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The Current State of Academic Freedom

By Jonathan Hearn


Academic freedom is about safeguarding the right to research, write, speak and teach on topics as one sees fit, without undue interference.  It is the matter of free speech as it applies to the context of universities and other teaching and research organisations.  The states of academic freedom and freedom of speech more widely are closely connected.  Academic freedom is something of a bellwether for the larger issue.  So it makes sense to think about why academic freedom has become so fraught of late, to ask what are the specific social, institutional and historical conditions leading to this tension.  I want to briefly examine two aspects of this.

First, there is no getting around the fact that universities, especially in regard to the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS), have become bulwarks of left political views.  They exhibit a culture where such views are largely taken for granted.  Many studies have shown that the ratio of right-leaning to left-leaning academics in such fields has radically declined, reducing ideological heterodoxy.  Many of us may find it difficult to place ourselves on a left-right spectrum, or are only able to in regard to one topic at a time.  But that doesn’t gainsay this larger trend of ideological homogenisation.  I personally believe that because of their principles of open inquiry, universities have a natural liberal bias towards individual freedom and away from the unquestioned preservation of orthodoxy.  And this may be construed as a tendency to lean left.  But what’s going on here is also part of a much wider social process, which we recognise in the political patterns of left-right polarisation associated Brexit, the presidency of Donald Trump, and populist movements more generally.  Especially in regard to AHSS, most universities have become a terrain not just hospitable to the left, but captured and ‘owned’ by the left.  A bunker where left-oriented people can be among their own kind and feel they have some control over their environment.

Correspondingly, the organised political right, particularly in the US, has increasingly pitched itself as a force outside these ‘bulwarks of leftism’, and through organisations such as Turning Point USA and their ‘Professor Watchlist’ webpages, have sought to push back against this trend.  Republican politicians make hay out of campaigns to oppose ‘leftist insanity’, pressure is put on funders, and so on, contributing to an embattled environment between left leaning university departments and these external pressures.  In the UK, many of the unwelcome pressures on the universities have come more from the government, as in the Prevent Duty, and less from an externally organised right in civil society.  Nonetheless, there is a kind of transnational anglophone culture across the US and the UK in which this sense of the left as ensconced in universities and under attack is quite prevalent. 

A significant effect of this structure of tension and conflict is that when dissenting views arise within the AHSS academic community they are received in some quarters with great suspicion, as an internal threat.  Familiar dissenting positions where conflicts become intense include the assertion of sex-based rights from a gender critical perspective, scepticism about decolonising the curriculum, and doubts about the coherence of critical race theory.  In some cases this may come from people who self-identify as on the political right.  But given the ideological demographics, it is more likely to involve people who simply see themselves as more centrist, or positioned somewhere else on the left.  But these people and their views are often cast by those opposed as though they were fifth columnists supporting the ‘external’ right, rather than a fellow academics with a legitimately different view.  Hence the endless language of being existentially threatened by such views, justifying any tactics to shut them down. 

Of course, in many other countries where there is severe state-led restriction on free speech, these may seem like ‘first world problems’.  Speech is comparatively free in liberal democracies.  Still, there is a dynamic at work here that needs explaining.  My point is that this is a sociological commonplace.  When a community becomes very homogenous, and feels externally threatened, its most enthused members will be primed to perceive as a threat and punish any deviance within the community. 

So that is about how the structural and institutional environment has been shaping some of these conflicts.  I want to look at a second aspect, that has to do with the culture of academic discourse in AHSS and how it has developed in recent decades.  In an ideal world, academics interact according to a principle we might call civil competition, openly contesting ideas, theories, accounts, and all kinds of truth-claims in an atmosphere of mutual respect.  Reality of course falls short of this ideal, but it is a guide.  But it is also the case that this process is ongoing, it cannot resolve disagreements with any finality.  New ones will always arise.  So academic life also has to involve a principle of tolerance for incompatible views, that we live to fight another day.  However, tolerance easily subsides into indifference, as people tire of engaging in inconclusive disputes, and a ‘live and let live’ modus operandi develops.  We might call this the path of tolerance and indifference.  I would suggest that the massive expansion of higher education in recent decades, creating new fields, disciplines and programmes, has been an environment particularly conducive to this strategy.  Annex new territory, and let good fences make good neighbours.  However, if the period of expansion hits its limits, and the competition for limited institutional space heats up, this second strategy will become difficult to maintain.  At this point, a principle of moral purification, ‘there isn’t room for both of us in this town’, is more likely to kick in.  Especially when the wider socio-political and institutional circumstances discussed above are in play. 

I am not denying the possibility or value of disinterested scholarship that is not driven by political ideology, whether left, right, or some other.  But even disinterested scholarship will generate contending ideas that must come into conflict with one another.  I am arguing that a healthy academic environment needs to strike a balance between lively civil competition and tolerance, but that tolerance easily slides into indifference, and becomes susceptible to episodes of moral purification.  The upshot of this is that academic freedom is not just a matter of defending academics against the intolerant persecution of their ideas, although it is that.  It is also a matter of not allowing ourselves to sink into the indolence of indifference, but going everyday ‘once more into the breach’, to argue for what we believe, and question, not just tolerate, what we doubt.  It is a freedom that has to be actively earned by steadily pushing towards the ideal of civil competition over ideas, however much this needs to rest on a foundation of tolerance of disagreement.  If we get out of this habit, because we want to avoid conflict with colleagues and prefer a quiet life, we become intellectually soft and cowed, and the quality of universities suffers.

2 replies to “The Current State of Academic Freedom”

  1. James says:

    Really interesting Jonathan. I’m interested in the studies indicating the recent shift in left to right leaning academics. Is it really a recent phenomena – it’s been talked about in the US for decades AFAIK? How is left/right defined? Does it mirror other demographics? Age/educational attainments/class? What about STEM? I guess my question is the extent to which AHSS colleagues/students are unique, or change simply mirrors broader trends. This has implications for how we frame freedom of speech issues in the academy. And beyond.

    1. JHearn says:

      Thanks James. The recent Policy Exchange report here:
      provides an overview of the UK situation, and suggests that leftward movement is most pronounced in the social science and humanities. Clearly higher levels of education are associated with the left these days. As to what left and right means these days, I think that has become a muddle for many of us, even while some kind of political/cultural polarisation characterises wider society. Happy to chat further if you are at the launch event on the 26th.

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