Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Academic freedom has long been enshrined as a core tenet of a forward-thinking political culture. Back in 1892, William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, declared that, ‘When for any reason . . . the administration of [a university] attempts to dislodge a professor because of his political or religious sentiments, at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university.’ The point was not only to respect the distinction between religious and secular institutions, but also to protect the autonomy of the research faculty from the influence of the very forces – state legislatures and philanthropic businessmen – that support it.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American university professor, finds himself out of a job after using Twitter to condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer. Consider also the case of pro-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein, who was hounded out of US academia in 2007 following a high-profile public argument with Alan Dershowitz.
US academia’s slow drift away from those Progressive-era high ideals is the subject of Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, a collection of essays co-edited by two senior scholars from Columbia University. Unsurprisingly, the Middle East – and Israel-Palestine in particular – looms large in this study, with characteristically impassioned contributions from Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky.
Even those seeking to undermine academic freedom campaign under its banner. A right-wing organisation calling itself Students for Academic Freedom has recently exhorted US students to report ‘unfair grading, one-sided lectures and stacked reading lists’. Under the pretext of protecting students’ interests, the group – an offshoot of the conservative think-tank, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre – targets liberal and left-leaning academics in a campaign that combines chillingly McCarthyite overtones with a specious rhetoric of student empowerment.
Co-editor Jonathan R Cole cites John Stuart Mill’s observation that ‘truth . . . has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners’ to point out that it is not simply a matter of paying lip service to political pluralism. What is at stake is the very efficacy and credibility of the research faculty as a system for the production of knowledge.
As this volume of essays shows, the debate around academic freedom is as old as the research university itself. Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? is all the more timely given the increasingly precarious political economy of higher education in a world of austerity economics, which is likely to leave educational institutions ever more dependent on – and exponentially vulnerable to manipulation by – private interests.
Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny