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Dispatches on academic freedom

Middle Eastern studies, Greta Thunberg and institutional autonomy

Two recent cases from the U.S. throw into sharp relief just how critical institutional autonomy is for academic freedom.


Late last month, the story broke that the U.S. department of education (DoE) had written to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to put them on notice that the DoE was considering withholding federal Title VI funds from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES). Title VI is a federal grant program that provides funds to U.S. universities “to develop and maintain capacity and performance in area/international studies and world languages.”

The DoE’s letter offers a laundry list of reasons CMES’s grant is on the chopping block:

  • Many more CMES students are enrolled in culture courses than language courses.
  • CMES’s collaborations with other departments are insufficiently STEM focused.
  • CMES events and publications (such as a “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” conference, and faculty members’ research articles on sex and gender in the Middle East) are misaligned with main Title VI goals.
  • CMES focuses too much (and too positively) on Islam and not enough on other Middle Eastern religions.
  • CMES programming advances “ideological priorities” rather than “the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States.”
  • CMES places more graduates in academe than in government.
  • CMES teacher training activities focus more on social issues than on language or geography.

Notice that that DoE’s criticism of CMES is squarely about academic programming – things like course enrolments, interdisciplinary collaboration, conference themes, faculty research areas, and curricular goals and outcomes. At my own university, which is governed bicamerally by a senate and a board of governors, matters like these fall squarely into the remit of senate – the deliberative body charged with the academic direction of the university. If an external body interfered in such matters, we would raise an enormous stink because such interference would be a blow to our institutional autonomy.

Institutional autonomy is the principle that universities – guided by their own scholarly experts through a process of collegial governance – have both the right and the duty to chart their own course on scholarly matters. UNESCO’s influential 1997 “Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel” characterizes institutional autonomy as “the institutional form of academic freedom and a necessary precondition to guarantee the proper fulfilment of the functions entrusted to higher-education teaching personnel and institutions.”

The idea is that, just as academic freedom permits scholars to engage in risky or controversial teaching and research without interference, universities themselves must be able to pursue their academic mission without interference, including interference by the state.

To understand why institutional autonomy is important, it is instructive to remember that when Hitler came to power in Germany, his minister of education selected the rectors for German universities, and announced that henceforth all studies in German universities would be based on Nazi racial theories. This led to the dismissal of 1,500 faculty members across the country and their replacement by Nazis.

Indeed, the presence of institutional autonomy is a reasonably reliable gauge of the health of a nation’s democracy. In the days of the Soviet Union, Soviet universities had no autonomy from the state. Today, Chinese universities have little to none. In recent years, state intervention in universities’ academic operations in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Brazil track a concomitant deterioration in democracy in those countries.

Despite the danger of state intervention of this kind, it is sometimes suggested that publicly funded institutions ought to be run at the behest of the state. However, to reserve institutional autonomy for private universities alone would amount to reserving institutional autonomy – and the intellectual courage and discovery it makes possible – to institutions attended by the wealthiest members of society. A robust publicly funded postsecondary system requires institutional autonomy in order to serve the public well.

The late philosopher Jacques Derrida made this point in a 1983 talk at Cornell University. On Mr. Derrida’s account, the modern university is founded on a kind of paradox: it depends upon the support of society and is answerable to society, but in order to fulfill its important social mission it must remain autonomous – which is to say, independent of society. It goes like this: universities serve society by seeking truth and advancing understanding. In order for universities to do this, individual scholars need academic freedom and universities need institutional autonomy. Institutional autonomy requires collegial governance because the point is for scholars – rather than non-scholars, including politicians and bureaucrats – to jointly decide the academic mission of the university.

Canadian universities’ collegial governance and institutional autonomy are among the strongest in the world. They are not perfect, of course. The Ontario government’s recent imposition of free speech policies on all postsecondary institutions in the province is an example of state intervention into university governance, and hence a dangerous precedent. However, in general, Canada’s governments maintain a respectful arms-length relationship from universities.

In the U.S., the increasing corporatization of universities, and the party-politicization of higher education oversight make for a very different situation. I was reminded of this yesterday when I read that a senior (non-academic) administrator at the University of Iowa prohibited faculty from promoting Greta Thunberg’s recent surprise visit to Iowa City on the university’s social media channels.

The reason for the prohibition was the administrator’s interpretation of the university’s political activity guidelines, which prohibits university personnel from communicating political messages on university channels. For what it’s worth, I think that the decision was based on a misreading of the guidelines. My own read of the guidelines is that they constrain partisan political messages and government lobbying, in particular. If so, promoting a local event that is unaffiliated with party politics or the legislature doesn’t fall afoul of the rule.

Be that as it may and irrespective of whether the rule was properly applied, when I dug into the guidelines, I learned that “the university’s position on legislative issues is set by the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, after consultation with university administration.” This made me curious about the Board of Regents, so I kept digging.

The Iowa Board of Regents is the main governing body for Iowa’s three public universities, as well as two special lower division schools. The board’s nine members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. None of the board’s current members are professors. One member is a student and one is a former community college president. While the University of Iowa has a faculty senate, that body – along with a corresponding body for non-academic staff and the university’s two student governments – is merely advisory to the administration and Board of Regents. To recap then, the state populates the body that governs Iowa’s universities. That governing body does not, and need not, include university scholars, and the body that does include university scholars has no teeth.

I describe all of this not because the governance University of Iowa is in any way unusual, but because it is exemplary of the lack of institutional autonomy at many American universities. As I sketched above, and as we are increasingly seeing in the U.S. and globally, without institutional autonomy, academic freedom is vulnerable, at best.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Maria Cristina Parra-Sandoval / October 23, 2019 at 16:21

    This is happening all over the world regardless of the political ideology or system. There are emblematic cases in Latin America: Cuba and Venezuela. In these countries, the governments impose that universities, scholars, students and staff (non-academic) must adhere to the principles of the so-called ‘revolution’ and the ruler party (Communist Party, in Cuba and United Socialist Party of Venezuela, in Venezuela).
    The autonomous and traditional universities in Venezuela have rejected the attacks from the government, although they are suffering the shortages of the budgets the government allocate to them which has by large restricted their normal functions.
    In the last few weeks, the government has tried to impose an illegal election process to choose their authorities.

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