Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, edited by Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole

Miriam E. David urges scholars to engage with essays contributing to wider political debates

March 12, 2015

In the febrile atmosphere after January’s terrorist attacks in Paris in which 17 people including cartoonists, journalists, police officers and the Jewish customers of a kosher supermarket were killed, followed by further deadly violence in Copenhagen in February, the debate over freedom of speech has become ever more heated. This edited volume could contribute greatly to that debate, dealing as it does with questions of academic freedom in colleges and universities in the US in light of wider political and legal debates about freedom of expression. It has made my task as a reviewer both urgent and difficult, given my own personal and political predilections as a Jewish feminist.

This impressive collection of 17 essays, with its broad range of social, scientific, legal and philosophical analyses, will be vitally important to democratic and political dialogue. I urge you to read these contributions from distinguished (and mainly senior male) scholars, many of them associated with Columbia University in New York. The book’s cover image – Jean-Léon Huens’ painting of Galileo Galilei, his telescope and two sceptical clerics – suggests a certain angle on current discussions about the role of religion, or rather the Church, in definitions of freedom of expression. But the book’s cover only hints at the richness of the scholarship inside, which focuses on the limitations, obstacles and fears about freedom of inquiry, via insights from cultural psychologists, historians, legal and juridical scholars, mathematicians, political and social philosophers, natural and social scientists, sociologists, as well as senior university administrators.

Of particular interest is Geoffrey Stone’s brief history of the expansion of higher education in the US, and the ways in which McCarthyism seeped into post-war universities. As Stone observes, politically motivated restrictions on scholarly freedom of expression and inquiry are an understudied topic, despite a definition of academic freedom having been laid out a century ago in the US academy.

The volume is not without limitations, not least because of its paucity of feminist scholarship and indeed female scholars. It does, however, feature important contributions from Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler, academics whose 1992 collaboration Feminists Theorize the Political examined issues relevant to this book’s focus. Here, Scott provides a lovely essay about the history of the idea of academic freedom and considers several cases where it was denied and its relation to notions of academic responsibility. One such case was a 1970 decision by the University of California, Los Angeles not to renew the contract of a young philosophy scholar, Angela Davis, because of her membership in the Communist Party. Davis argued publicly that “academic freedom was an ‘empty concept’ if divorced from freedom of political action”. At the same time, Scott observes, she was an exemplary teacher, offering “rigorous and open-minded” lectures and taking care of the development and progress of her students.

Butler’s essay serves as a counterpoint to one by Stanley Fish. Both discuss recent calls for an academic boycott of Israeli universities as institutions rather than, as is often claimed, the boycott of Israelis as individuals; Fish argues against, and Butler for, such actions. Their pieces, along with contributions by John Mearsheimer and Noam Chomsky, focus on one of the collection’s key themes, namely contemporary debates about the role of Jews and Judaism in relation to Israel and Palestine (and its echoes in the politics of education in the US). And, as we know, these long-contentious issues are now being raised in increasingly vociferous fashion in Europe, and particularly in the current French political climate. A little-understood issue is how the former French colonies of North Africa – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – link to cultural, ethnic and religious minorities in France today, where both Jews and Muslims of North African descent remain some of the country’s poorest communities. This creates a real-life tinderbox for the Middle Eastern politics discussed on an intellectual level in this collection.

The role of Jews in the politics of higher education is arguably considered most interestingly by Chomsky, who reviews the “ugly example” of the assault on academic freedom represented by DePaul University denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein, a Holocaust scholar, in the first decade of this century. The university’s decision was endorsed by another liberal Jewish academic, the legal scholar Alan Dershowitz – who was, coincidentally, back in the news the week before January’s Paris attacks because of his association with Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein, the registered sex offender in the US.

This collection’s final essay by Jonathan Cole, Stephen Cole and Christopher Weiss details their fascinating survey of Columbia University academics’ views of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The results of their study show how varied these opinions are, although broadly speaking women tend to be more politically liberal than men. The survey questions, set out in an appendix, focus on 14 hypothetical political and administrative “situations” whose complexity speaks volumes about the extent to which problematic higher education issues are interwoven with the wider political and social power structures of society.

Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?

Edited by Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole
Columbia University Press, 448pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780231168809 and 1538794 (e-book)
Published 10 February 2015

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