Rethinking Academic Freedom for a Turbulent Time in History

The denial of academic freedom could be the harbinger of curbs on intellectual freedom and other freedoms guaranteed in a democracy.

Disagreement, dissent and difference (in attitude, behaviour, ideologies) are constituents of the very project of academia, where people are taught to think in particular ways. The war on teachers, researchers and instructors – most recently in the Goa University case – for believing in ideologies or holding beliefs that are in opposition to that of the government in power, the administrator(s) governing the institution and even the student populace, strikes at the root of what we understand as ‘academic freedom’.

Where do the threats to academic freedom come from?

The first and most brazen mode is state interference. Constraints placed on research subjects, pedagogy, curriculum and the creation of increasing regulatory frameworks are hem in the academic institution. But alongside this, we have fringe group vigilantism — and in many cases, this is with the tacit/covert endorsement of the state apparatus — that sets the terms for academia.

An indirect mode of interference also arises in the form of the creation of the discourse of victimhood within student and faculty politics. Teaching is coterminous with evaluation, adjudication and criticism (in the sense of comments and suggestions on the work being assessed), and a culture where this component of pedagogy is increasingly interpreted as the victimisation of the pupils and all evaluative comments as demoralising or unwarranted, erodes the foundations of the profession too.

Finally, the corporatisation of the university and real or constructed fiscal crises enable administrators, regulatory authorities and the state to place curbs on what can be taught and how. The fiscal angle to curbs on academic freedom – resulting, in many cases, in an overreliance on contractual faculty who lead extremely uncertain professional lives because they have no tenure – has become serious enough for the Journal of Academic Freedom to propose a special issue around questions such as,

“What does it mean to practice academic freedom during a time of austerity? … How do practices of academic freedom respond to the challenges of austerity?”

File photo of police on the campus of Delhi University. Credit: jay Pandya/Flickr CC 2.0

A brief history of the debate

In the case of India’s ancient systems of learning, Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian has demonstrated the freedom of dialogue and conversation among (even) oppositional ideological and philosophical positions.

The debates around academic freedom go back a long way in the Euro-American context. As early as the 1880s, Andrew West, the first dean of the Graduate School, Princeton University, had published What is Academic Freedom?’ to oppose policies being instituted at Harvard. West argued that a dilution of training for the students (in Harvard’s case, the proposal West was opposing was making Greek and Latin ‘optional’ rather than ‘essential’ for a degree: for West, this meant the loss of ‘the very essentials of high preparation’) in the name of ‘academic freedom’. West also emphasised moral education, listing diligence, candour, attentiveness, patience, perseverance, among others, as qualities an educational institution should impart to the student.

Also read: India Registers Low ‘Academic Freedom Index’ Score in New International Report

In 1915, the respected American Association of University Professors (AAUP), through its Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, formulated what came to be known as the 1915 Declaration of Principles, restated in 1940 as the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The 1940 statement opened with a clear emphasis on both teaching and learning, but carefully conjoined the freedom of teachers with the duties of teachers:

“The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.”

The statement pronounced three basic principles: that teachers “are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”, they are “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject” and, because teachers are “citizens, members of a learned profession”, “when they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations”.

What this unsatisfactory brief history also demonstrates is that academic freedom to speak one’s mind, to express one’s views no matter controversial and ‘deviant’, comes with a huge responsibility.

Academic freedom and responsibility

Academic freedom entails obligations. Among the latter, the AAUP statement asked that the teachers,

“…should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

Cary Nelson, the author of No University is an Island, is categorical that with great academic freedom comes great academic and professorial responsibility. A refusal to adhere to an institution’s regulations or the principles of the profession, objections to sanctions (through due process) imposed for incompetence at one’s professional tasks and poor performance (including bad teaching or not attending to assigned work), denying the right of speech to anyone, scientific and professional misconduct (including plagiarism, fraud) cannot be treated as assertions of a faculty’s academic freedom. One can, if one chooses, object to the rules and regulations laid down by the institution or regulatory authority if he/she deems them unfair, illegal or unethical, but they are still bound to obey these regulations, notes Nelson elsewhere.

Also read: ‘Terrorism’ Charge a Lesson for Jamia Students that Democratic Protest Carries Heavy Cost

Academic freedom cannot also be taken as a reason to impose value systems on the audience (students, colleagues). Nelson puts it this way: “There are no doubt faculty members who abuse their students politically.”

From a more conservative position, Stanley Fish who provoked a huge response with his diatribe on academic activism in Save the World On Your Own Time said in his usual acerbic fashion: “Those magic phrases—academic freedom and free speech are what provide an alibi for professors who cannot tell the difference between a soapbox and a teacher’s podium.”

While Fish may have a point, the larger question of the distinction between scholarship and polemic is extremely complicated. Nelson argues that the politicisation of scholarship being inevitable (it may be noted that Nelson is a teacher of English!) “it is useful … for faculty to let their colleagues know what their pedagogical philosophy and personal guidelines are, including their position on political speech in the classroom”.

These tensions that Fish and Nelson point to are undoubtedly more visible and tangible in the Humanities and Social Sciences where political ‘readings’ are now more or less the norm, and could possibly be deemed to be what Nelson terms ‘political abuse’ of students. In turn, these produce as official responses, measures that Penn State and other universities have put in place: “investigative procedures for what students perceive as one-sided classroom advocacy.”

Nelson proposes that there is a line between suggestions for ethical conduct and enforceable regulations in cases such as political debates or political readings in the classroom. The former is undoubtedly a code of conduct that demands from the person in authority — the teacher — a more nuanced and judicious presentation of political debates and a willingness to concede a different political stance. This code of conduct is clearly a question of responsibility that accrues with academic freedom.

Why academic freedom?

There are the following justifications offered for academic freedom (academic freedom, let us note, is not self-evident):

  • teaching, thinking and research are quests for truth and as such must be untrammelled, since truth is a higher goal for the common good;
  • there should be a democracy of ideas so that the community can grow democratically, assuming that democracy is a goal everyone aspires to (there could be students and faculty who prefer totalitarianism);
  • academic instruction is geared towards the making of ‘whole’ humans, through the enlarging of moral and rational/intellectual faculties so that the human will be intellectually free and autonomous.

The third, it would seem, is more crucial in our present climate. The growth of the individual into a citizen capable of making informed choices requires that the student be exposed to multiple points of view (let us concede, however, that teachers, whether of ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ persuasions, rarely reach this level, since most of us teach from our own ideological silos alone).

That is, democracy which hinges on informed choice and decision-making, requires a larger variety of ideas and intellectual choices, whether it is secularism or theocracy, cultural globalisation or nativism, so as to prepare the student to assert choice later. Political democracy is preceded by and is prepared for by a democracy of ideas.

If we respect the autonomous individual with a sense of duty and responsibility, then the classroom is a site where the first moves towards intellectual autonomy have to be forged. Speaking from my own silo of literary studies, this demands, of course, an exposure via teaching and reading a wide variety of texts, demonstrating how texts encode politics, both oppressive and emancipatory. All reading is risk-taking. The languages of the humanities, its critical principles and approaches have remained at the root of democracy. When practices of reading, speaking and writing texts are at risk, freedom itself is at risk.

Representative image of university students. Credit: PTI

Difference, dissent, and the ‘differend’

The insistence on plural views that one sees in debates on academic freedom when translated means that, by definition, students in the class must be encouraged to have different views, even when these are emphatically not plural, secular, multicultural and cosmopolitan. That said, academic freedom cannot mean an insistence that every student must develop a plural point of view: the student, or colleague, is as entitled to a conservative point of view as another who is cosmopolitan and pluralist (Roger Scruton’s writings come to mind here).

The crisis of academic freedom is primarily over the right to interpret and around regimens of interpretation. A difference of political views that determines how we read, speak, write and therefore teach, listen, discuss and debate could be dissensual rather than consensual. Further, the same set of rules of interpretation could be used to argue for or against, to indict an idea/text/author or to praise/validate her. When reading and teaching, we move from, or link, one element of a text or phrase to another and then another, thereby crafting an interpretation which is the sum total of the constituent parts.

Also read: Why the University and Its Questions Worry the State

How we make these links — for example, moving from the image of a slave in a 16th-century European text or a piece of historical evidence about minstrelsy in the New World plantations to a larger discourse on slavery – is the making of both interpretation and politics (what counts as evidence or fact is itself a matter of which interpretive regimen we employ at that moment.) This process of linking may work to silence another linkage — where, to use the above example, the image of the slave or the historical evidence could also be employed to demonstrate the proud and happy tradition of the African peoples rather than focus on a racialised economy — and the creation of hegemonic discourses.

The crisis of academic freedom here would then be the domination of one interpretation over another, and this is a crisis that is irresolvable for we have reached what the philosopher would term a differend.  Jean-François Lyotard writes:

…a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both of the arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy. However, applying a single rule of judgement to both in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule).

Lyotard is addressing the irreconcilable regimes of interpretation (what he terms ‘phrase regimens’). The undeniable nature of multiple and incompatible registers of interpretation is the crisis of academic freedom because the legitimacy of one interpretation cannot be used to deny the legitimacy of another.

Academic freedom is the self-conscious, self-reflexive situating of these crises of interpretation but, where possible – and as teachers we admit that, given the constraints of time, the monster called the syllabus, among others, we rarely do this – enabling the different regimens to at least be enunciated, civilly, legitimately. Academic freedom is the context where the differend flourishes rather than stays concealed or averted.

The cultures of freedom

The statement, misattributed to Voltaire, by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (author of The Friends of Voltaire, 1906), that summarises the cultures of freedom, would be “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. The right to disagree is contextual, and this is the point: the cultures where disagreement is possible.

Liviu Andreescu in a 2009 essay in Studies in the Philosophy of Education points out that there could be a link between academic freedom and other basic freedoms, but believes this is an arguable point. Not so. Contra Andreescu, and following Martha Nussbaum among others, one could argue that academic freedom is a part of larger cultures of freedom.

Freedom is about play, the play of ideas, the play of interpretations. But play implies sovereign agency – freedom – to play. For this sovereignty to be possible – to be in play, so to speak – it requires a certain situation, for freedom only operates in contexts where sovereignty of action and thought is enabled:

If I am cautious about the word “freedom,” it is not because I subscribe to some mechanistic determinism. But this word often seems to me to be loaded with metaphysical presuppositions that confer on the subject or on consciousness—that is, an egological subject—a sovereign independence in relation to drives, calculation, economy, the machine. If freedom is an excess of play in the machine, an excess of every determinate machine, then I would militate for a recognition and respect for this freedom, but I prefer to avoid speaking of the subject’s freedom or the freedom of man.

The point here is freedom is inextricable from the ‘machine’ of drives, calculation and the social order. This machine is the context for the cultures of freedom.

The cultures of freedom argument positions the right to read, interpret, think and act alongside the more ‘material’ (assuming that intellectual work is not material!) freedoms. Academic freedom is not the dominant element in cultures of freedom but is an undeniable presence in them.

Also read: The War on Language in Universities is a War on Freedom

Therefore, the denial of academic freedom could be the harbinger of larger curbs on, first, intellectual freedom, and proceeding from this, curbs on other freedoms as well. If food security is a context to think of food rights, then intellectual security — to think and believe in even contradictory points of view and interpretive frames – ought to make us think of intellectual and academic (although they are not identical) rights as well.

Cultures of freedom is the right to diverse, dissensual modes of interpretation. Often, in such cultures, one encounters a fundamentalist, revanchist or rigid interpretive position. But, like in electoral democracies when sometimes such parties and people get elected, this cannot be the reason to reject or curb the cultures in toto. A philosopher comments on this risky democracy:

“…must a democracy leave free and in a position to exercise power those who risk mounting an assault on democratic freedoms and putting an end to democratic freedom in the name of democracy and of the majority that they might actually be able to rally round to their cause?… the worst enemies of democratic freedom can, by a plausible rhetorical simulacrum … present themselves as staunch democrats.”

If democracy accepts its self-criticism, its own perfectability, as this philosopher would argue, then so should academic freedom.

Until such time as we see academic freedom as a part and parcel of such cultures of freedom, one runs the risk of not seeing restraints placed on them as an incremental process of denying other freedoms too. Where the classroom and the university are free, democracy flourishes.

A republic requires first and foremost a republic of letters.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.