i dream of being possible

A follow up on Academic Freedom & Librarians

A short while ago, I after I posted my thing on Academic Librarians and Tenure, @adr made this comment on twitter:

you are conflating academic freedom and tenure. I have academic freedom, but not tenure. AF is super important, tenure less so.

While my equivocation between tenure and academic freedom was done without much thought, perhaps I can be forgiven when most arguments in favour of tenure include this as a central premise:

I believe tenure provides academic freedom, enables faculty governance, and requires professional responsibility. Tenure confers the right and authority to express our views, even when they are unpopular, without undue fear of administrative reprisal. Academic freedom applies in the classroom, in research or print, and during faculty deliberations. Along with these rights, we incur substantial obligations to participate actively in faculty governance, we accept accountability for our academic behavior, and we agree to conduct and review ourselves with professional responsibility.

I should mention that I’m… somewhat agnostic about the value of tenure as it concerns research and teaching faculty. This has been a continuing debate that I don’t pay much attention to, since I don’t have any real stake in it1.

The case for academic librarians is different. I wrote:

What need do I have for academic freedom?

And I think the question is worth exploring. The most basic reason I wrote this line was because, well, I’m not an academic. So. What need do I have for academic freedom?

Only two years ago, it appears that Canadian institutions adopted a new statement on academic freedom:

Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment. Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding.

In teaching, academic freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn. In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge. Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship.

Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.

This is likely the most idealistic understanding of academic freedom and why it might be important. It also answers one question I had, which was how academic freedom is related to freedom of speech. The last paragraph here indicates that we, indeed, should understand it as a term/freedom that is more limited in scope than freedom of speech. Moreover, it’s coherence as a value/concept in academia rests on a larger, state supported right to free speech.

How do librarians fit into this? The general perception of the roles of librarians and libraries on the campus is that we support research and researchers, we are part of the ‘institution’ that supports the ability for scholars to exercise their academic freedoms. This would mean, especially given the implications of this statement, that academic librarians do require academic freedom, as agents of the institution. And in our role disseminating knowledge and understanding.

As I’m looking over this statement, I suddenly realise that, yes, I actually think that academic freedom is an absurd concept and, worryingly, both elitist and dangerous in our current educational climate.

Consider the following:

  1. The disappearance of tenure and the rise of instructors

  2. The corporatisation of higher education – or a more polemic article on it.


  1. “Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities”


If tenure is largely about protecting academic freedom2. But there are fewer and fewer tenured profs and academic freedom rests on institutions that are increasingly motivated by profit, wither goes academic freedom?

What does it mean, substantively and in practise, today?

In many ways this statement, and the general equivocation of academic freedom and tenure, really places us in a position where we passively accept academic freedom via the largess of benevolent institutions. This, I don’t think, is a situation that we should be in (even if this framing is largely theoretical and not how things play out in practise). Particularly not when we appear to be reaching a point where instead of academics being the institution, there is the institution and the academics.

Then there is the elitism. In my searches for this post I came upon the example of Philippe Rushton, who decided, in the late 80s, that biological racism was a project worth taking up again3. For obvious reasons, there were protests and the like. And he was (as the writer of this article thought) rightly protect by academic freedom:

At the time, though I was still new to academics, it seemed to me that the matter of whether Rushton’s work had scientific value was a matter for psychologists and other experts to debate. It wasn’t for non-experts to judge whether his research stood up to the standards of his discipline.4

This? Is elitism. And not in a good way. Only experts (his ‘peers’) are able to judge whether or not a mode of racism that has hundreds of years of history of not only being wrong, but of actually harming many people? This is where we tend to loose your average person in arguments for academic freedom.

[Okay, there has been a long break in my writing this post and between writing the above and finishing it now, I had a great chat with @lisaslo about academic freedom. And I do have a better grasp why the narrower sense of freedom of speech might be necessary in a research setting.

However, my railing against elitism here is not about whether or not there is a legitimate case for academic freedom, but about how this often plays out in popular settings as one of the main reasons that the ‘public’ for whom we are putatively advancing knowledge for or who is allegedly to benefit from academic work, is that the jargon term of ‘academic freedom’ has come to represent the institutional defense of people like Philippe Rushton, Satoshi Kanazawa, and so on but… strangely absent in a lot of the reporting and rhetoric surrounding EMP and Dale Askey.

In a way… this actually confirms my suspicion that – somewhat accounting for the fact that Rushton and Kanazawa were both advancing spurious scientific ‘theories’ while Askey was decidedly not – I wonder how much of a role framing Askey’s situation as a matter of free speech rather than academic freedom played in his gaining a fair amount of public support. Despite the fact that Askey’s situation is a far better example of why academic freedom is necessary.

Nonetheless, my points above regarding the shrinking of tenure and the corporitisation are, I think, a good reason why ‘academic freedom’ might be an empty concept at this point and better replaced with a notion of free speech that is supported by unions (i.e., the workers themselves) rather than relying on the extremely dubious integrity of institutions and administration.

This economic notion is, I think key for reversing and managing a different and related issue surrounding academic freedom and how it has ceased functioning in ways that actually make sense.

Note the first line of the statement quoted above:

Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment.

When academic promotion has become increasingly tied to notions of productivity as evidenced by quantity, how are we supposed to understand the freedom to conduct research in an academic environment? Particularly for, say, the humanities where publishing monographs has often been the goal but, what are we to do with a tenure track history prof who would much rather spend 3-4 years creating and writing a potentially seminal monograph, instead of trying to churn out 1,2,3,4+ articles a year and in their spare time try to write the monograph. Or say, philosophy. Our current academic climate has no room for a scholar like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who – by today’s standards – would probably be a failed academic and likely never have advanced within the academy. I mean, he published one book that took him about seven years to write. Would Cambridge hire him today?]

  1. Other than feeling that the way that tenure positions are disappearing in favour of non-unionised (or even unionised), contract/sessional/temporary/adjunct positions that don’t pay well and provide little stability or protection is a shitty trend that I’m decidedly against

  2. Which gives the general, if wrong, impression that only tenured profs have academic freedom. 

  3. He even gets a mention in the Wikipedia article on scientific racism. I encourage people to take a peek at the Wiki article ‘cause you can see how scientific racism contributed to awesome things like genocide, colonisation, and enslavement. 

  4. I really love it when people prove my point so easily.