Archived Webinar: A Debate on Academic Freedom

October 6, 2016 1557

On September 27, as part of Social Science Space’s series on academic freedom, three of the contributors to that series – Daniel Nehring, Dylan Kerrigan, and Joanna Williams – participated in an hour-long webinar to discuss some of the issues at the heart of this issue.

The operative word in this case is some, as the half of the event set aside to answer questions from the audience did not come close to being enough time. Happily, the three webinar participants, along with another of the series contributors, Craig Brandist, answered many of those additional questions in writing. A recording of the webinar appears below, followed by the additional questions. Biographies of Nehring, Kerrigan, Williams and Brandist appear at the bottom of the post.

Shouldn’t there be some forms of control for everyone involved, the academicians, the administrators, the politics and even the students?

Jo Williams: Academic life is and always has been regulated. The issue for me is who does the regulating and to what end. I think that in the past academics ‘self-regulated’ much more and inculcated students into the disciplinary practices of a subject community. This self-regulation is still there but it is matched by a far more overt form of control from managers and politicians. This new form of control is not designed to enhance the pursuit of knowledge but to enhance the marketisation of higher education. This has far more damaging consequences for academic freedom.

Daniel Nehring: I think that ‘controls’, broadly understood, have formed part of academic life for a long time. In contemporary academia, it is important to distinguish between three forms of control: those that result from the methodological procedures of our disciplines, those that result from the ethical standards by which we conduct research, and those that result from bureaucratic audit systems. The latter are, in my view, highly problematic. They rank scholarship in terms of commercial and political imperatives, determining its value accordingly. In so doing, they constrain academic freedom and contribute to the de-intellectualisation of scholarly labour.

I wonder if the speakers could comment on the impact of the Prevent Strategy on freedom of speech and freedom of expression in British universities. Also, how is it that the policy has been seemingly seamlessly adopted and integrated with existing policies and procedures despite the protestations of the UCU and NUS?

Jo Williams: The Prevent Strategy is disastrous for academic freedom most obviously because of the role universities are now expected to play in vetting outside speakers but also, more insidiously, the distrust it sows between academics and students. Unfortunately, as the second part of this question hints at, Prevent is the other side of the exact same ‘safe space’ coin that NUS and UCU promote. Academics and students cannot challenge Prevent while supporting the censorship of other speakers and ideas they disagree with. Prevent has been adopted because there is no real campaign for free speech in academia.

Craig Brandist: The Prevent agenda is extremely dangerous. The very notion of ‘radicalization’ and ‘extremism’, even though the government defines it as leading to ‘terrorism’, is so deliberately ambiguous as to obstruct all questioning of the fundamentals of the economic and political system, and certainly any forms of organising against them. So all anticapitalist organisation could easily fall under this category. It has definite similarities to the MacCarthy era witch hunting that was in reality aimed to remove Communists from the labour movement and high-profile hearings etc were actually secondary to that. We need to conduct a relentless critique of the assumptions underlying this, pointing out, for instance, that for Thatcher and Reagan Mandela was a terrorist and Bin Laden a freedom fighter. The French Resistance in World War 2 would certainly have qualified as terrorists according to current definitions. But more than that we need to organise to obstruct its  effective implementation by boycotting any new procedures Prevent impose on us and continually raising its incompatibility with the educational process.

On the topic of academics taking an increasingly active role in their sociopolitical situation, what would be a reasonable first step academics can take to facilitate increased academic freedom for themselves and future academics?

Can you provide advice on how to resist?

Should censorship be made outlawed in academics to ensure total freedom in academics is achieved?

Jo Williams: Taking these three questions together, I think academics need to promote free speech through leading by example. We need to show students that the best way to deal with ideas and viewpoints we find distressing is through debate, discussion and intellectual challenge rather than through wrapping them up with trigger warnings and removing material from the curriculum. I don’t think free speech can be legislated into existence because it comes with having something to say. There is a danger that the work of an academic is currently presented as a series of hoops to jump through rather than an intellectual project. I think it is important for academic freedom for scholars to remind themselves of what is important about their role – to me it is about what we have to say rather than meeting targets in relation to the number of publications, grants applied for or satisfied students. When what we have to say is the most important thing, academic freedom stops being a rhetorical aspiration and starts being something real to fight for.

Daniel Nehring [addressing the first question]: I think that some form of collective organisation, either through our union or through new campaign groups, is essential to make ourselves heard. It is also very important to increase the public visibility of academics as a professional group. At present, British academics are very much an invisible profession without a significant lobby.

Craig Brandist [addressing the second question]: Number 1 is to join your union, become active in shaping its policies and activity, and to build a force to combat management imperatives.  Number 2, which is connected with the first, is to campaign to raise discussion about forms of governance and the objectives of the public university on campus. the Convention on Higher Education is a part of this. Number 3, look at the small techniques of resistance and solidarity that take place in the institution and build on it so that staff protect each other and thus open a space for the activities that are really important for the educational process.

Craig Brandist [addressing third question]: Freedom of speech is never absolute, but the question is who imposes controls. History shows that if you give the state or managers the right to censor the power will be used selectively to stifle opinions inconvenient to state or management interests. The academic community more broadly should never accept, for instance, lecturers promoting racism in class. How could we accept someone encouraging paedophilia? The right to engage in activity that deprives others of their rights is hardly something that can be devoid of controls. The question is who decides and does the controlling. This is all the more reason to encourage debate and democratic modes of decision-making.


What’s the key argument against ‘trigger warnings’ other that the ‘slippery slope’ one?

Jo Williams: For me the problem with trigger warnings is that they promote the idea that, on the one hand, some knowledge is different and has a special power to traumatise and horrify people, and on the other hand, that some students are so vulnerable that they can’t cope with particular course content. To suggest that classic works of literature, historical events or aspects of the law are too dangerous for some students is actually pretty patronising and insulting. If something is worth knowing then all students should be expected to engage with it. Trigger warnings encapsulate the idea that words can traumatise people and the best way to deal with this is by avoiding them.

Do you think that journals and editors are increasingly hindering academic freedom by choosing articles to publish or not?

Dylan Kerrigan: Working in the global south and out of a university suspended in a relationship with a dominant academic system originating in and mostly sustained by people, ideas and resources outside of the global south I think its inevitable that Journals and their editors, whether self-consciously or not have a bias toward one direction more than another. Editors are socialised this way. This of course whether intended or not, has implications for academic freedom. As Raewyn Connell has pointed out one of those consequences is the erasure of knowledge formations “generated in the colonial encounter and from the experience of post colonial societies.” And of course this didn’t just start today, this relationship and erasure, whether conscious or not, has been on going since the first universities were established in Colonies/ex-Colonies. As such I think Journals and their editors located in the global north should do more to encourage publication systems that can rebalance this equation and historical inequality between academic regions of the world. So on some level, as gatekeepers at the very least, i do think Academic Dependence via Journals and editors based and facing the global north do at some level impact the values of academic freedom.

Are we the victim of our own success in the sense that it was the academic community (at least in the U.S.) that pushed a lot of the speech codes in the 1980s-90s that then had the unintended consequence of fostering an environment where certain speech and ideas are considered out of bounds?

Jo Williams: This is a good question and raises a very pertinent point. Censorious students come in for a lot of criticism in some sections of the media. A lot of this is justified. However, such students have not emerged from thin air. They are the children (sometimes literally!) of the people promoting speech codes in the 80s and 90s. The idea that the speech of some should be curtailed in order to promote social justice was around a long time before the current generation of students arrived on campus. It is quite hypocritical for professors who have supported speech codes to argue against safe spaces and trigger warnings now – they made this current climate of campus censorship possible.

Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series

Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis | By Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan

Diversity of Viewpoints is Essential for the Pursuit of Knowledge | Jo Williams

Emotionalisation, Neoliberalism and Academic Freedom in the US | Sam Binkley

The Transformation of UK Higher Education Since 1968 | Hugo Radice

The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities | Craig Brandist

The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan

The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring

More thoughts

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech Must be Protected and Respected | Valerie Adams

Thoughts on Academic Freedom (and Our Series) | Various

Take Away Tenure, and Professors Become Sheep | Alice Dreger

I would be interested in your views about academic staff who aren’t interested in research or scholarship. In my discipline (teacher education) I have colleagues who take pride in saying they don’t research or publish, they view university education as an extension of the school system. They don’t seem to want or value academic freedom. Is this unusual? Or are they justified in this view?

Jo Williams: To me the rigid distinction we draw between research and teaching is a little false. Academics can’t teach nothing – they need some content to communicate and that content may not come from original, ground breaking research that they have conducted themselves, but it is certainly underpinned by scholarship – their reading and understanding of a subject. Likewise, I think communicating (if not necessarily formal teaching) is an important element of research, it allows academics to spot flaws in their arguments and gauge how their work is interpreted by others. I think scholarship underpins both teaching and research and I think genuine scholarship cannot exist without academic freedom.

Daniel Nehring: I think that this question alludes to a division that is prominent at many universities. In my view, it is not so important in this context whether academics do or do not do research. Rather, the problem lies in the diffusion of a bureaucratic and authoritarian management system that is accepted as a matter of course in British schools, while it is still relatively new – and therefore still sometimes contested – at universities.
Isn’t the best option for academically driven research the establishment of non-profit research institutes by Academics themselves? One needs to establish an alternative centre of activity freed from the constraints of managerialism and government funding.

Jo Williams: I have a lot of sympathy for this view. I think one big problem in academia at the moment is the instrumentalisation of knowledge – the perception that universities exist to train people for jobs and the purpose of research is ‘impact’ or tangible short term gains. This instrumentalisation means that universities are funded by both students and governments for a particular purpose rather than for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. I think being freed from the constraints of an artificially created market and constraints from government would be wonderful but I think the underlying purpose of a university must be questioned for this to occur.

I disagree that academics are not being “public intellectuals”. There are lots of academics on TV, doing TedX talks and the like. In fact we are being strongly encouraged to disseminate our work to the general public.

Daniel Nehring: Agreed. However, we are encouraged to do so in the pursuit of ‘impact’, and in order to improve our brand and that of our universities. In this sense, our public presence does not make us public intellectuals. There is a great dearth of public intellectuals in contemporary Britain, in a cultural climate that seems rather anti-intellectual.

Jo Williams: Unfortunately I don’t think public engagement or the ‘impact agenda’ necessarily equates to scholars being public intellectuals – public: yes; intellectual: not always. Similarly I would question whether this is ‘lots’ of academics – a few high profile individuals can garner the ear of television executives and radio producers but many more cannot. I think being a public intellectual means taking debates to the public – not necessarily dressed up as a slick You-Tube marketable product – but raising awkward questions, the questions the media might not want to be asked.

But isn’t this also contributed by academic ourselves where the majority of academics are now are more liberal than conservative? This creates a more permissiveness attitude among academics towards student demands to censure and regulate speech into what they consider ‘proper’? Shouldn’t we also have a means to ensure intellectual diversity among academics too? Shouldn’t diversity officers/services in universities also include intellectual diversity among academics?

Jo Williams: I agree completely with the first part of this question although I do think it is an awful shame that being liberal or progressive is today associated with being pro-censorship and wanting to regulate free speech. We definitely need more intellectual and political diversity in the academic community but I really don’t think this can be legislated into existence through a human resources department. I don’t think diversity is a tick box exercise, I don’t think we want to ask academics their political views so we can have one liberal, one conservative, one libertarian, one green etc. etc. The important thing is for intellectual freedom to be prioritised so that students can’t help but run up against diverse viewpoints – even if not in exactly equal proportion.

To what extent might recording lectures render academics themselves redundant? Why would universities pay ‘high’ salaries to academics when their knowledge can be captured and commodified in an instrumental performance (vs learning) system that can be ‘facilitated’ online by lower cost ‘trainers’?

Jo Williams: This is an interesting question for the future. My fear is not that academics may be made redundant but that academic freedom is further threatened. I think being recorded makes people far more conscious about saying the ‘correct’ thing. The open and honest exchanges between staff and students that form the basis of good teaching may be curtailed if people are monitoring what they say and self-censoring to appease managers or students who may use what they say in evidence against them at a later date!

Do you draw (or see) a distinction between the “corporatization” of academia in contrasting the undergraduate vs. graduate levels? 

Daniel Nehring: I do not believe that there is a substantial qualitative difference in how corporate academia treats undergraduates and postgraduates. In Britain, both undergraduate and postgraduate study are being redefined in terms of the provision of a commercial service in a privatised institutional setting. Thus, there are rules and regulations that govern the provision of this service and equip students with entitlements they can claim (X meetings with their supervisor, extensive availability of their ‘module tutor’ outside the classroom, etc.). At the same time, there is now a strong expectation of conformity within privatised academic spaces, as universities’ harsh response to student protests in recent years has shown. Another important element of the corporate transformation of students’ role in universities is the growing emphasis on vocational imperatives. British students today do not ‘read for a degree’; rather, they pursue a degree certificate to get a job. This expresses itself in different ways for undergraduate and postgraduate students. For instance, PhD students wishing to become academics may attend workshops to make their research more ‘impactful’ in the next national research audit, in order for it to look better on their CVs. In any case, however, the relationship between students and the intellectual content of their discipline is changing quite fundamentally.

The “academic world” has moved into the “knowledge industry”.  Have we missed the boat?  Would our analysis be a politico economic one? What role for the Unions?

Do you think trade unions might play a role in furthering academic freedom and improving working conditions of academics? What are your experiences in the countries where you are based?

Craig Brandist: Agreed analysis and resistance needs to be rooted in political economy. Unions are fundamental. They make a big difference as to how matters progress in institutions, but much of this is invisible to most members because it is confidential ‘case work’. Management know all this is connected, so they pay close attention to the support for industrial action over, say, pay and this informs how confident they feel to impose policies against the interest of most staff. In the UK at least our national leadership has been very poor and this has demoralized many members, so they do not take part in some forms of action, but this affects everything within the institution, including the ability of the union to defend its members from bullying and so on. The solution here is to get involved and build an alternative leadership that can inspire the confidence of the membership. However, it also means to engage in discussion over the nature of education and research more generally and to develop an alternative vision to the cramping neoliberal vision of our rulers.


Craig BrandistCraig Brandist is professor of cultural theory and intellectual history in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, where he is also president of the Sheffield University and College Union. He started at Sheffield in 1997, and from 2003-2009 directed the AHRC-funded project The Rise of Sociological Linguistics in the Soviet Union, 1917–1938: Institutions, Ideas and Agendas. Brandist’s research current focuses on the history of cultural theory, particularly as it was affected by the Russian Revolution and its subsequent degeneration, and his latest monograph is The Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia.

Dylan KerriganDylan Kerrigan is a lecturer in anthropology and political sociology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus, Trinidad and Tobago. He is particularly concerned with power, the shifts that occur and how society adjusts or transforms as a result. His most recent published works include the co-authored book Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self Help Industry: The Politics of Contemporary Social Change, research into the relationship between white collar crime and everyday corruption in the Trinidad published in Gangs of the Caribbean, and a recent chapter describing Trinidad on the Path to Independence in the collection In the Fires of Hope.

Daniel_Nehring_optDaniel Nehring is senior lecturer in sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Creative Arts at the University of Worcester and previously worked at Pusan National University in South Korea. Over the past decade, he has done extensive research on transnational self-help cultures, as reflected in his new book (with Emmanuel Alvarado, Eric C. Hendriks and Dylan Kerrigan, Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry (Palgrave Macmillan). Over the last few years, he has explored the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony, which he covers in his blog for Social Science Space.

Jo Williams_optJoanna Williams has taught in schools, further and higher education for more than 20 years. Most recently she was senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and director of the University’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. She is the author of Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury, 2012) and Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Williams is the education editor of Spiked and a frequent contributor to British and international education debates, most especially in the Times Higher Education, the Telegraph and Guardian.

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