The Academy and Freedom to Dissent

Cris Shore, a well-known anthropologist of higher education whose work we’ve discussed before, sends in a critical commentary on current threats to academic freedom.

I recently participated in a roundtable debate on higher education at the AAA meeting in Washington (DC) on the subject of ‘The Academy and the Future of Freedom to Dissent’, which raised some interesting thoughts for me on what constitutes the greatest threat to academic freedom in universities.

The premise for the roundtable, taking its cue from the growing tide of populism and nationalism in Europe, the US and elsewhere, was that these ‘Twenty-first century populisms’ are pushing academic freedom to the brink. As the provocation for the debate noted, a combination of ‘resurgent nationalism’, the neoliberalisation of higher education, the normalisation of austerity narratives, growing university dependence on student fees, and targeted cuts to those disciplines that promote ‘liberal’ thinking (i.e. humanities and social sciences) — is fundamentally undermining academic freedom. To echo Mary Evans (2004), it is ‘killing thinking’.

The panel began with two main questions:

  1. Who and what is being marginalised in higher education and how has anthropology as a discipline been affected?
  2. What are the structural conditions necessary for academic institutions to create a buffer to protect the future of freedom of dissent, and why does the academy matter?

The responses were fascinating and highlighted some key differences between national higher education systems. As US ethnographers such as Don Brenneis noted, the heterogeneous US system grants universities more room for manoeuvre, leaving the national government less power to impose its will on the whole sector. Nevertheless, powerful financial and political interests can exercise an unhealthy degree of power and censorship. For example, the pro-Israel lobby seeks to govern what academics can and cannot say with regards to Israel, treatment of the Palestinians, and US funding of new settlements on stolen Palestinian lands. Others emphasised academic precarity and the silencing effects of anxieties about failure or censorship. As Tracey Heatherington put it, the question ‘how do I write about this without getting fired’ is now one that many critical and reflexive scholars have to ask.

Meanwhile, for European ethnographers such as Jon Mitchell and Dorle Drackle, populism combined with neoliberalism now constitutes a clear and present danger to academic freedom, as evidenced particularly in Hungary and Poland, in the 2017 German elections, and in Britain following the Brexit referendum. In each of these contexts, ‘cruel patriotism’, xenophobia and homophobia have been given free reign. , What is new, however, is the extent to which these anti-system movement have welded the ideology of integralism to a neoliberal discourse of austerity in order to legitimise their policies for violently downsizing the public sphere. Janine Wedel also noted that universities are increasingly ‘laundering reputations’ of corrupt elites, enabling former generals, politicians and financiers to mask their political interests by affiliating themselves – and their ideas – with academic institutions where they have been given honorary status.

My own view, having observed university reforms being carried out over several decades first under the Thatcher and Blair governments in Britain and more recently in New Zealand, is that the greatest threat to academic freedom is not nationalism or populism, although these are worrying in themselves. Rather, it is the increasing influence of audit culture and marketisation in universities. These have brought a whole nexus of new values and instrumentalities to the way universities are conceptualized and managed that runs contrary to the principles of disinterested knowledge production and higher learning that once defined the C20th public university.

The new narrative of the university in the global knowledge economy is all about the virtues of competition, commercialization, innovation, entrepreneurship, investment, generating revenue from patents, licenses and ‘translational research’ that turns ideas into invoices. These have become the new keywords of the university in the age of academic capitalism. What we are seeing is perhaps less a tragedy of the ‘knowledge commons’ than its increasing penetration and capture by predatory financial interests, aided by a compliant neoliberal-inspired political elite. This process is often justified in terms of the need to ‘unbundle’ universities (Barber et al 2013) in order to open them up to competition from more external private providers. In the UK, this policy has now passed into law with the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, which makes it a statutory duty for the newly-created ‘Office for Students’ to ‘encourage competition’ (read ‘asset stripping’) and ‘promote value for money’ (read ‘management by accountants’).

Neoliberalisation was always a deeply flawed and destructive assemblage of coercive managerial practices harnessed to economic dogma. Yet rather than being rejected as a dangerous idea that has gone past its sell-by date, it has become further entrenched and normalized. To survive in this brave new world, universities must increasingly hawk themselves through competitive branding, fundraising from alumni and commercializating their research. University funding has been redefined as ‘strategic investment’ and only the STEM subjects warrant public subsidy. Academics are being incentivized (and cajoled) to become entrepreneurial subjects who market themselves and their ideas. Decisions over academic recruitment are now routinely being made not by faculties of departments but by senior administrators in the university’s Research Office, commercialization units or leadership teams.

Reorganising universities into schools (‘schooling’) is another corrosive disciplinary technology that undermines academic freedom. The main purpose of schooling is to increase centralized control by breaking up departments might question decisions from above. Torin (2005) calls this process ‘fragmented centralization’ as it concentrates decision-making at the top of the organisation while making accountability for centrally made decisions more ‘distributed’ (Amsler and Shore 2017). It is also about replacing disciplinary knowledge with more ‘flexible’ forms of integrated teaching and learning so that managers can more easily re-deploy academic labour where they decide ‘student demand’ or ‘strategic opportunities’ may lie – all typically justified by the neoliberal mantra that the ‘student consumer is king’ (except that the student consumer rarely gets to speak for herself). The strategy is to promote the flexibilisation and casualization of the workforce.

So to answer the questions raised earlier, anthropology is deeply affected by these changing budgets, bureaucracies and political shifts. Academic precarity and constant managerial demands for increased productivity and accountability are extremely effective instruments for keeping academics isolated and in their place. Research assessment exercises, teaching evaluations and annual performance reviews – all of them individualizing and totalizing ‘technologies of the self’ — also play an increasingly dominant role in shaping academic behavior and subjectivity. Most anthropologists and academics, even those who feel deeply committed to the ideals of academic freedom and collective struggle, simply don’t have time to perform their social role as critic and conscience of society. We have all become far too busy and distracted answering emails and filling out the latest online form demanded of us by our university administocracies to be able to be actively engaged in the decision-making processes that shape our own institutions.

All this has worrying implications for democracy. Public universities matter because they (like other public institutions) are essential to democratic society, as Levin and Greenwood (2016) cogently illustrate. Along with a free press, academia is a key site for critical thinking and reflection and the humanities and social sciences are practically the only spaces in society where received wisdom and policy can be meaningfully challenged. As Helga Via, President of the European Research Council states:

The social sciences and humanities produce knowledge and insights about our societies and our past, our complex relations to each other and to our environment. They are crucial to building, understanding and improving those institutions that are the backbone of democracy.

Looking across the globe today I would say that democracy is looking increasingly weak and fragile in many parts of the world. Much needs to be done and could be done to protect both our universities and the future of freedom of dissent. One starting point is to turn our disciplinary skills as anthropologists and ethnographers towards our own institutions. That could provide a knowledge base for reclaiming some of the space that we have ceded to managerialism. We could also adopt some of the principles of the ‘slow academia’ movement (Berg and Seeber 2016) and put a halt to the fetishized obsession with speed that now dominates academia.

But a fuller account of ‘what is to be done’ deserves its own blog post. Let me end, therefore, with a call to others to propose ideas for how me might address the twin blight of neoliberal dogma and managerial corporatism that threatens to drown both our public universities and our political systems.

One thought on “The Academy and Freedom to Dissent”

  1. Cris’s thoughtful report/analysis is particularly interesting in reminding us that, despite broad similarities, the trajectories of higher education are rather different in different parts of the world. Being alert to these variations and the opportunities that they offer to both reveal the problems and show possible ways of addressing them is surely a task anthropologists should be good at.

    I do react to calling neoliberalism an economic model. If neoclassical economics was a theory of choice about allocating scarce means to alternative ends, neoliberalism is not economics. Neoclassical economics does not theorize the ranking of the ends. Neoliberalism involves both predetermined elite decided ends and a theory of choice about means. Rather than being economics, it is a mere apology for the totalitarian elitism that is creating unprecedented wealth and power for the few at the expense of ther many. What universities are now living is what other manufacturing and service workers and their communities have already experienced and the social pathologies in its wake: populism, cultural and racial supremacist views and movements, etc. By crediting it to economics, we distract ourselves from the social exploitation that lies at its core.

    Where are the counter movements, where is anthropology looking for exceptions to this bleak scene? Susan Wright, Rebecca Boden and I found a promising counter example in the Mondragón University. Joss Winn and Mike Neary and their work with the Cooperative Colleges promises another possibility. Shouldn´t we be looking harder for more countermovements?

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