The definition of academic freedom, for many, does not accommodate dissent.

Associate professor of English at Virginia Tech

Academic freedom is often a diversion from the free practices of academic labor. It does not yet fully accommodate dissent. In many ways, as the essays in the collection The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent illustrate, academic freedom is a byproduct (and progenitor) of deeply conformist institutional cultures. It can be an administrative convenience, a high-minded diversion, a platitude, or an appropriated symbol.

Academic freedom—in practice, anyway—has never fully accommodated dissent. Well before the McCarthy era, the most infamous period of restricted speech, academe was hostile to people of color, women, Jews, and queers. Nearly a century later, the hostility toward these groups has not yet disappeared.

These days the most visible site of debate around academic freedom is the Israel-Palestine conflict, in particular as it is approached through the movement for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. BDS—the academic boycott of Israel, specifically—has become a passionate topic on campus. Since the American Studies Association (ASA) passed its boycott resolution last December, BDS has been discussed passionately off campus as well. 

Analyzing the boycott

Let’s look at the praxis accompanying the discussion. Those against academic boycott, both on and off campus, have consistently invoked academic freedom as the reasoning for their position (though some confess loyalty to Zionism as a motivation). A boycott, the argument goes, would restrict the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and impinge on the exchange of ideas so crucial to scholarly life.

This assertion has consistently been unmasked as fallacious. Academic boycott is careful to distinguish between institutions and individuals. Some have observed that the distinction is functionally impossible, but only individuals who consciously participate in advocacy for the Israeli state would be affected. Boycott transfers responsibility to the individual, but never targets her for preemptive exclusion. In this sense academic boycott is consummately reactive.

There is no evidence that academic boycott systematically limits an Israeli scholar’s ability to travel and conduct research. On the other hand, engagement with Palestine has repeatedly proved deleterious to one’s professional development. It has long been a truism that speaking in support of Palestine is an excellent way to forestall tenure or promotion. Some scholars have been fired for such support, and dozens have been incessantly harassed and subject to campaigns for their termination.

The question of academic freedom, then, should be trained on those who have been punished for speech or advocacy. It is usually directed at those in the camp of the oppressor, instead. Academic boycott never acts on a person’s expression of views, but on his actions. Does he perform at the behest of the government of Israel? If so, he is actively participating in the subjugation of Palestinian students and scholars and thus subject to boycott.

In short, boycott is not a contravention of academic freedom, but an expression of it.

The tactics of those opposed to boycott affirm the importance of the movement. Beyond the turn to government elites and university presidents, a strategy I call “the appeal to authority,” four states have introduced legislation that aims to defund departments whose memberships have any ties to the ASA. The legislation would also disallow universities to provide travel money and research support for members of an organization that has endorsed academic boycott. It is clear which side presents a legitimate threat to academic freedom. 

Rethinking academic freedom as discourse

Often lost in arguments about BDS is a fundamental question: what of the Palestinians? Their rights to speech, assembly, and organizing, in both Israel and the Occupied Territories, are severely limited, in many cases nonexistent. Far from shutting down scholarly interchange, boycott implicates institutions whose practices suppress the academic freedom of an entire class of people based on nothing more than biology.

BDS, then, is a terrific framework for approaching academic freedom as a discourse above and beyond its functional role, which has never been comprehensive. Discursively, academic freedom can easily rationalize dispossession of rights, in the same way that the vocabulary of civil rights has been appropriated by conservative politicians to conceptualize white men as the true victims of American racism. For this reason (among others), I’m tepid about academic freedom as a right. I consider it more productive to think about academic freedom as an idea constantly in flux, whose practice is not always aligned with its ideals.

The preservation of academic freedom as a rights-based structure, in other words, shouldn’t be the focus of our work. We should focus on the development and maintenance of just labor conditions and the disengagement of our institutions from the exercise of state violence. Academic freedom is important insofar as it protects our ability to do this work. When it doesn’t offer such protection, then it becomes just another high-minded slogan, the type university administrators love to evoke to conceal the ugly side of university governance.

To put it in simpler terms, we shouldn’t trust “academic freedom.” We do better to apply to the term the same scrutiny we direct at the phenomena we study, a process academic freedom supposedly insulates from recrimination. Yet recrimination is common. In the end, only when academic freedom is sufficiently anatomized can it perform its inherent promise.

Steven Salaita is associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is a contributor to the edited volume The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent.
For more on BDS and academic freedom, see Sunaina Maira‘s recent post to the UMP blog.
“The public space of higher education is under siege. The Imperial University interrogates in brilliant detail the nature of such attacks and the hidden structures of power and politics that define them. But it does more in providing a passionate call to rethink higher education as part of a future in which learning is linked to social change. A crucial book for anyone who imagines the university as both an essential public sphere and an index of what a democracy should be.”
—Henry A. Giroux, McMaster University

“Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s The Imperial University charts the many ways that institutions of higher education fail to meet the needs of students and the teachers who instruct them. It’s a wonderful, stimulating and anger-inducing book.”

Leave a Reply