The Value of Academic Freedom

A little while ago, a paper emerged from the interwebs titled, “Overflow in science and its implications for trust“. As its parsimonious title suggests, the paper concerns itself with the over-production of scientific research publications (“overflow”) and the implications of this speed of productivity for trust between scientists. The ever growing demand for academic productivity has produced new challenges for scholarly research, as information becomes more readily accessible, voluminous and specialized. The high speed of production of scientific publications (and also academic publications more generally) produces a Matthew Effect within the academic attention economy, whereby well-known scholars become valuable anchors for guiding the broader field and thereby increase in value and esteem. Meanwhile, lesser-known scholars find it increasingly difficult to accrue similar degrees of peer esteem. Essentially – the academically rich get richer and the poor get “I regret to inform you…” Overall, the fields affected by overflow may be experiencing a growing lack of trust, as the push to be ‘visible’ (and hence valuable) provides incentive for researchers to make bolder claims about their findings, to stand out, while journals find it harder to secure reviewers competent in the assessment of the volumes of articles being submitted to them (see Seibert et al.’s paper for an account from USA’s medical sciences).

The pressure to be popular produces distortions in a range of domains associated with academic and scientific work. Alongside the growing important of gaining fame in the scholarly attention economy, managerial pressure to produce ever more research publications also has the potential to transform values fundamental to both academic and scientific enterprises. The illustrative example that I will focus on in the remainder of this post is the valued idea of “academic freedom”.

Academic freedom is a value that has attained a high degree of normative integrity across the academic profession. Even in a post-modern era where the values of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and the ‘good’ face not only epistemic but ontological fracturing, academic freedom is still held a primary norm through which these values are explored and contested. The absence of this freedom is also the condition under which truth, beauty and goodness are warped by ‘external’ interests. The academic pursuit entails a kind of free speech, which Foucault may have perhaps described as necessarily “fearless” (the first lecture here is pretty neat). But free speech itself is not enough to fire the engines of an academic freedom. Free speech must be paired with free inquiry – the ability to pursue truth, beauty or the good. Robert Merton perhaps most clearly outlined the values and norms required to pursue truth in modern science. Merton’s values/norms of Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organized Scepticism (CUDOS) highlight the necessarily social and organizational nature of modern science. For science, as for the academic profession more generally, the freedoms of the individual cannot be ensured apart from institutions. The university has a vital role to play here.

In an era in which universities are facing large organizational restructuring, the power relations that had once encouraged the maintenance of (an admittedly masculine, European and restrictive) vision of academic freedom have mutated and no longer aspire to the separation of the academic, and the profane world of everyday life and economy. The “impure” world of economics and the broader social are now regularly invoked to argue that academics should be more open and responsive to “the rapidly changing world in which we live“. The challenge is to remain open to social needs whilst avoiding outsourcing ethics to poorly suited proxies such as economic gains or governmental policy agendas. It is within these milieu – the ‘disorganized’, the ‘runaway’, the ‘postmodern’ – that academic professional norms and universities have mutually-constitutive responsibilities towards their enterprise.

Academic freedom is insufficient when conceptualised as negative freedoms (i.e. the freedom from interference, censorship, etc.) because this view presupposes that academics have access to the means to conduct their pursuits. In a corporatising university, subjected to every more restrictions on the resources available to research and teaching staff, access to the means to conduct academic duties are not ensured. The “ivory tower” vision of academic freedom as a negative freedom is also a privileged view of academia – of a wealthy and self-sustaining endeavour. In a scenario of resource abundance, negative freedoms may be enough to ensure that worthy research projects commence and that valuable lessons are conducted. It is not commodificaiton per se that threatens academic freedom, but rather the failure to recognise that in an era of resource scarcity, academic freedom must be conceptualised as a positive freedom. This would entail, among other things, the freedom to conduct worthy research, the freedom to disseminate research, the freedom to have that research acknowledged by the broader academic community – for what value is a message sent that is never received?

Academic freedom is not the freedom of any individual, but the freedom of truth, beauty and the good to exist with some degree of consistency among human beings. Merton’s norms and values of modern science are concerned with the enactment of the scientific enterprise, not the benefice of any individuals. Merton’s CUDOS are the norms through which the pursuit of truth is to be realised in a modern society. They are the integrity of science in human minds. Both academics (as the actuators of these values) and universities (as institutions with any sense of self-integrity) have an inherent interest in sustaining academic (alongside scientific) norms and values. Academic freedom, as the broadest of these values, is hence paramount to distinguishing the academic from other (non-professional) modes of communication and action. Conceived in the negative mode, academic freedom is divisive, as academics may compete against one another for (for example) less interference or less censorship through economic means. The tenured professor wealthy in both grant funding and prestige can purchase the time and attention of lesser academic commodities, more easily dictate the terms of research, to a degree. Conceived in the positive mode, academic freedom must be pursued in cooperation. Competition over scarce resources produces appeals to the private interests of funding bodies, incentive for academics to engage in “boasting” research findings and generally self-interested conduct. (Mark Carrigan aptly describes the competitive self-interest produced by the recent digital metrification of academic work, claiming that “The depressing thought is that I struggle to imagine not being interested in them [publication and citation metrics]“.)

Although academic freedom is not a freedom for the benefit of individuals, it does entail an ethics of the individual – a mode of relating to oneself as an academic. That is, academic freedom is normative. When taken for a negative freedom, the maximisation of academic freedom might entail the maximisation of discretionary effort – that is, the effort one expends above the threshold required to avoid “getting in trouble”. Maximising academic freedom in this manner is fraught with deleterious consequences for both academic work cultures and perhaps even the academic profession in general. Individuals encourage each other to overwork via positively reinforcing workaholism and the broader academic profession becomes obsessed with proxies of academic value, such as publication formulae, citation counts and grant dollars.

A positive conception of academic freedom – as a freedom of the academic profession, not the individual – is a useful conceptual tool to re-frame what is at stake in the corporatised/managerial university. Individual academics are encouraged within metric assemblages to become self-interested actors, seeking to maximise their personal freedoms often in competition with other academic actors. While this survival-of-the-fittest model of academe may indeed assist universities in adapting to changing funding environments, producing leaner and meaner bureaucracies, it does not ensure that academe will remain a distinct realm in which truth, beauty and the good are openly sought, spoken and heard. This would require a bureaucracy that recognises that academic freedom and integrity are systemic. The danger is not individual dishonesty (which is rare and readily sanctioned), but the systemic normalization of self-interest over scientific interest.