What’s Academic Freedom Got to Do with Us? Nothing, Absolutely Nothing

Academic freedom is the condition under which the intellectual submits herself to the normative model of the settler. –Fred Moten, “Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions”

Whenever I hear academics defending “academic freedom” as a supposed “right” of university faculty (or teachers, more generally), or bemoaning assaults upon it, or arguing that tenure is necessary to secure this “freedom,” I despair, and to be honest, I become enraged. There is perhaps no concept that is seen as less debatable among university faculty than “academic freedom,” but I’ve personally always been bothered by this because over the years I’ve seen so little of it in actual practice, even when “secured” by tenure (in the US context, at least)—partly because of the myriad ways in which scholars are coerced (subtly and otherwise) to follow certain methodologies of thought and to seek particular, peer- and administrator-approved modes and outlets for the dissemination of their work, outside of which it is believed only bad or mediocre scholarship could result (in the UK context, there are legal protections for academic freedom, whereas in the US, there are not, more on which below).

Quite obviously, one isn’t going to get very far arguing against the importance of academic freedom, but at the same time, most discussions and debates about academic freedom see it, again, as inextricably connected to, and guaranteed by, tenure, and I’ve always been mystified by this, because I believe that freedom of expression should be vigorously cultivated, cared for, and defended as a legal right everywhere and for everyone, but secondarily, and more importantly: what about everyone in the university who does not have tenure, and with non-tenure stream teaching positions now making up over 70 percent of all teaching positions, what about those who never will have tenure? (See Maximillian Alvarez, “Contingent No More: An Academic Manifesto.”) And let’s be honest: how many people with tenure are really as brave, in their speech and actions, as they claim they will be when they finally achieve tenure? Yeah…I thought so, too. And thus there isn’t much academic freedom in the precise place where it is cherished and argued for as a high ethical good.

It is important to note, however, that there is no absolute right to academic freedom that would be sheltered, for example, in the US context, under the First Amendment, even when supposedly affirmed by judicial decisions in the US such as Cary v. Board of Education (Colorado, 1977), which held that tenured secondary school teachers had the right to determine the subject matter taught in their classrooms. Nevertheless, at the same time the court determined the teachers’ First Amendment constitutional rights “were waived under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. . .between the Aurora Education Association. . .and the school district.” It is also important to note that the US Supreme Court has never recognized academic freedom as an independent constitutional right (see Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law, 1812–1813n32). According to W. Stuart Stuller, despite “tributes” to academic freedom in many court cases, “the courts are remarkably consistent in their unwillingness to give analytical shape to the rhetoric of academic freedom” (“High School Academic Freedom: The Evolution of a Fish Out of Water,” 312). The US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but legal guarantees do not ensure that everyone, everywhere, has equal access to the expression of that right. Which is why we need to understand that academic freedom is more of a practice of care (for ourselves and others) that we have to work at vigilantly every day, and thus one of the most important tasks of the public university today should be to make room for ideas to merely emerge—to foster spaces within which researchers might have more freedom than currently exists to experiment and to pursue in their work their desires, unencumbered by professional anxieties over whether or not those desires are legitimated in advance by what particular fields have already deemed as “proper” to themselves.

Rather than regulating thought, we should be working harder to create the hospitable conditions for its emergence. This would entail an attention to and care for the importance of individual scholarly desires, which of necessity come before community, and yet rely on community for their articulation (which is the very foundation of communication in general). My thinking here stems from Jean-Luc Nancy’s argument that, “behind the theme of the individual, but [also] beyond it, lurks the question of singularity…. What is their singular necessity in the sharing that divides and that puts into communication bodies, voices and writings in general and in totality?” (The Inoperative Community, 6).

Under continual assault and threat by protocols and checkpoints for tenure, for promotion, and for professional affirmation and advancement in general, we have lost sight of the important meaningfulness of singularity and self-expression, in our work and in our relationships, and this is an issue that raises complex ethical questions regarding how we care for others’ ability to self-express. (On the importance of self-expression to human flourishing, see Owen Flanagan, Self Expressions: Mind, Morals, and the Meaning of Life.) Another way of saying this is: unless academic freedom is a collective affair, it’s for the individual who can afford it and wield it and for no one else. As Seeta Chaganti has put it, “Academic freedom is vulnerable to the misguided perceptions not only that all ideas have equal legitimacy but also that all ideas have equal access to freedom in the first place” (“Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo”). Further, as Fred Moten has argued,

What does academic freedom cost those who are said to enjoy it? This is a question that is, again, corollary and secondary to the question concerning the cost of academic freedom that is meted out upon the ones whose oppression brings it into existence and relief. This problematic of cost is, of course, inseparable from a set of questions concerning benefit. We assume the benefits that accrue to academic freedom without considering the benefits that accrue to intellectual fugitivity. Academic freedom is a matter of state. It’s unclear what business it is of those of us who are, and/or may choose to be, stateless.

But here’s the weird thing: I don’t really give a damn about the “academic” arguments on behalf of the supposed critical importance of “academic freedom,” which is also to say, I don’t give a damn about an “academic freedom” that is more of a privilege (for the elite few) than a right, and I especially don’t give a damn about an “academic freedom” that assumes all opinions should receive equal air-time, especially in our contemporary moment (post-Trump) where hate speech, hate crimes, white domestic terrorism, and xenophobia are on the rise and many universities are bending over backward to accommodate the preachers of racism, misogyny, and ethno-nationalism at the expense of the safety of their own faculty and students. (On this critical point, see Alison Reed, “Gentrifying Disciplines: The Institutional Management of Trauma and Creative Dissent,” in Antiracism Inc.: Why the Way We Talk About Racial Justice Matters, 129–57). Not to mention that, by the very marker “academic,” this so-called “academic freedom” operates within and can only ever be guaranteed by state or private apparatuses that are ultimately antithetical to (and even violent towards) creative acts of individual self-determination. I further believe that even if all faculty at all universities had tenure, there would still be very little academic freedom, not only because faculty can be fired at will, regardless, for the things they might say and write (although we see examples of this all of the time, in quite frightening ways: consider the cases of Steven Salaita and of Angela Davis), but also because agonistic careerism produces cowardice as well as a strange compulsion to harm (and even to enjoy harming) fellow colleagues by telling them, in advance of employment and/or tenure, what they can and cannot say and what and where they can and cannot publish, such that by the time job security is achieved, conformity to institutional and disciplinary expectations makes the exercise of academic freedom, if it ever happens at all, pointless, hollow, hypocritical, and generally useless. Finally, I simply don’t believe in “natural” rights, and thus I don’t believe in “academic freedom” as some sort of inalienable “gift” that can be relied upon in times of institutional largesse and/or defended successfully in times of institutional adversity through appeals to “higher bodies” when under assault.

Having said all of that, I perversely consider academic freedom to be the most vital, if elusive, element of academic (and para-academic) life. It is worth repeating: there is no academic freedom, per se, and it is not a right. No one owns it, and no one individual should “possess” it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. But academic freedom is also not an “it”—it is not an “object” we can secure or exercise. What academic freedom is, instead, is a kind of practice that we have to work at vigilantly every day for ourselves and for others, and at the same time, it is also a state of being, a sort of ontological ground without which practically nothing new could ever emerge nor proceed, which is why I believe one of the most important tasks—perhaps the only task—of any scholarly “community” today would be to simply clear space (to make room). Or, as Thomas Carlson writes in The Indiscrete Image,

There is perhaps no act less loving than to step in for another, or indeed all others, so as to make everything already actual for them, given ahead of time; and there is perhaps no act more loving, or more difficult to define, or quite simply more difficult, than to give another the actuality of possibility itself—to give another time and life. (215)

One must be free from worry, free from debt, free from hunger, free from predators, free from ill health, free from bullying, free from censure, free from oppression, free from harm, free from grief, and so on, before one can even begin to feel safe enough to express oneself, or even to work at all as a thinker and researcher, unbesieged by various fears and anxieties. This is true more generally for everyone, of course, and is considered by many to be a global human right, but: who guarantees this? Who works on its behalf? At some level, “academic freedom” is, and should be, bound up with an ethics of care, one that follows from Audre Lorde’s dictum that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare” (“A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer,” 130). Addressing the imbalances of academic freedom and self-expression in the age of social media, Tressie McMillan Cottom, in “Academic Outrage: When the Culture Wars Go Digital,” has written that “we must take better care with one another, even if we do not like each other.”

It is worth saying again: freedom is a state of being, and it is not natural. What this means is that we actually have to work, and fairly hard at that, to establish the means, spaces, and mechanisms with which anyone anywhere at all could exercise their so-called “academic” or any other sort of freedom. We have to feel free (which is not the same thing as actually being free, but which will have to do in the interminable interim). And please keep in mind that legal acts don’t guarantee the sorts of prosperity (of mind, soul, and body) that enable real freedom (as ontological ground) such that one could exercise one’s freedom as a practice that contributed to one’s well-being and flourishing. I know that sounds tautological, but it’s the only way I know how to express this idea at present—that what we need to work on now, if we really care about “academic freedom,” is not just ensuring or extending tenure for more persons, but also working, in Foucault’s words in his preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, to track down and extirpate “all varieties of fascism, from the enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives” (xv–xvi).

What many of us who feel cut off or abandoned by the public university right now want is the freedom and space to experience, and to enact, living for ideas and for creative acts of intellection. This is both a melancholic and yet a perversely hopeful desire. As it doesn’t ask to know what will happen (we could never really know), but it nevertheless wants to craft some hope that something will happen, and that it will, of our own willed necessity, be better than this. The public university should comprise everyone who wants to be a part of it, whether or not they have an official position or desk. If we can “manifest” ourselves (which is to say, to make ourselves more present to each other, which is to also say, more responsible for, and more vulnerable to, each other) in some sort of collective endeavor that works on behalf of the future without laying any possessive claims upon it, then we might be able to craft new spaces for the university-at-large, which is also a university that wanders, that is never just somewhere, dwelling in the partitive—of a particular place—but rather, seeks to be everywhere, always on the move, pandemic, uncontainable, and yes, precarious, always at risk, while always being present-between-us. At the same time, we insist on perversely-hopefully laying claim to specific institutions and subject areas as collocations of objects and trajectories of thought that we desire to hold close to us, while also placing them in certain perpetual tensions with everything else (even ourselves).

In her 2002 essay “Group Time: Catastrophe, Periodicity, Survival,” published in Time and the Literary, Aranye Fradenburg wrote that, “enjoyment is the matrix of knowledge, and knowledge is not diminished thereby…. Interpretation and explanation are activities central to libidinal structuration and vice versa…. We thereby reclaim our technical work [the humanities, for example] as the work of desire, and desire as that which makes the world” (232). In her book Sacrifice Your Love, published the same year, she continued the theme, urging us to take up the question of the jouissance of the Academy: “we cannot discipline jouissance out of the academy, because discipline is always permeated with enjoyment. So why give ground on our enjoyment?” (247). Yes to all of this, but we must also reflect that desire, enjoyment, jouissance, and the study they occasion and are occasioned by—these things, of necessity, must all have room, they must all proceed from a variety of freedoms, and this will also mean understanding that the other critical term here, in addition to freedom, is responsibility. Someone, or some distributive collectives of someones, needs to take responsibility for securing this freedom for the greatest number of persons possible who want to participate in intellectual-cultural life and for enabling the greatest possible number of forms of such life, thereby also ensuring the creative robustness of the larger social systems within which we are all enfolded together, whether university, whiskey bar, apartment building, city park, subway car, kitchen, church, boat, bedroom, or polis. We must all accept responsibility for this—or academic freedom remains a mirage at best, and at worst, a lie.

Eileen A. Joy

Eileen A. Joy is a specialist in Old English literary studies and cultural studies, as well as a para-academic rogue, and a publisher, with interests in poetry and poetics, intellectual history, ethics, affects, embodiments, queer studies, object/thing studies, the ecological, post/humanisms, and scholarly communications. She is the founding ingenitor of the BABEL Working Group, co-editor of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and founding director of punctum books: spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion.