Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it

Academic freedom is contingent on the epistemologies and politics of the time.

A case in point are the past debates in the University and College Union (UCU) for an academic boycott of Israel, which premises that Israel’s negation of academic freedom for Palestinians should consequently negate academic freedom for Israel. A paper co-authored by the left-wing Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel and the Palestinian academic Asad Ghanem was submitted to the journal Political Geography in the spring of 2002. The paper, which identified the state of Israel as “dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group” and thus could not be substantively considered a democracy, was returned unopened. The explanation: Political Geography cannot accept a paper submission from Israel (Beckett, 2002). One of the journal’s editors, David Slater, stated that he did not read the paper, but because he was familiar with some of Yiftachel’s earlier work, he “was not sure to what extent [Yiftachel] had been critical of Israel”. The paper was eventually accepted for publication after substantial revisions were made, including the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa (Beckett, 2002). Slater (2004: 646) later stated that an academic boycott of Israel is a “legitimate and necessary” response to the Israeli state’s denial of academic freedom for Palestinians, but that his original “total boycott” was a “maximalist” position that he no longer held.

Intersecting with the epistemologies and politics of the time, academic freedom is dependent on research funding and the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The REF effectively discourages academic diversity “because universities tailor their submissions to what they think REF panels want, and REF panels reflect disciplinary hierarchies” (Sayer, 2014) and the power of particular academic cultures (Stockhammer, 2021). The “continued narrowing of [the discipline of] economics”, for example, is “bolstered by the REF”; with “[n]on-mainstream approaches that rely on different ontological or methodological premises hardly ever […] published in the top journals” (Stockhammer, 2021). Thus, academic dissent, debate and innovations of thought are limited.

In principle, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to conduct teaching and research without political or commercial interference or institutional censorship; this must balance with, UCU (2021) notes, “the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others” and must “refrain from all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination”.

The sacking of David Miller in October 2021 was, according to the University of Bristol, the outcome of a disciplinary hearing that found Miller had failed to meet the standards of behaviour that the employer expects from its staff (BBC, 2021). If Miller did breach the staff code of conduct, then a genuinely independent, open and transparent process was needed. Academics should not be dismissed for their political views. Discriminatory or harassment behaviour, which may or may not follow from political views, could be considered grounds for dismissal but only after a due process and where alleviation without further harm to the victims is not possible (Solidarity, 2021).

Academic freedom is conditional on wider societal forces.

The resignation of Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex in October 2021, under her lament that she was a victim of a “medieval” “witch-hunt” (cited in Hayes, 2021; Adams, 2021), has since provided her with an extraordinarily high platform in mainstream media. This platform reflects both the dominance of the socially traditionalist ideas that Stock holds on the sex/gender binary and transgenderism, and the fact that she falls on the Conservative government’s side of its culture war on so-called ‘woke’ academia. Stock has used her hegemonic platform to question the right of students to protest and to discredit gender scholars such as Alison Phipps (see: BBC Women’s Hour, 2021; UnHerd, 2021). Under the guise that her own academic freedom has been infringed, Stock appears to be consciously seeking to infringe the freedom of others – students and academics in support of transgender rights based on gender identity – at precisely a moment in society when the rights of transgender people are under attack through the conservative notion of biological sex as destiny.

Academic freedom has never been sacrosanct, we must fight for it. It is a site of struggle shaped by competing ideologies, forces and conditions of existence and relations of power. Democratically-organised academic agency, which is active in critical thought and debate, is essential for its survival and necessary advancement.

References

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Adams, Richard (2021) Kathleen Stock says she quit university post over ‘medieval’ ostracism, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/nov/03/kathleen-stock-says-she-quit-university-post-over-medieval-ostracism, last accessed 11th November 2021.

BBC (2021) Bristol University: Professor David Miller sacked over Israel comments, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-58765052, last accessed 10th November 2021.

BBC Women’s Hour (2021) Professor Kathleen Stock, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001153q?at_custom1=%5Bpost+type%5D&at_custom3=%40BBCWomansHour&at_custom2=twitter&at_campaign=64&at_medium=custom7&at_custom4=E0AE9ED4-3C87-11EC-BE34-937496E8478F, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Beckett, Andy (2002) ‘It’s water on stone – in the end the stone wears out’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/dec/12/highereducation.uk, last accessed 10th November 2021.

Hayes, Andy (2021) Kathleen Stock: Professor who resigned over trans rights ‘witch-hunt’ joins new US university, Sky News, https://news.sky.com/story/kathleen-stock-professor-who-resigned-over-trans-rights-witch-hunt-joins-new-us-university-12464140, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Sayer, Derek (2014) Five reasons why the REF is not fit for purpose, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/dec/15/research-excellence-framework-five-reasons-not-fit-for-purpose, last accessed 10th November 2021.

Slater, David (2004) Editorial comment: academic politics and Israel / Palestine, Political Geography 23, 645-646.

Solidarity (2021) Kathleen Stock resigns, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2021-11-02/kathleen-stock-resigns, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Stockhammer, Engelbert (2021) The REF’s singular focus on excellence limits academic diversity, LSE Blogs, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2021/04/29/the-refs-singular-focus-on-excellence-limits-academic-diversity/, last accessed 10th November 2021.

UCU (2021) UCU statement on academic freedom, https://www.ucu.org.uk/academicfreedom, last accessed 11th November 2021.

Unherd (2021) Kathleen Stock: I won’t be silenced, https://unherd.com/2021/11/kathleen-stock-i-wont-be-silenced/, last accessed 11th November 2021.

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