100 Years of Academic Freedom and Critical Conscience.

Jack Heinemann · University of Canterbury · March 2015

A speech given to the AGM of the Canterbury Branch of the TEU, April 16 2014 by Assoc. Prof. John Freeman-Moir

100 years ago, almost to the day, the first discussions about academic freedom took place in New York City, and within a year the American Association of University Professors was formed. At first, the new association did not think of itself as having many similarities to a labour union; more narrowly, it was to be seen as an enlightened professional union (on a par with lawyers and medical doctors).

Those who met to form the AAUP were themselves influenced by three principal historical factors:

  1. Rapid development of university education during the second half of the 19th century.
  2. The influence of the research universities of Germany, such as Berlin; which combined teaching and research in a context of self-conscious and state protected academic freedom.
  3. The industrialization and globalization of America including the influx of millions of European immigrants. What was American democracy and its universities to make of these massive social and economic transformations?

The university teachers who met to discuss issues of academic freedom and professional association in these new times sat up and took notice of the three developments I have just mentioned. They saw these changes as challenging universities to get with it, be modern and grown up as befitted a society that aspired to be democratic.

john freeman-moir

In their take on the world these teachers were variously liberal, social democratic, or socialist, whatever their ideological positions, all were progressive.

In New Zealand, in our new times, that is to say, in the last three decades in this country, since 1984, we have seen: a massive increased in tertiary education; we self-consciously value the teaching:research nexus; and we know that we must find our way in a globalized academic world—heavily signatured by market, management, and neo-liberal values.

Somewhat surprisingly, the famous and brilliant first president of the AAUP, a person whose name I’ll reveal shortly, did not immediately think that academic freedom would be much of an issue for the new Association, let alone a top priority. However, within the first year he was proved wrong. By the end of 1915 more than 30 significant cases of academic freedom were under investigation by the fledgling association.

From around the turn of the 20th century academic freedom had become an increasingly live issue—to take just one early example, in 1890, the well-known liberal economist Edward Ross got himself into serious trouble at Leland Stanford Junior University because the obscenely rich Mr and Mrs Leland Stanford were outraged by his political and economic views: he opposed the exploitation of immigrant labor and he spoke out against the determination of railroad companies to be monopolies. The solution was simple, the Stanfords had Ross sacked. Ross’s protest action and the Stanford’s bullying reaction made a great and lasting impression well beyond the lovely campus of Stanford.

Not too surprisingly, in the light of cases like this, the focus of the AAUP turned quickly to the rights of faculty to research, teach, and express their opinions freely both within the classroom, and outside in the public sphere. And thus, academic freedom came to define, in a very striking way, the foundation value of university culture. Academic freedom is, so to speak, a truth that we all now hold to be self-evident—though it is variously interpreted.

And because of this feature—that it is contested and seen as subject to different limitations depending on one’s place in the academy—the borders of academic freedom are constantly patrolled on both sides of the line. Which is one of the important reasons we are members of a union and here today. Approaches to academic freedom have frequently been fractious and will, for historical and political reasons, not finally be settled any time soon.

A primary emphasis of the AAUP was understandably, forcefully, and correctly placed on rights to be protected under the heading of academic freedom. In an obvious sense, then, the significance of academic freedom is most sharply focused in its absence. We all understand academic freedom. In surveys of North American universities everyone, university staff and university administrators, vice-chancellors and junior lecturers, socialists, liberals, and conservatives, all, for the most part, express a formal commitment to academic freedom. I think the same holds true across our Australasian universities, and elsewhere.

While academic freedom expresses an institutional principle it is conventionally seen as being invested in individual teachers and staff members associated with teaching and research.

Today, I want to take up the matter of academic freedom, from a somewhat different angle than it was in 1914-15 and how, for the most part, it has predominantly been thought about during the past 100 years. It is not that I think those prescient American academics were on the wrong track, far from it. But I want to put the emphasis rather more on to the institutional side of the equation, to see academic freedom and critical conscience in relation to any society, taken as a whole, that makes claim to being democratic in its way of life.

The origins of the viewpoint I am adopting can be found, in fact, in the AAUP’s first statement of principles: “The responsibility of the university as a whole is to the community at large, and any restriction upon the freedom of the instructor is bound to react injuriously upon the efficiency and the morale of the institution, and therefore ultimately upon the interests of the community.” [with the exception of ‘morale’, the emphases are mine]

At the present time we need quite urgently to understand academic freedom and critical conscience more directly in relation to the daily requirements and practice of democracy, in other words in relation to the community as a whole.

Let me begin with a question:
What actually is needed for academic freedom and critical conscience to be active in the life of a university?

To reiterate my standpoint, the question starts out by viewing academic freedom as a matter of working culture and daily life, not just as a matter of formal individual rights.

And the answer I give to my own question is this:
For critical conscience and academic freedom to be fully active what is actually needed is “democracy as an institutional way of university life.”

Thinking with the words of our colleagues from 1914-15 we should be able to see that only as freedom reigns in the university can we make a contribution to the freedom of thought and conscience in the wider society, which freedom in turn will facilitate the freedom of the academy, and so on.

A mid-20th century AAUP expression of the underlying point of academic freedom in relation to the kind of strong democracy I am referring to, is as follows: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” [my emphasis]

Democracy as a way of life is a phrase I have borrowed freely from John Dewey, a pre-eminent 20th century American philosopher and educationist, and the first president of the AAUP, who, with Albert Einstein, another notable member, was one of the most active in stating and defending the principle of academic freedom. Day-to-day Dewey and Einstein held that the actual freedom to think, to speak, to learn, to participate in the uninhibited flow of information, of criticism, of ideas and perspectives depends on a way of life that goes all the way down and across in universities, as well as in the wider society. Short of this a society and its universities is pulling up short on democracy.

In my view, as in the view of our two distinguished former union brothers, democracy, as a way of life, must be true in special ways within the university. And instructors, technicians, administrators, librarians, presidents and vice-chancellors should all be attentive in a daily way to democratic culture within the university, if not all in quite the same ways.

In short, democracy as a way of life must hold true in the university if academic freedom is to flourish. Without academic freedom in inquiry and teaching a university will inevitably wither. Institutional death may also come from the opposite direction. The dereliction of democratic commitments and policies in society at large inevitably leads to the severe erosion of what, for convenience, I call the liberal university. The 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st century are replete with examples of democratic erosion within universities, many of them gruesome.

Academic freedom is, then, more than a right to search for truth, to publish and teach what one takes to be true—as Einstein puts it on our union t-shirt. As a formal statement this is important as far as it goes, but for academic freedom to be a reality it requires quite specific cultural and institutional conditions. And these are the conditions of democracy. In turn, academic freedom, both inside and outside the academy, is facilitative of democracy and democratic ways of living. This is what I referred to a moment ago as the common good.

We are inclined to think too much of democracy these days as a kind of perpetual motion machine that goes on more or less automatically. Every three years citizens vote for those who will govern, mostly with little recourse to or interference from citizens, and when policies are questioned they are typically justified by casual reference to a mandate from the people, supposedly delivered into the ballot box at the last election. This is an external view of democracy.

But democracy, understood in this way as formal legal rights plus elections and parliamentary process, necessary as these are, is thin gruel and comes nowhere near bringing out the full force that democracy, and therefore academic freedom, must play in relation to democratic life and the place of universities in society.

So I turn now to a more particular way of asking my general question:
What is needed for academic freedom and critical conscience to be active dispositions in our universities? And why are these, and related dispositions, so fundamental to the work of research, teaching, and learning?

Democracy is the name we give to the kind of culture that is necessary if the play of ideas, perspectives, creativity, imagination, cooperative investigation, and learning are to be facilitated. Democracy just is that form of society that is dependent on this continual facilitation of inquiry and discussion.

Democratic forms of life—such as untrammeled freedom of thought, the exchange of information, critical discourse, and ethically sympathetic conversation—follow from what is needed if we are to undertake the various kinds of inquiry with which we are familiar with in the university. Perhaps in the contemporary university the term ‘inquiry’ is most obviously connected with and exemplified by scientific method. Clearly there are many other forms of inquiry with their own methods and disciplines.

It is not necessary to distinguish here between the different kinds of inquiry that we find in our universities. Who, after all, would think there is no difference between investigating protons on the one hand and poetic form on the other, or between understanding the evolution of silver fish and the history of slavery?

Here is my point. All inquiry proceeds from problematical situations; from things that are puzzling, unresolved, confusing, lacking in clarity, all connected in someway to how life goes on. The university is, at root, a highly developed apparatus for stating and solving problems; a social invention that is now about 900 years into its development. Over a long time we have undoubtedly learned something about how to engage in inquiry in many domains. Across the sciences, the humanities, and the professions the disciplines of the university are a record of how we learn and of what we have learned—often with struggle, arriving at answers to problems that variously touch on every aspect of life.

To be successful, researchers, teachers, technicians, librarians, and students must all be able to freely frame hypotheses and hunches, and to freely engage in that mutual criticism which is the sole test of our best efforts. There is no place for predetermined authority in the democratic version of living and worldmaking. We are in the world with nothing more than the joined forces of our wit and our cunning to ask and answer questions.

I do not think that we can fully know in any straightforward way what our capabilities, interests, and hopes can be, short of engaging with others in solving problems and learning from shared experience. And neither can we expect to arrive at answers that are guaranteed as final and for good. There can be no final answers to what we can do and be, or to how we should live. Democracy and its universities stand for a view of life that is always in the making. And that is precisely why we need democracy with its dispositions of tolerance and sympathy. Only democracy potentially allows for the full play of perspectives and individuality in investigation, in teaching, and in learning. The values of academic freedom mean, then, treating those with whom we disagree as those from whom we can learn, and of giving differences every chance to show themselves.

Academic freedom and critical conscience as a democratic way of life must, therefore, continually inform the work and culture of the university, not just as formal rights to be defended, necessary and crucial as this is, as I have already emphasized, but also as substantive rights to be realized in every aspect of our daily academic walk, and in our daily participation as citizens in the wider society.

I would like to draw towards my conclusion by quoting John Dewey, who long ago had the following to say about the social significance of academic freedom and critical conscience, a statement which, if anything, is even more relevant to our thinking in 2014: “Today freedom of teaching and learning on the part of instructors and students is imperatively necessary for that kind of intelligent citizenship that is genuinely free to take part in the social reconstructions without which democracy will die. The question is now whether democracy is a possible form of society when affairs are as complex and economic power is as concentrated as today. Since freedom of mind and freedom of expression are the root of all freedom, to deny freedom in education is a crime against democracy. Because academic freedom is so essentially a social issue, since it is intimately bound up with what the future citizenship of the country is going to do in shaping our political and economic destiny, it is not surprising that those who either give only lip-service or who openly strive to restrict it, should also strive to present it to the public as a matter that concerns teachers only as individuals, and to represent those as active in supporting its cause as more or less unbalanced individuals who want more liberty to assert their personal views.”

Finally, by way of conclusion, I offer a single illustration of the moment—specifically Mr Joyce’s proposal to reduce the number and range of voices and viewpoints on university councils. For his purposes, Steven Joyce appears to be in no doubt as to what constitutes balanced individuals and balanced councils. His view, which we have all heard about, stands on the brink of being a crime against democracy.

Why do I say so?

Well, because de jure and de facto it is bound to have a weakening effect on the democratic foundations and culture of academic freedom and critical conscience, and thus a weakening effect on the democratic potential of the university. That is why John Dewey spoke in 1936 of a crime against democracy. It is why we can say today that academic freedom and critical conscience is still a task before us.