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Academic Freedom and the Corporate University

Academic Freedom and the Corporate University

In a recent blog, David Browne, Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, Legal firm with clients in Higher Education argued that universities face the problem that ‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.

[Readers searching for the blog will discover that it has been changed and clarified, without providing an explanation of what was at issue – the original blog is no longer available – UPDATE 15.21 – we have screenshots of the original blog here and here!]

The blog drew an analogy with the Suarez biting incident, but seemed to show an ignorance about ‘value’ both in football and in the academy. A partner at the same firm and head of education, Smita Jamdar, joined the debate on Twitter, to suggest that the blog was intended as metaphorical exploration of ‘what happens when people stray outside the freedoms permitted by their respective positions’.

What is at issue is precisely what is permitted by virtue of academic position and how that is being been re-interpreted in the new managerial regimes now governing universities. As Adam Hedgecoe suggested in another tweet, academic freedom is specified in the Education Reform Act 1988, Section 202 (2). The clause, setting out the role of a new body of University Commissioners, is quite specific: “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions

The relevant test is within the ‘law’, not within the managerial definition of ‘brand protection’. It is significant, but also worrying, that Smita Jamdar left the twitter exchange with the comment that we will ‘just have to agree to differ’. The relevant clause does not permit her interpretation and seems quite specifically to require that academic staff’s freedom of expression should be protected against the actions of employers. Her colleague, David Browne, subsequently changed his blog to allow that ‘lawful exercise of academic freedom does not amount to misconduct’.

Notwithstanding, the original version of the blog and the trope of ‘damaging the brand interest’ remains. This is, of course part of the new marketised regime of higher education where reputation, rank orders and market position are all-consuming concerns of senior managers. As I have argued elsewhere, Vice Chancellors have been very keen to argue for the autonomy of universities. ‘Autonomy’ is a powerful signifier in the academic community, it is also a shifting one. For scholars, autonomy stands for the academic vocation and academic freedom. However, for today’s university leaders, it usually stands for something else: the right to manage their university in a higher education market.

This isn’t the vision of autonomy previously embedded in collegiate organisation or in the idea of academic vocation. However, as soon as ‘brand’ trumps the commitment to knowledge and its critical engagements, the very idea of a university is at issue. In this context, it is not merely that academics have a right to speak out, they have a duty to do so, since what is at stake is so crucial.

In a powerful essay on the embroilment of LSE in the scandal of Libyan money, Craig Calhoun, subsequently to become Director of LSE, argued that the problem was that universities had become corporations just like any other. But the point was that they weren’t like any other and had an academic mission associated with public values. The problem is that senior managers no longer think it necessary to express those values.

Academic freedom is precisely what is necessary to protect the corporate university from the very threats to its integrity that derive from market freedom. It is not simply that universities should tolerate outspoken academics. The present situation requires them.

  1. Alan Keenan says:

    Shocking that even a corporate lawyer could say such a thing.

    Meanwhile, is there any chance of making the FONT on this blog bigger? It’s TOO SMALL – makes it too hard to read your excellent work!

  2. There are so many salient differences between the two cases, it is hard to know where to start. For one thing, The Liverpool FC ‘brand’ is legally owned by John W. Henry. University Managements do not own anything, and are as much employees and the academics whom they manage. For another, biting an opponent is not obviously equivalent to, indeed obviously not equivalent to “outspoken opinion” with the potential to damage the brand, or general insubordination. Third, A club selling a player, is not equivalent with a University sacking an academic. What this shows is that a senior member of top line (no doubt very expensive) legal firm boasting some of “the most accomplished legal experts in the sector” does not know how to draw an appropriate analogy. It also shows that the focus of their efforts is on how to keep unruly academics from speaking up, and with finding legal ways of firing them.

  3. mike cushman says:

    WTF. This an extraordinary example of the internalisation of neo-liberal market values by an apparently intelligent professional to the degree that it over rides common sense.

    If universities have”brand value”surely it must rest on independent enquiry otherwise they are glorified thinktanks, albeit with lecture theatres attached, providing acceptable views to clients.

  4. A fantastic post, John. Killer closing paragraph.

    Earlier today, I submitted the comment below under Browne’s post at the SGH Martineau blog. It hasn’t appeared yet so I’ll post it here instead.


    First, it’s good to see that you modified the original post in response to the exchanges on Twitter. Standard blogging “etiquette”, however, is that one clearly highlights where edits to the original post have been made.

    It’s just a little more honest that way…

    For those who might visit this blog due to the “tweetstorm”, John Holmwood’s riposte to the post is well worth reading if you haven’t already. (Coincidentally, John links to screenshots of the original version of the post above).

    Finally, I’m intrigued as to what you consider to be “general insubordination”. I wrote the following in a Times Higher Education article last year. Does it constitute a disciplinary matter in your view?

    “The increasing number of incredibly dumb attempts at top-down university management also eat up time. The most recent irritation is my university’s “personal development and performance review” system, whose documentation features some of the most patronising (and poorly written) junk I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. Despite management’s best efforts, I do not subscribe to the idea that I should feel loyalty to the University of Nottingham’s “corporate brand”, and my objectives certainly do not automatically align with theirs, as they seem to think should be a given.”

    • Liz Morrish says:

      Philip Moriarty is not displaying insubordination, but his letter is a prime example of insolence. This latter is probably not such a target for disciplinary action. Frankly, perfecting both ‘comptencies’ is what keeps me in the job.

      • in·so·lent [in-suh-luhnt] adj.

        boldly rude or disrespectful; contemptuously impertinent; insulting


        Is what I’ve written in the Times Higher article disrespectful, contemptously impertinent, and insulting?

        Yes. But the Personal Development and Performance Review (PDPR) documentation to which I refer is equally insulting to staff, as is the idea of “brand loyalty”. Respect has to be earned.

    • I suspect your university assumes that your objectives align with theirs because you applied for a job there, and took it when offered (much as you would expect from your Postdocs, etc, in your lab). And if their objectives have changes in the interim, then they might wonder what you have done to influence them.

      • So you’re saying that the University expects my objectives to align with theirs automatically simply because I work for them? Remarkable.

        This would mean that, for example, when the University of Nottingham shamelessly, shamefully, and farcically accepted money from British American Tobacco while I was a lecturer, that I should simply toe the line about this?

        And if the objectives of postdocs and PhD students “naturally” align with mine then there’s something going badly wrong in the group!! I want those researchers to argue, debate, critique my ideas and objectives. Indeed, one way of determine whether a student has earned their PhD is if they explain to me just why an idea I have is flawed.

        I find your comment really unsettling. The entire rationale for a university is that it should be a place where critical thinking can happen. Your argument is that academics should be expected to put aside critique and criticism and toe the corporate line.

        • I may have phrased that badly.
          I’m saying academics should seek to change it, not toe a corporate line. Simply complaining is not enough. At least at Edinburgh, it is still “academics” (at least they were once upon a time) who run the university. Mostly on a cyclic basis. Critique and criticism are vital, but solutions and alternatives are needed beyond that if you want to change things.
          And individuals willing to support other individuals who try to do so.

          • Ah, OK, Iain. That’s now clear and we’re in agreement.

            Unfortunately, we’re moving to a situation where academics are being gently, and not-so-gently, pushed to one side when it comes to university management.

            And, believe me, I do seek to do more than just whine! But the problem is that criticism/critique is now seen as something that results from “not being a team-player”.

  5. We live increasingly in an Orwellian higher education environment. In an era where competence at the administrative levels is manufactured and the new managerialism seeks to stamp out any dissent and resort to authoritarian and bureaucratic control mechanisms, the new administrative class fails to recognize two things: first, the more they try to control employees, events, and the brand, the more elusive that becomes. High performers retreat and do their own things. Perhaps that is what they want, mediocrity proclaiming greatness. Second, as Moriarty notes, respect is to be earned. In the American respect, just like greatness is asserted and demanded under the hollow culture of excellence. These managers have become the parasites of higher education.

  6. Bob Brecher says:

    Excellent analysis, as ever. But one thing that particularly worries me is that people should be at all surprised by the development: the neo-liberal revolution is a structural one. So these sorts of things are said, not because this or that lawyer is or is not a neo-liberal, naive, arse-licking or whatever, but because they find themselves in a particular position. Maybe the best account I know is Alastair MacIntyre, ‘ Social Structures and their Threat to Moral Agency’, Philosophy, 1999.

    • Howard Hotson says:

      What I find surprising here is the woefully inadequate analogy on which this entire legal blog rests. Luis Suarez’s job description is to play football. An academic’s job description is, among other things, to debate controversial issues. If either repeatedly bites colleagues in front of a television audience of millions, they might legitimately be punished for unprofessional conduct — damage to the brand is neither here nor there. Yet in the looking-glass word of corporate law, a football player behaving unprofessionally is tantamount to an academic fulfilling one of their core professional obligations.

  7. If one football player bites another then the referee blows a whistle and calls “foul”. If, in consequence, the referee is disciplined, then he will find it difficult to do his job. If those who discipline him do so covertly, perhaps manipulating video evidence from which independent observers may decide on whether the bite took place, then we perhaps begin to see some sort of parallel with recent events in UK universities.

    Truth is the primary and overriding concern of members of a university’s academic staff. To suspend or dismiss them on the grounds that their judgement does not find favour with administrators is to negate the reason for the university’s existence in the first place. Academic freedom is not an out-dated perk. No university worthy of the name attempts to prescribe lines of enquiry, nor conclusions reached, in research, teaching and scholarship.

    To quote from one institution’s Ordinances:

    “Where there is any issue as to the meaning of ‘academic freedom’ in any proceedings under these Ordinances, regard shall be had to Sections VI and VII of the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris on 11 November 1997.”

    I’ve recently had cause to consult the UNESCO “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel” of 1997.

    I recommend it.

    The academic, as the referee, must retain the freedom to do what he is paid for.

    What, otherwise, do universities actually do?

    And what is it that their managers actually manage?

  8. Most interesting post and comments. Politically, UK universities have always been independent of the monarch’s First Minister; our charters are from the monarch, not their appointed government. Financially, we are beholden to the government. So @Bob Brecher is spot on. This is a cultural shift, whereby a section of society decides that it is NOT connected to the rest and can happily disengage financially, morally and so on.
    It wasn’t always so. In WWI, the highest casualties were in the officer class. At the end of the war, the Prime Minister wrote a cheque to HMG worth 20% of his considerable fortune, as his personal contribution to sorting out postwar National Debt.
    I haven’t noticed any cheques from ourTony or Dave recently and the former seems to be rather good at enriching himself….

    An excellent read on the decline of the officer class is this post:

  9. “Brand” is simply the new incarnation of “reputation”, which universities have protected for as long as they have had one. It is not a new issue, just a different word.

    And any university leader/manager who knows their business will recognise that outspoken individuals (as long as they at least conduct themselves in a professional manner) can enhance, rather than diminish, the “brand”.

    • Why does your comment remind me so much of this?:

      “I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too, “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing, he’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.”

      ““Ooh, you know what Bill’s doing now, he’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. A lot of people are feeling that indignation. We’ve done research – huge market. He’s doing a good thing.”

      • Good video. Funny.

        But it’s not really an argument.
        The point I was making was that Universities have done, and always will, protect their “reputation”. That is reasonable. That some people call it “brand”… well, it’s still the same. Disciplines are also like brands ( ). The most important feature that distinguishes universities as valuable to society is that it has individuals who can say unpopular things. That is why university leaders/managers should be happy to encourage vocal academics (within appropriate limits of conduct, but with few borders on content). IMHO.

        • No, of course it’s not an argument. But the train of thought that Hicks is lampooning is remarkably similar to that to which you alluded.

          You say,

          “The most important feature that distinguishes universities as valuable to society is that it has individuals who can say unpopular things”

          Great. We can agree on this. But then I fail to understand your point above about my objectives automatically being aligned with those of the UoN simply because I work here. “Unpopular things” also means things which are unpopular with the university!

          For example:: University objective is to enhance level of commercialisation of research (in order to meet impact requirements set down by RCUK and HEFCE).

          This is not an objective I share and I criticise the impact “agenda” (for want of a better term) often and loudly.

          There appears to be an inherent contradiction in your argument:

          Outspoken re. impact — good (being outspoekn in a professional sense enhances UoN ‘brand’ (ugh)).

          But criticism of impact opposes UoN objectives- bad.

          What am I missing?

    • Just taken a look at your blog.

      “You only need to look at the letters pages of THE (Time Higher Education) to see that sometimes, some academics (none of my colleagues, of course!) seem to have unrealistic and impractical ideas of what Higher Education is for, and how it should be run”

      I’m intrigued. Could you enlighten us as to what Higher Education is for, and how it should be run? Thanks.

      • From same blog:

        “I personally believe Universities should be rooted in the ambition of improving the human condition[1]. And we must be open to the possibility that bettering the human condition for all might actually mean reducing growth or lowering people’s quality of life for some.

        Indeed, it might include many things that most academics or society at large might currently think to be wrong. For example, who can make the case against perpetual economic growth? Only academics can be in a position to think these unthinkable thoughts and to see where they lead. They might lead somewhere better, or they may lead somewhere worse. But someone has to think them. In fact, most often they lead nowhere – in this model of knowledge generation we must accept that most scholarly research will lead to no practical use.

        That is the price you pay in exchange for the occasional nugget.”

        • The corporatization and marketization of universities regularly flies in the face of the improvement of the human condition.

          Just how are universities going to improve the human condition when your argument is that academics should keep their mouths shut, align their objectives with those of the university (in all cases), and toe the corporate line?

          I hate to include another quote but this one is so apposite I really can’t resist:

          “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

          I’m sure you know the source.

          • >The corporatization and marketization of universities
            >regularly flies in the face of the improvement of the
            >human condition.


            >Just how are universities going to improve the human
            >condition when your argument is that academics should
            >keep their mouths shut, align their objectives with those
            >of the university (in all cases), and toe the corporate line?

            Agreed. I don’t think they should keep their mouths shut about both external or internal issues.
            I do think attempting to change from the inside is the first thing to try for internal matters, though. (Because I think reputation *is* important, hence my “brand” comment). Of course, the problem is that academics are usually too busy to get fully involved in the areas that need changed, IMHO.

          • I’m glad we’re converging on a relative similar position on this, Iain!


            “I do think attempting to change from the inside is the first thing to try for internal matters, though”

            But where do you go when attempting to change things from the inside doesn’t work? One of the only ways for academics to impose pressure on the inside is to affect what’s happening outside. (Much like the piston-and-chamber models beloved of introductory thermodynamics!)

            So perhaps the only way of applying that internal pressure is to flag up very publicly where the university in question is getting things wrong…

          • When it doesn’t work internally, I’m happy for it to go external.

  10. “And any university leader/manager who knows their business…”. I agree.

    However, what is their business? What would Warwick managers have to say about that?

    Consider, as another example, “A salute to whistleblowers”

    There, Peter Cameron cites a case where, in his view, “management … have completely lost sight of what a university is for.”

    Management must have something in sight. Otherwise, what does it manage?

    “What do universities actually do?”

    • I agree that there is a serious lack of discussion amongst academics about the purpose of a university. The result has been that government has stepped in and filled that gap by telling us what *they* want it to be. That’s the reason, IMHO, for the current pickle we are in in the UK.

      My own view, is that we are in the business of “thought” ( ), which is not a product, but a service. Universities are the only place in society mandated with thinking — the doing, the sharing and the teaching of thinking. Inside the box, and outside it. Popular and unpopular. Acceptable and unacceptable. Blue skies and practical. In covering a wide range of modes of thinking, that is how we serve society.
      IMHO. 🙂


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