The limits on – and limitations of – academic freedom in US universities has come under scrutiny in a new book on “academic repression and scholarly dissent”.
Sunaina Maira is now professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis. She has been “involved for many years in the anti-war movement, with civil rights and immigrant rights, with organising for the Palestine Solidarity movement”.
Yet before she gained tenure in 2003, she said, “others thought I should be careful about what I said – I got that advice on numerous occasions. But I had a different philosophy: I was an academic so that I could speak freely about issues I thought were significant socially and politically.”
Particularly since 9/11, Professor Maira has come across many examples of scholars “subjected to regimes of censorship and harassment and stigmatisation because they have been critical of US foreign policy”, particularly in relation to Israel and Palestine. This has led her to reflect on “the boundaries that are permissible for activist scholars” and the limitations of “using the notion of academic freedom as a response”.
In reflecting on these themes, Professor Maira joined forces with Piya Chatterjee, Backstrand chair and professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Scripps College, in Claremont, California. Their new edited collection, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, analyses what they see as a number of linked trends.
“The notion, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, of the academic as critical of the state,” Professor Maira said, “is something that has been challenged in ‘the culture wars’. We argue that these wars are linked to overseas military intervention…and also to race and class wars in the US. We use examples of protests after budget crises and the ways they were suppressed. I am myself at ‘the pepper-spray university’, where students were subject to spraying by chemical weapons because of a peaceful protest about tuition [fee] hikes. We wanted to connect the dots.”
So what is the problem with the ideal of “academic freedom”? Professor Maira acknowledged that it represents “a minimum line of defence for many scholars under attack”.
She defended the rights of people to say things she passionately disagrees with: “When David Horowitz [a leading campaigner against what he sees as ‘leftist indoctrination’ in universities] tried to organise an Islamofascism Awareness Week on our campus, our position as progressive faculty was not that we wanted the event to be shut down; we actually thought it would be better if he came and we publicly challenged him. So we organised a series of events and critiqued the concept of ‘Islamofascism’ and showed why it is a racist concept and part of a neo-conservative discourse and the war on terror.”
Yet Professor Maira also believes that “academic freedom… is sometimes used to suppress other kinds of freedom”, since it lacks a commitment to “political, racial or economic justice”.
“David Horowitz’s Bill of Academic Rights [claims to defend] right-wing students whose rights are supposedly being suppressed. That is a campaign being waged around the concept of ‘academic freedom’. It’s not necessarily a useful concept for academics who want to be critical of the status quo or the state.”