A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlines the threats to academic freedom and freedom of speech currently looming via various state legislative proposals. It’s an important article, because the authors — Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt — focus on the big picture, writing:
The attacks on free speech constitute only one element of a far larger and tremendously dangerous campaign to undermine the autonomy of university and college governance more broadly. . . . This is the real struggle for academic freedom that we are facing — and it’s enormous. Those who focus only on defending free speech without also defending the very structures of higher education that house and govern it, may look up to find that they’ve lost their ability to control academic programs, contribute to faculty governance, and even their jobs.
In higher education, the threats to academic freedom are placed squarely and justifiably at the feet of right-wing politicians. However, other threats exist from the other political pole, and are made in unexpected ways.
For example, scholarly and scientific publishing has its own censorship and freedom problems, but they differ in two major ways from what Levenstein and Mittelstadt outline — the censorship is accomplished by flooding the zone with irrelevant, duplicative, or questionable outputs, and the freedom constraints are coming from the left wing of the political spectrum, powered by rich donors, techno-utopian ideals, and vague notions of equity, a newish intellectual fad of the left.
The common threads here are the neither political side wants local, idiosyncratic, or vibrant choice to exist — uniformity is preferred over choice or options.
To these ends, both extremes are attempting to modify existing governance structures, actually and rhetorically. For the right-wing politicians, they want the state to determine what is proper and allowed. Of course, this only works if their political faction runs the state, which is why the process of electing leaders is itself a target for manipulation.
For left-wing political activists, they appear to accept no source of authority for determining what is proper and allowed as historically there have been famous and even systematic imperfections. As a result, they prefer to overturn it all, exhibit an aversion to market and commercial options and solutions, and want to externalize many decisions with societal impacts to an imaginary vision of unifying and competent individual autonomy. The resulting governance would be limited to non-economic transactions serving an imaginary vision with no leadership accountability.
Of course, neither is healthy for intellectual life, societal health, or personal autonomy. Under the guise of “protection” on one hand and “equity” on the other, control is being exercised, and the differences are incompatible.
For example, OA represents an extreme form of governance by dictating a market solution, with the zone of freedom once achieved via embargoes and acceptance of hybrid journals now driven once again to the fringe by politically left-leaning ideologies. Preprints represent another extreme attack on the governance of scientific and scholarly information, with trust put in “review vigilantes” rather than an organized and structured set of trusted intermediaries that can be held to account.
Some of the main sources of freedom include the ability to say “no,” the ability to reinvent oneself, the ability to experiment commercially, and the ability to think and act independently. Something in modern politics has calcified into two loose camps of groupthink, with bullying the glue binding those on both extremes. As a result, there are few who openly support and defend the rights of people to act individually, think for themselves, and protect the institutions that ensure freedom more generally. Defending institutions of freedom draws ire from the right, and defending institutions of structure and norms draws ire from the left.
Intellectual freedom is a moderate zone, requiring strong embankments to keep authoritarian impulses at bay, and lofty embankments to inculcate predictable, reliable social norms and governance.
This is the real struggle for academic freedom that we are facing — and it’s enormous.