Thomas Docherty on academic freedom

Managerial fundamentalism has taken hold in universities, with scholars viewed as resources that must be controlled, argues the Warwick scholar

December 4, 2014

The modern university is, in some ways, always at war; and one contemporary battle in that war is for the maintenance of academic freedom

The concept of academic freedom is a product of the modern era. Its exercise is usually considered in terms of the questioning of received wisdom within a discipline; and most non-academics might wonder why we get so concerned about it, thinking that we arrogantly consider ourselves deserving of special attention or privilege. However, the exercise of academic freedom is instrumental in determining political authority in societies. Through reasoned dialogue in which views are freely and honestly expressed, societies can establish informed democratic legitimacy. The scope of academic freedom reaches well beyond seminar rooms and laboratories. In that sense, it extends beyond discipline; and its value is diminished if it is circumscribed as merely a matter of academic procedures or protocols. It should be extended as widely as possible; yet, today, it is “managed” – managed, in fact, almost to death. The power of unconstrained knowledgeable dialogue is marginalised; and, potentially, democracy itself – based on authority given by free and open debate – is thereby weakened.

Pre-modern universities and societies found their governing authority in fundamentalist, absolutist forms of theology: in sacred, canonical texts. By contrast, modern and contemporary institutions, especially those funded by states and national governments, address expressly secular matters. In our everyday profane world, unlike a heaven-on-earth where all sing the same hymn, there are many conflicting voices, voices of probing and unsanctioned dissent. Modern governance aims to orchestrate that into a uniform harmony that obscures difference. In the 20th century, universities were harnessed to national war efforts. Wartime replaces the certainties of theological fundamentalism with demands for unquestioned commitment to military fundamentalism: propaganda. A clear trajectory emerges: from pre-modern theological to modern military fundamentalisms; and now, the unquestionable verities of contemporary market and managerial fundamentalism.

The spirit of many institutional values in the modern university has been determined by responses to international conflict. The Haldane principle of 1918 reasserted the priorities of academic decision-making over governmental prerogative after the military mobilisation of UK university research during the Great War. In 1944, the US GI Bill gave returning veterans access to universities, incidentally changing their demographic constituency and their demotic norms. In 1946, Karl Jaspers’ revised Idea of the University yielded a de-Nazified German institution, with academic freedom re-established by wedding teaching to non-partisan research. Conflicts and protests over Vietnam reconfigured universities in the US and Europe, making non-deferential questioning of establishment authority a new cultural value. During the Cold War, President Eisenhower warned that the military-industrial complex threatened free academic enquiry, hijacking science and the university by aligning them with the demands of military power and money. Post-9/11 anxieties produced new protocols for academic conduct, specifically related to alleged campus radicalisation. The modern university is, in some ways, always at war; and one contemporary battle in that war is for the maintenance of academic freedom.

Legitimate authority, for any government, is challenged directly by two fundamental things: war, either international or civil; and widening participation in the franchise, or free-speaking democracy. Real questions emerge when governing bodies appear to be at war with those they govern: out-of-touch Westminster elites who ignore electorates; managers too distanced from those they manage.

Militarisation requires unquestioned compliance with hierarchical authority; but academic freedom thrives on scepticism, on disagreement. In short, academic freedom threatens managed uniformity; and thus threatens any power that assumes an authoritarian and complacent capacity to behave with impunity. In our times, however, the absolutes of God or of presidents have become subject to questioning. Consequently, both theological and military fundamentalisms have been dislodged in enlightened thinking; but we now have to negotiate a new and subtler force – “managerial fundamentalism” – which is the latest threat to free expression, or disagreement, in the university and beyond.

A creeping incremental assault on academic freedom threatens not just what can be spoken aloud, but also what it is permissible to think: thought itself is to be subjected to management, so that its critical power is neutered or constrained. We may still make controversial statements; but we cannot be permitted actually to behave in accordance with them or to live according to moral principles that diverge from accepted norms. Academic integrity – indeed the ethical conduct of the university itself – is thereby threatened.

Carl von Clausewitz told us that war constitutes a mode of politics, and one political purpose of war is the control of minds. Recent warfare amply validates his observation that, “When we speak of destroying the enemy’s forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must also be considered.” In short, don’t stop at material superiority, but crush the spirit too – especially if it is nonconformist.

Feature illustration (4 December 2014)

The history of some high-profile cases illustrates the incremental deepening of the assault on academic freedom. In 1900, Jane Stanford fired Edward Ross from his post in Stanford University. Ross (whose racist views were not directly the issue) had made statements in class critical of the railroad companies in which Mrs Stanford had financial interests, interests that helped to fund Stanford University. It was as a direct result of the controversy surrounding this and similar cases that the American Association of University Professors drafted its 1915 Declaration of Principles governing academic freedom. That document stresses the teacher’s “independence of thought and utterance”, arguing that it must be disengaged from pecuniary profit or motive. Further, “the responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself”; and faculty “are the appointees, but not in any proper sense the employees”, of university trustees or boards.

Propositions such as these have been systematically weakened, essentially by being subjected to the priorities of management. Recently, in Canada’s University of Saskatchewan, the dean of the public health faculty, Robert Buckingham, was summarily dismissed and escorted from campus by security in a bizarre parody of a third-rate TV police drama. His crime? He wrote “The Silence of the Deans”, a paper critical of Saskatchewan management’s planning, a crime aggravated when he published it locally – against management strictures committing him to silence. Management’s plan was motivated by money, pecuniary profit: “reallocating resources for future success” – which means cuts and job losses in hopes of eventually enhancing league-table reputation. Although Buckingham was later reinstated, the controversy revealed the limits to which management would go to enforce conformity by the managerial silencing of disagreement.

Steven Salaita was fired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – two weeks before he had even begun working but months after he had been appointed – because the president there found that the language of some tweets on his Twitter account was “uncivil”. Perhaps she hasn’t read much classical literature. The argument advanced to justify the firing is that his Twitter account reveals an ethos (attitude or predisposition) that may possibly make some students uncomfortable in class. If reading Joyce, say, unsettles you, then Teacher is there to comfort you and make you feel that all’s well. The normative demands of our own National Student Survey endorse such views: “Be happy, don’t worry.”

This extends the assault on academic freedom surreptitiously yet significantly, for it constitutes an attack upon freedom of thought or upon one’s rights to have a specific attitude or mood towards the world. The logical extension of this is that academic colleagues and students cannot ever safely express an opinion at all, lest at some unspecified point that opinion is deemed to be “sensitive” or controversial, or its mode of expression deemed uncivil, potentially discomfiting to someone, somewhere, sometime.

By what right does a university management claim jurisdiction over civility? Civility is not a matter for senior management teams to determine, from ivory silos too often divorced from research, teaching, even the real world. Such matters are determined by whole societies, through debate and free discussion. Despite the casual language in which senior managers identify themselves as “the university”, a university is a community of scholars and students living within a social community; and that whole community rightly has a say in determining moral values.

That entails democratic participation in governance, not prescription from above; and for that to flourish, we need academic freedom. Otherwise, we have the simple imposition of top-down hierarchical management; and our duty is no longer to the public but to carrying out orders unquestioningly – and also to comport ourselves while doing so in some managerially approved fashion: shiny, happy people. While civility is indeed desirable, its alleged lack cannot become a reason for summarily dismissing a point of view – or those who hold it. If one’s disposition – the very tendency of one’s thought – can be so policed by university management that it constitutes grounds for firing, then academic and civic freedoms are all but lost.

What is more uncivilised than modern management-speak, whose plethora of linguistic abstractions and acronyms are designed to protect management from scrutiny, ensuring that it acts with impunity at all times, safe within its own codes and protocols? “Strategic planning”, for example, often means “restructuring”, which in turn means “lots of you are fired”. This is rude, barbaric incivility: the speaker, through the ostensibly courteous euphemism, evades his responsibility for destroying careers and livelihoods, in the service of money.

Feature illustration (4 December 2014)

If one’s disposition can be so policed by management that it constitutes grounds for firing, then academic and civic freedoms are all but lost

Many more serious cases worldwide involve the straightforward jailing or torture of academics in authoritarian regimes. Never jailed for loudly (or silently) endorsing university management or social orthodoxy, however unsavoury, they are victimised only when their views, expressed in public or in private, threaten power. Management’s preferred presentation of the university brand to the world is always conformist: “whatever you say, say nothing”, Silence the Deans, smile benignly. Dissenting thought and expression become secular blasphemies. However, if thought manifests its autonomy precisely by the extent that it questions received wisdom, it follows that political incarceration is but the extreme form of a model that is elsewhere applied with the greater subtleties of managerial fundamentalism.

Closer to home, David Browne, a lawyer with SGH Martineau (which boasts a large university-management client base), attracted controversy with his now infamous blog, advising university clients that “outspoken opinion” threatens “brand-reputation” and must be curtailed. In the resulting Twitter-storm, the SGH Martineau brand itself was very obviously damaged. Did Browne sack himself? Well, as Eliza Doolittle rudely said, “Not bloody likely.” What matters is not “being outspoken”; what matters is that, if you speak, you must parrot the approved and accepted authority and lexicon of your institution, or alternatively the consensual views of a public opinion that is itself managed by a plutocratic Establishment, whose priorities are often too slavishly accepted as normative.

Academic freedom is increasingly menaced by demands for managerial ventriloquism: the puppet, sitting on the boss’s knee or close to his office, speaks with his master’s voice in the interests of the brand’s commercial wealth. Called “corruption” elsewhere, this passes increasingly as smooth managerial operation, with academics and students walking the far-from-neutral corporate line. Characterised as civil or courteous, it actually institutionalises the obsequious courtship of unwarranted power.

Institutional governance learns from political government, and mimics it. Just as Westminster views electorates as people to be managed and not represented, so also the same prevailing cynical predisposition views academics and students as recalcitrant human resources whose thoughts and actions must be contained. Modernisation and reform are predicated on the belief that everything can and must be managed: faculty, students, research, learning, debate, teaching, even experience itself. The possibilities for participation in democratic change are denied, because everything, including dissent, is managed and circumscribed to keep existing authority in power. Institutionally, it’s called “change-management”. We are perilously close to a position where the unquestioned power of management is declaring war on the academic community, the university, itself: civil war in academia.

During the English Civil War in 1644, Milton’s Areopagitica presented free expression as a brake on unrestricted power. Today, power lies in money; and its symbolic form lies in the unearned authority of oligarchical or privileged elites. For these, money means freedom; and freedom, thus eviscerated of any moral quality, equates simply with wealth. Hence institutions ape corporate business and senior managers ape extravagantly paid CEOs. When money means freedom, then, logically, the demand on thinking itself – that raison d’être of the university institution – is that it must justify the existing power of wealth. A university sector that endorses this has fallen into decadence and forgotten the morality – the ethos, the ethics – properly demanded by the very act of thinking.

At the conclusion of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is not enough that Winston simply says he loves Big Brother: the love must be real. “You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston…It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world.” Such corporate managerial fundamentalism demands complete moral adherence to brand-think norms. Opinion itself now constitutes just such a flaw in managed institutions.

If democracy is to survive our emergent authoritarianisms, academic freedom must be sustained. The dignity of thinking might just be more important than economic profiteering.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.