Professor David Midgley takes a look at a timely new publication that puts the current debates on academic freedom into a historical context


In September 2017 it was widely reported that the Attorney General of the USA, Jeff Sessions, had told an audience of students in Washington that the American university, “once the center of academic freedom,” was transforming into “an echo chamber of political correctness” and “a shelter for fragile egos.” The story was promptly relayed in British newspapers keen to promote the notion that UK universities, too, were becoming bastions of intolerance, and that those who protested against the dissemination of sentiments likely to cause offence were mere “snowflakes”. Whether or not they should be regarded as a root cause of the process, Sessions’ remarks certainly gave a boost to the associated tendency, in the arena of public debate, to obscure the distinction between academic freedom and free speech.

Henry Reichman’s book, The Future of Academic Freedom, is therefore a timely publication for British as well as American readers. It provides brief histories of various dimensions of the issue, reaching back to cases in the period around 1900 in which public statements by university professors on such subjects as religion or the behaviour of railroad companies were met with repressive acts on the part of rich sponsors of the institutions that employed them; and it does much to clarify such questions as the terms in which academic freedom can be justified, whether students can strictly be said to have academic freedom, and whether invited speakers are necessarily entitled to a platform. It also considers how the future of academic freedom looks under the Trump regime, and it has particularly pertinent things to say about the role of academics in defending academic freedom.


Academic freedom and freedom of expression are not the same thing

Reichman cites a number of authoritative figures – including the law professors Stanley Fish and Robert C. Post, both writing in 2017 – who draw a strong distinction between the concept of academic freedom, which implies the application of academic criteria in discussion, and freedom of expression as guaranteed in the USA by the First Amendment, which does not. He points out how difficult it can be in practice to draw a clear line between “the curricular and the extracurricular, the scholarly and the political”, and he warns in particular against treating student protests against visiting speakers as a matter for university administrations simply to police – because “empowering administrations to regulate the freedoms of outside speakers will ultimately empower administrative regulation of the faculty’s own professional liberty”. Rather, he argues (following Joan Wallach Scott), institutions should build on the notion of a university as a “crucible of critique”, and academic staff should make it their business to engage critically with ideas that enter higher education from the external “free marketplace of ideas” as much as from within the realm of scholarship.

When it comes to the question of academic freedom as the freedom to determine “on academic grounds […] who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study” (in the words of a 1957 court judgment), Reichman points to the history of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) which, at the time of its foundation in 1915, was at pains to distinguish its role categorically from that of a trade union, but which developed over time, as Reichman puts it, into a “creative blending” of professionalism and unionism. A turning point came in the 1960s when a group of academic staff at St John’s University, New York, were summarily dismissed for “organized opposition amounting to a rebellion” and the AAUP found that the university authorities would not take its representations in the matter seriously until a strike had been organized by the relevant union, the American Federation of Teachers.

In the context of the UK, where the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) protect the autonomy of institutions rather than that of professional academics, it is also worth noting a recent study cited by Reichman, which found that academic staff at unionised institutions generally have greater influence – not only over rates of pay and working conditions, but also over appointments, tenure and promotions, teaching loads and curriculum, and governance.

The Future of Academic Freedom, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, is available from Amazon.