defending that. Williams takes a more pessimistic view, but one that seems to come undone on the very grounds she borrows from her American counterparts.

Both author and audience are difficult to pin down in this first title from Palgrave MacMillan’s ‘Critical University Studies’ series. The cover of Williams’ monograph is coy about the author’s own disciplinary expertise as lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Kent, preferring to credit her as Education Editor for web magazine SpikedOnline, and to carry endorsements from fellow Spiked journalists. These are, in some sense, superficial details, but they do expose some of the inconsistencies the reader of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity has to contend with. Why, for example, is there such an extensive critique of the demise of disciplinary rigour in academia, when the book refuses to align itself with any one discipline in particular? Sociology comes closest, in favourable mentions of Durkheim, Bernstein, and Furedi. But what uninformed reader is being addressed, then, when she talks of “the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman”?

The adisciplinarity is frustrating, because Williams’ book ought to represent a welcome rearticulation of the concept of academic freedom from a British perspective, on which the literature is still sparse. The introduction does feel timely: Williams declares that academic freedom “remains ill-defined, poorly understood and readily jettisoned by national governments, universities and scholars alike” (p. 20). This is certainly the case in the UK, where debates around freedom of speech on campus are much more common than those concerning the peculiar freedom pertaining to the academy, which is about so much more than just who gets to speak.

The cautions raised about the casualisation of labour, strenuous work-loads leading to conformism for the sake of career advancement, and students responding by urging that their every difference be respected to the detriment of difference itself are also important. But there are too many dismissive gestures and generalisations here to move from a diagnosis of a general cultural malaise to sustained critique of a particular concept. Here is an example:

On one hand, the pseudo-radical, broadly left-wing consensus that pervades universities means that castigating neo-liberalism, the influence of the popular media and the desire to consume, will automatically garner the support of the peers who will review your work for publication and you for promotion. On the other hand, not paying lip service to the importance of feminism, the welfare state and protecting the environment, is more likely to see your work rejected. (pp. 79-80)

For Williams, much of the threat to academic freedom (such as it exists in this country), comes from an academic climate “dominated by political consensus”, “groupthink”, and “moral orthodoxies” that are closing down the differences of opinion essential to a thriving intellectual culture. But what this account lacks is a clear outline of an alternative. When Williams suggests that “What is all too often missing today is a sense of academic freedom as lying at the heart of the university, as integral to the collective enterprise to critique and advance knowledge” (p.20), there is little to support an understanding of advancing knowledge except through a return to Enlightenment values and the freedom to cause offense.

Rorty’s essay in Menand’s 1996 volume openly denied that “the search for objective truth is a search for correspondence to reality”, because the fixation on correspondence made as much as sense as worrying whether an atheist made a reliable witness in court. Williams’ misconstrues this as “a nihilistic understanding of knowledge”, and uses Rorty’s own quotations from John Searle to defend an objectivity that is somewhat at odds with the social construction of knowledge she advocates later. The “truth” then falls into very murky water when Williams denounces “the tendency to label critics, or skeptics, on issues as wide-ranging as the Holocaust, climate change, patriarchy and rape culture, as ‘deniers’”, because it “suggests not a clash of opposing understandings but that the truth has already been determined and people who do not accept it are deluded” (p. 67). The sentence captures Williams’ own championing of the “right to offend” at all costs, but is this not a nihilism of its own? If we replace the issues of the Holocaust, climate change, etc., with moon-landings, pig flight, and the death of Elvis, is it not evident that truthfulness needs to be accompanied by discussions of intent and ethics, if a more productive understanding of academic freedom is to be formulated? Despite quoting favourably from Stanley Fish elsewhere in the book, there is no acknowledgement of his argument that Holocaust denial (for want of a better term) has no legitimate place in academic research and teaching, simply because of the tremendous body of discipline-informed scholarship that supports its rejection.   

Williams’ book does not purport to be a work of philosophy of education, but the flippant use of certain terms (truth, knowledge, objectivity) begs a more philosophically-informed study of academic freedom than this one. The ontology of academic freedom cannot exist independently of epistemological and ethical claims about and upon its purpose. The likes of Rorty, Fish, Scott, and Butler have carefully teased out observations on why “truth” may no longer be a necessary end-game to secure the enduring validity of teaching and research in higher education; they have shown why an understanding of the academic’s responsibilities are as important to academic freedom as the right to cause offense; and, perhaps most importantly, they have expressed in different ways both hope and trust in their colleagues that they are capable of exercising academic freedom and engaging in discussions about its purpose. Without these, we are left with Williams’ vision of an academy doomed to self-indulgence.


Barnett, R. (2000) ‘University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity’, Higher Education 40 (4): 409-422.

Fish, S. (2014) Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, J. and Blazek, J. (1987) ‘The Idea of the University: Learning Processes’, New German Critique, 41, Special Issue on the Critiques of the Enlightenment (Spring - Summer,): 3-22.

Menand, L. (1996) ‘The Limits of Academic Freedom’ in Menand, L. (ed.) The Future of Academic Freedom. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Dr Alexis Gibbs is Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at the University of Winchester.

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