Academics ‘need new rights to challenge university governance’

After incidents on US campuses where students have called for scholars’ dismissal, professor sees need to update concept of academic freedom

June 23, 2017
People protest on February 1, 2017 in Berkeley, California. A speech by controversial Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley, was cancelled after protesters and police engaged in violent skirmishes
Source: Getty
Campus clash: protests erupted at the University of California, Berkeley over a planned speech by a right-wing media figure

Academics need new protections so that they can challenge university governance, a University of California, Los Angeles professor has argued, following a series of incidents in the US where faculty have faced calls for their dismissal for questioning institutional policies they see as threatening free speech.

Rogers Brubaker, a sociology professor at UCLA and a writer on identity politics, pointed to incidents including a recent flare-up at Evergreen State College in Washington state, where a faculty member was verbally abused by students after he objected to a proposal for white students to leave campus for a day, and others stay, with both groups attending workshops on race and equality.

Incidents like these represented a “clash between liberals and the identitarian left”, he argued at a conference on academic freedom at the Central European University in Budapest – itself threatened with closure by a new law from the Hungarian government – on 22 June.

Delegates debated a litany of perceived challenges to academic freedom, from repressive governments in Turkey and Hungary to “alt-left” students on US campuses.

Universities were becoming “disciplinary” institutions to produce “docile subjects” through “anticipatory self-censorship”, Professor Brubaker argued, and this tendency meant that scholars needed new rights to ensure they could question university governance, in addition to their traditional freedoms over research and teaching.

The conference also heard from Allison Stanger, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont, who in March suffered concussion after being attacked by protesters when she had moderated a talk from the controversial conservative writer Charles Murray.

“Why did this happen in the USA, the land of the free?” she asked. The election of Donald Trump had initiated an “overreaction” among some students, and Dr Murray became a “lightning rod” for this anger, she said. Meanwhile, some faculty members had “cheered on” the student protesters, but had not encouraged them to read any of Dr Murray’s work, she added. And, finally, “some students believe shutting down speech is a route to social justice, and some faculty share that view”.

“We have an alt-left as well as an alt-right”, she claimed, with “extreme left and extreme right” both now attacking “liberalism itself”.

But Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York, challenged delegates to ask why some students and faculty on the “alt-left” had come to believe freedom of speech was merely an “instrument of power” for those in charge. Inequality, racism, poverty and unemployment all persisted and, despite freedom of speech, “somehow the wrong ideas always win...nothing changes”.

Although highly critical of this tendency on campus – arguing that it was a “new version” of previous communist and fascist attacks on liberalism – Professor Botstein also claimed that academics who still believed in freedom of speech needed a “sympathetic ear” as to why younger faculty and students “don't see what we see”.

Delegates also discussed threats to academic freedom from repressive governments, with Nirmala Rao, vice-chancellor of Bangladesh’s Asian University for Women, warning that there had been a “dramatic decrease in faculty autonomy” on the Indian subcontinent.

Since 2014, when the government of Narendra Modi took office in India, books on Hinduism had been banished from the classroom, and academics had grown afraid of pro-government student groups on campus, she said.

“In the worst cases, academics are harassed, jailed or physically harmed,” she added.

Meanwhile in Turkey the mood was one of “impossibility, frustration and desperation” after thousands of academics had been dismissed since an attempted coup last summer, and some prevented from leaving the country to seek jobs abroad, said Ayşe Kadıoğlu, a professor of political science at Sabancı University, Istanbul.

Yet despite these threats from states – including in Hungary – they remained the only institutions that can guarantee universities’ autonomy, said Liviu Matei, provost of the Central European University. The European Union, Hungarian civil society and international law had so far failed to protect CEU, he said, and so “the key is in the hand of the state”.

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