On Academic Freedom

The suspended USS strike in UK HEIs has thrown up some interesting debates around the idea of academic freedom, a principle not very strongly institutionalised in British Universities (See https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017).

For example, my own institution, just by way of example you understand, has an academic freedom protocol which is structured around the idea that academic freedom is a ‘right’ that is conditional on certain ‘responsibilities’. Of course, academic freedom is NOT dependent on exercising responsibility at all – anyone who links rights and responsibilities together in this way doesn’t understand the concept of rights. Academic freedom is not a special right that accrues to certain types of people (academics). It’s a principle that arises from the constitutive relation between the idea of a University as an institution committed to free, open ended inquiry AND the fact that this type of inquiry does, indeed, need to be institutionalised in organisational form. That’s an idea you can trace way back, to Kant and others.

The principle of academic freedom is not the same as the right of free speech, which classically arise from threats from the state [& NOT unruly student protesters with post-it notes]. But like any notion of freedom, it is a relational concept. And the primary source of the un-freedom to which principles of academic freedom are meant to act as protection is the University itself. That is, academic freedom is a response to the ever present possibility that the organisation of the diverse set of practices by which Universities have to be funded, managed, and sustained as institutions capable of supporting their primary purpose (supporting free, open ended inquiry) might come to actually impinge upon and undermine the very conditions of possibility of free, open ended inquiry.

I’m not being melodramatic, just pointing out what the genealogy of the idea of academic freedom shows us.

If you think of academic freedom in this way, then you can begin to see how all sorts of recent events in UK HEIs might represent at least serious threats to academic freedom, if not its actually realised diminution. Take, again just by way of example you understand, what appears to be a rather widespread practice of Universities monitoring and trying to regulate the social media activity of academic staff members. This habit, shall we call it, is one effect of Universities importing models of corporate ‘messaging’ into their internal and external communications strategies, allied to wider changes to personnel management and University strategising. The primary imperative of University communications strategies, these days, is to promote and protect the ‘brand’ and reputation of a given University in relation to that of its ‘competitors‘ (yes, that really is how other Universities are described in this world). If you look at academics’ social media activity from the perspective of a standard model of corporate communications – and look upon academics as simply employees – then this activity is viewed either (in a good light) as contributing positively to the brand, or (in a bad light) as potentially threatening the reputation of the University. Because from this perspective, ‘The University’ has taken on a life of its own separate and distinct from the activities of its members, now seen as mere employees.

What seems difficult for HEI management systems to acknowledge is the validity of using social media as a medium for the expression of criticism of the ordinary features of University practices, that is, as an expression of a basic aspect of the life of a University as a self-governing community of scholars. Here we have, then, a perfect example of that constitutive paradox from whence the principle of academic freedom arises – a practice meant to enhance the capacity of the University to function properly ends up threatening to undermine the integrity of free, open ended inquiry. Of course, one might wonder why it never occurs to anyone that gaining a reputation for heavy-handed surveillance of ordinary intellectual debate is not necessarily the kind of brand identity a University would want to be associated with.

Just saying.

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