SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly 108:4, “Academic Freedom,” discusses the new issue and academic freedom.
When Grant Farred first approached me about a special issue of SAQ on academic freedom, we were both very concerned about all the recent instances where faculty had been harassed, intimidated, sued, and often fired as a direct result of their political statements. Like other editors and contributors to special issues on the subject (e.g., Social Text and Works and Days), we felt the current political situation had led to a dramatic increase in these instances while at the same time academic freedom protections were being eroded generally. As our discussions progressed we determined to keep the immediate political circumstances of individual faculty at the central core of the issue, as we have with the essays from Norman Finkelstein, Eric Cheyfitz, who has been centrally involved in the Ward Churchill case, and Cary Nelson, who as AAUP president has a remarkable knowledge across the spectrum of community colleges, colleges, and universities.
At the same time, however, I wanted to consider academic freedom issues in other contexts as well, as part of an attempt to develop a larger frame of reference for understanding. Ultimately I hoped to move toward some consideration of how and in what ways academic freedom might be understood as involving an effort to reinvent the public promise of higher education. Beyond its historical connections with the professional expertise of faculty, academic freedom would direct academic education toward becoming a means for human freedom and a central contributor to the liberation of both thought and labor.
Toward a larger frame of understanding, the essays in the issue raise a number of important questions. Academic freedom does have a specific history in the United States, and I thought it necessary to have some critical discussion of that history in our issue. As U.S. universities establish more and more branch campuses in other countries with different histories, however, faculty often encounter new and difficult circumstances altogether, as do individual faculty who travel for research and teaching purposes. Beyond the obvious sense in which political speech is by no means defined or protected in the same way everywhere, in each situation there is a whole complex of what might be called everyday political practices that must be negotiated. While the recent and much publicized political attacks in the United States have targeted individual faculty, it also seemed important to understand something more about the institutional conditions of academic freedom. As several of the authors here recognize, academic freedom is potentially an issue in any number of “routine” institutional practices such as tenure decisions, merit raises, and teaching assignments, all of which occur everyday with no publicity at all. In this institutional context I wondered whether it might not be useful to think in terms of disciplinary variables, that is, the way in which whole disciplines might be impacted in very different ways by academic freedom protections. Composition programs and departments, for example, are still often understood to be part of a “teaching” rather than a “research” discipline. How does that affect institutional decisions in ways that might have profound effects on the academic freedom of composition faculty?
Historically in the United States, academic freedom was always interconnected with assumptions about professional expertise and merit. As colleges and universities have become increasingly market driven over the last few decades, however, the recognition of merit in the form of tenure and the protections afforded by academic freedom have been represented in more and more situations as obsolete, no longer necessary. In a world where market payoffs determine value anyway, so the thinking goes, why bother with the cumbersome machinery and the long-term commitments required by academic freedom protections and tenure decisions? Although not nearly so visible as direct political attacks, such market imperatives have contributed enormously to a visible erosion of academic freedom in higher education. Any idea of an academic market, however, requires the existence of a public sphere. Rather than privatizing academic freedom as merely a part of an entrepreneurial “free” market, academic freedom could be imagined instead as a public value benefiting the public directly as well as indirectly through the research and teaching of faculty.
Eric Cheyfitz's article "The Corporate University, Academic Freedom, and American Exceptionalism" is freely available until the end of the year.