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Dispatches on academic freedom

Academic freedom in a non-ideal world

Understanding what academic freedom is ideally meant to do can help us understand its contours, and how to best defend it.


I’ve been wondering lately what a “non-ideal” account of academic freedom would look like.

Let me explain. In recent years, scholars have started to distinguish between ideal and non-ideal political theories. Roughly speaking, ideal political theories start from the assumption that the state is constituted for the mutual advantage of its members; from there, they theorize how best to organize states around this goal. Lots of political theorists down through history have taken this approach, but the paradigmatic ideal theorist is late-20th century philosopher John Rawls (who coined the ideal/non-ideal distinction).

Non-ideal theories, by contrast, do not assume that states are constituted for the mutual advantage of their members. Non-ideal theorists point to the long history of states that benefitted – and indeed were intended to benefit – only a minority of their members. Some of the hallmarks of such states are slavery, non-universal suffrage, and other institutions and laws that create and perpetuate unjust distributions of wealth, power and autonomy within the state. A pessimistic but empirically well-supported view would suggest that all states are non-ideal in this way. Non-ideal theorists (Elizabeth Anderson and Charles Mills are two notable examples) think that we do a better job of understanding the political realm if we abandon the notion that states are intended to equally support all of their members.

In my work on academic freedom, I tend to take an ideal approach. That is, when I write about academic freedom, I assume a well-functioning university organized around the scholarly mission, collegially governed by tenure-stream (or equivalent) scholars, and animated in addition by such core values as institutional autonomy, equitable access, social responsibility and accountability. Within this “ideal” context, academic freedom permits professors to advance the scholarly mission of the university in service to society without themselves incurring undue risk and without inviting risk for their institutions. On this model, tenure provides the main protection for researchers whose scholarship is controversial, and it is the professors themselves who both assess the quality of research in their fields and appoint well-qualified new scholars into their ranks.

An ideal approach to academic freedom can be really helpful in illustrating the relationship between academic freedom and other core values of the university. Understanding what academic freedom is ideally meant to do can help us to better understand its contours, and how best to defend it. The trouble is that universities, and the contexts in which they are situated, are far from ideal.

Scholars around the world are subject to intolerable conditions by their own governments. Last month in its annual report on academic freedom in the global context, Scholars at Risk (SAR) reported a high volume of attacks by Turkish authorities against the country’s higher education communities for the third consecutive year, directly impacting more than 880 university scholars, students and staff between August 2017 and July 2018. The same report cited 79 scholars who have been killed, have disappeared or been subject to violence, 88 were imprisoned, 60 were prosecuted, 22 fired and 15 were subject to travel restrictions worldwide for the same period.

Authoritarian states threaten not only individual scholars but also universities as a whole. In October, the George Soros-funded Central European University (CEU) announced that it would move from Hungary to Austria in 2018-2019 following a prolonged battle with Hungary’s right-wing populist government. In legislation and in policy, the Hungarian government threw a series of obstacles at CEU scholars and scholarship until the CEU’s location in Hungary was no longer tenable.

In Canada, university scholars and postsecondary institutions are largely free from such state threats. However, they are nonetheless far from ideal. According to a report released earlier this month by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 53.6 percent of all Canadian university faculty appointments in 2016-2017 were contract – that is, non tenure-stream – jobs. (This figure omits the increasing number of PhD-holders who perform scholarly roles within support staff rather than faculty positions. These scholars also lack the protection of tenure.) The study further notes that the Canadian university system has heavily relied on non-tenure-stream professors for at least a decade.

Some universities try to extend academic freedom beyond the ranks of the tenured. My own university, for instance, has a policy that says, among other things, “that the university supports academic freedom for all members of the university community.” Such statements are well-intentioned, but academic freedom without tenure is toothless.

I have often been emboldened by my tenure in moments that required courage from me as a scholar. In my teaching, my research and my administrative work, when I am wavering about whether I have the nerve to say a difficult or unpopular thing, I have gotten into the habit of reminding myself that tenure is precious, and that it exists precisely so that professors can go out on a limb. The protection of tenure has made me a better scholar and a better citizen of academe.

By contrast, when contract faculty similarly waver in moments that require courage, they simply cannot afford to take the risks that I can. For instance, taking a pedagogical risk can produce bad course evaluation forms, which might disincline a department to reappoint a sessional instructor. A university might be similarly disinclined to reappoint a contract research professor who takes a public stance on a controversial issue. If over 53 percent of university professors are not protected when they take intellectual chances, then fewer than 47 percent of university professors are able to confidently pursue the scholarly mission of the university.

Further, some scholars argue that, even among the tenured, academic freedom is unevenly distributed. U.S. sociologist Johnny Williams argues that academic freedom is in practice conditional, its protections contingent on professors’ racialization and scholarly wheelhouse. In particular, he argues that Black professors who, in their scholarship, critique White supremacy are “harassed, physically threatened, and warned that we are in danger of losing our jobs.” And, as Laurentian University’s associate vice-president of academic and Indigenous programs, Sheila Cote-Meek, documents in her book, Colonized Classrooms (Fernwood, 2014), ongoing racism within academe reduces the participation of Indigenous scholars within universities generally as well as within particular disciplines.

In short, then, universities, like states, are not ideal, and scholarship about core university values like academic freedom ought to start by taking that fact seriously. I don’t know yet what that looks like. I don’t know how best to vigorously defend academic freedom, institutional autonomy, collegial governance, and the other central values that animate the university while at the same time doing justice to the scholars, the scholarship, and the institutions that are partially or completely excluded from those values. But I’m determined to find out.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. A useful entry point into a larger discussion. Cultural support among progressive thinkers for the larger principle of freedom of expression, including the more specific (and strategically critical) one of academic freedom, appears to have weakened in recent years. The gap between the ideal and the real conditions of those freedoms makes the principle vulnerable to critique from the experience of those (such as racialised persons) who are denied meaningful access to a freedom that can thus begin to look very much like a privilege. Academic freedom and broader freedom of expression, in my opinion, are vitally important: for them to be meaningful, however, we must address the structural factors that differentially impede access to those freedoms.

  2. John Doe / November 21, 2018 at 14:20

    Excellent article, missing one important point: Even tenure does not provide much protection because the facility union decides whether to pursue a grievance once a professor is fired or disciplined. Considering that most faculty unions are at the far end of the political correctness spectrum, it would be naive to expect them to defend faculty members who are considered politically incorrect. Since labor law dictates that the only course of action by an employee in a unionized work place is through the union, if a faculty union chooses not to defend a faculty member, he/she has no recourse and no protection, tenured or not. Faculty unions are just as opaque, unfair and biased as university administrations. Therefore, faculty members have to muzzle themselves. Academic freedom has become just a couple of hollow words…

    • Jane Doe / November 23, 2018 at 10:47

      Actually, you do have recourse against your union if they’ve acted in an arbitrary or discriminatory way: a Duty of Fair Representation complaint. (At least in Canada; another commenter opined you might be American. Unions have less protection in the U.S., so I imagine there’s a similar mechanism in your state.)

  3. Ernie Prokopchuk / November 21, 2018 at 14:51

    Thank you for the interesting article.
    The line, “academic freedom without tenure is toothless” raises a question for me. Could a well designed academic freedom clause in a collective agreement provide the same level of protection as tenure? Certainly it would be stronger than a policy, but can it be as strong as tenure?

  4. Antonia Mills / November 21, 2018 at 17:55

    Well said. It is so important that universities teach and represent cocern for all, not just for those who want to dominate the economy and the world. Westerners like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson learned to create democracy from the Haudenosaunee (who were from what is now Canada & the US). Yet Jefferson continued to have slaves for the rest of his life, despite being one of authors and signators of the Declaration of Independence which says “all men are created equal.” We need to have our society and universities represent that all people, regardless of gender and country of origin are equal and deserve to be treated as equal.

  5. Kelly / November 22, 2018 at 12:10

    John Doe I’m assuming you’re American based on your spelling.
    First of all what do you mean by “politically incorrect”? If you mean denigrating minorities should be fair game for academics then no, we have hate speech laws in Canada that come into play and tenure was never meant to protect you from illegal acts.
    If you mean you can be a right wing with misogynist views and still keep your job, then the fact that Jordan Peterson is still employed is clear evidence that Canada does allow for alternate points of view.