Academics must resist the creeping degradation of academic freedom

Unless an academic is exceptionally bloody-minded, they will eventually take the path of least resistance, which is subtle erosion in action, says Arif Ahmed

Arif Ahmed's avatar
University of Cambridge
2 May 2022
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Hand holding megaphone to signify academic freedom

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Descartes called common sense the most fairly distributed thing in the world: everyone thinks that they have plenty of it but that everyone else is lacking. With academic freedom it is the other way round. I’ve lost count of colleagues who tell me: “Of course, there is no serious threat to academic freedom in this country. It’s been made up by the Daily Mail so that a few bigoted dons can carry on being racists.” Then from the same person, five minutes (or days) later: “Everyone knows that what Israel is doing to Gaza is criminal – but these days you could never say that out loud.”

John Keats or F. Scott Fitzgerald defined a superior mind as one that could consider incompatible ideas at the same time, but maybe “superior” (or “mind”) isn’t the right word for someone who manages not only to believe but to assert both in practically the same breath.

Keats or Fitzgerald might have added that a working mind should see what is staring it in the face. And what is staring us (academics) in the face is the ongoing metamorphosis of university life from wonderland to Kafka-land. Our core activities (note to HR: these are teaching and research) face increasing surveillance and control by administrators and academics who have forgotten, if they ever knew, that if they cannot be conducted freely, then they cannot be pursued at all.

Freedom – absence of external control – is one thing, but its compromise or extinction takes many forms. Here and now (UK academia, 2015-present) they include: (a) cancellation of speakers and events; (b) internal and (c) external regulation of lawful speech; (d) compulsory, ideologically loaded training; (e) distorting the syllabus to “respect religious sensitivities”; (f) institutions taking political sides; (g) a university facing threats of protest and violence cancelling (rather than protecting) an invited speaker; and many more.

Despite that list, which I could extend indefinitely, Britain clearly isn’t a world leader in the suppressing-academic-freedom business, not when compared to various dictatorships. Still, we are certainly “punching above our weight”, as trade ministers and diplomats used to say; thanks to these and other innovations, we rank lower for academic freedom than any EU country except Estonia according to a 2017 UCU study.

But the threat is not always visible because it isn’t always dramatic. A widespread but humdrum variant on (e) is what you might call “curriculum pressure”. It isn’t that you are forced to teach a particular syllabus. Rather, the costs of not teaching some things – in time, trouble and risk – are higher than the costs of teaching them; and these costs all push in the same direction.

Administrators recently wrote to my faculty raising 17 questions from students about how we are “decolonising” and “diversifying” the syllabus. Does the assessment of your course provide students an opportunity to write on issues relating to race, gender and social injustice? What possibilities do you see for integrating a decolonial agenda with technical/formalist/skills-based aspects of your curriculum? And so on.

Students have the right to raise these questions. They could raise other questions too: whether, for example, our courses offer students an opportunity to write on freedom of the press or persecution by and of religious sects. Or, for that matter, who exactly Cambridge or its colleges think they are fooling when they repudiate every supposed relic of historic slavery while apparently selling themselves to a world leader in both genocide and modern slavery. These questions are strangely absent from any letter I or anyone I know ever got. Still, as I said, students have every right to ask about what does bother them.

The real trouble is the alacrity with which the university authorities pursue just these issues. If you teach, say, formal logic or counterpoint, you could – an honest teacher would – insist that this area of the syllabus has got nothing to do with “race, gender and social injustice”. But saying that, and justifying it, in 17, or 117, different ways, wherever these questions arise – and nowadays that means everywhere – would inevitably consume energy, goodwill, patience and time.

And if you are an academic in Britain today, quite possibly on a short-term contract and struggling to teach, keep up with the literature, publish and deal with the myriad administrative demands, well, if you are anything like my colleagues, then you might have plenty of energy and patience and goodwill – though, of course, these reserves are exhaustible – but what you don’t have is time.

Here, then, is a mild but wearing pressure that erodes our freedom rather than breaking it. As Tocqueville wrote of something similar: “[I]t does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

For unless you are exceptionally bloody-minded, you will eventually take the path of least resistance. And the result is that, one after another, syllabuses are being pushed towards content that the people teaching them do not want.

Some of them, anyway. Clearly, others would go further. Here is the blurb for a recent conference in my field:

“Current discussions on epistemic decolonisation acknowledge the need to reflect on the intrinsic whiteness, colonial legacies and power imbalances implicit in knowledge production practices in the field of philosophy of science.”

Well, no, we don’t need to reflect on the “intrinsic whiteness” of “knowledge production practices” in philosophy of science, because philosophy of science isn’t intrinsically white. Of course it doesn’t bother me – how could it? – that someone thinks it is. What is (in trendy parlance) “problematic” is that a university might (a) see fit to pressure my teaching to fit that view and (b) be, or pretend to be, completely oblivious of what that means for academic freedom.

What it means for us is the creeping destruction of our intellectual independence. And for any academic, resisting that process –  onerous as it may be – is something close to a professional obligation. 

Arif Ahmed is professor of philosophy (Grade 11) at the University of Cambridge and a long-time campaigner for freedom of speech. He was educated at Oxford and Sussex and has held positions at the University of Birmingham, the University of Sydney, the Australian National University and MIT. The views presented here are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of his employers.

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