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.