Threats to Academic Freedom — A Comment

By David Armitage

This post summarizes and expands upon my closing remarks at the workshop “Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin on October 21 and 22, 2020. I am grateful to Amr Hamzawy, Gisèle Sapiro, and Başak Tuğ for the opportunity to participate in this event, and to Daniel Schönpflug for inviting me to contribute to the Academic Freedom series on the TRAFO Blog.

Threats to academic freedom are now proliferating and accelerating in almost every part of the world. What could once be detected and resisted within specific local or national settings now increasingly appears to be part of a global movement to constrain, abridge, or abolish one of humanity’s oldest and most enduring positive freedoms. This movement is, of course, connected to the equally widespread and convergent turns toward populism and authoritarianism: populists are suspicious of experts, and authoritarians reject any independent criticism, especially when it comes from those whose thought, research, and teaching are already protected. Countries as diverse as Brazil, China, Egypt, Hungary, India, and Turkey have all witnessed explicit and sometimes brutal repression of researchers, students, and their institutions of late, but even avowedly democratic regimes, without explicitly authoritarian agendas, have moved to undermine academic autonomy in countries such as Australia, Britain, France, and the United States.

In the face of such diverse threats, across so much of the globe, three overriding imperatives can help defenders of academic freedom to refine their strategies. Let me first define these imperatives and then hazard an answer to the all-important question – we might call it Lenin’s question – what is to be done? The first imperative is to specify the subject: what exactly is under attack when academic freedom is threatened? What do we seek to defend when we stand firm for academic freedom? The second imperative is no less urgent, and that is to identify the enemies: who is attacking academic freedom, from what directions, and with what motives? What different enemies does academic freedom have, and how might we remain vigilant against them? The third imperative is to find your friends: in the struggle for academic freedom, who are the most reliable allies, and who might prove to be false friends? How can we build a front to defend that freedom once we know who we can trust (and who we should distrust)? Finally, in light of our answers to these questions, and informed by current work on the threats to academic freedom, where do we go from here? What strategic action can we take to shore up academic freedom as it now exists and to fortify it against the threats it might, and surely will, face again in the future?

To know what to fight, and how to combat it, we must first be clear on what it is we are defending. In this regard, it is important to distinguish academic freedom from freedom of expression or freedom of speech more generally. Academic freedom is necessary to freedom of expression, but it is distinct from it, historically, conceptually, and practically. Academic freedom has a history different from that of freedom of speech, particularly at its European origins. It was originally a privilege rather than a right, and in this regard resembles similar privileges enjoyed by members of guilds or, later, professions, defined by their autonomy and capacity for self-regulation. The classical Humboldtian triad of freedom of research, teaching, and expression is only the most famous formulation of this complex set of interlocking liberties, but it remains the most comprehensive and fundamental. Yet it is not solely individual: academic freedom applies collectively to entire faculties or institutes, as well as to whole bodies of researchers. Moreover, it is expressed institutionally, through the universities’ defense of their autonomy in the face of outside pressure, whether from governments, politicians, corporations, or other bodies that do not share the same goals.

Even as we must carefully distinguish between academic freedom and freedom of expression more broadly, we have to acknowledge that the boundary between the two has become increasingly blurred. More and more academics seek either to be public intellectuals or to deploy their knowledge and expertise in public debate, beyond academic settings. At best, this fulfills the highest promises of scholarship and repays a debt to the public that supports it; at worst, it can render scholars vulnerable to attack, even dismissal, on political grounds by hostile parties. Much of this desire to join public debate is self-motivated, but increasingly it is propelled – some might even say compelled – by pressures internal to the academy itself, most notably the recent shift toward audit cultures which stress the importance of “impact” or “national importance” as criteria for securing funding or for judging academic work. And when scholars do need to use their authority to speak out against authoritarian regimes, they risk having their knowledge branded as merely “belief” or “opinion,” at best; at worst, they may be forced out of their academic position, fined, imprisoned, or tortured. So-called “epistemic trespassing” may now be encouraged, but it can render scholars vulnerable as they stray beyond the academy: epistemic trespassers beware.

The enemy of academic freedom is a many-headed hydra: we should therefore all be vigilant. In settings such as Turkey or Egypt, the enemy is the state or a religious authority, the familiar adversaries that academic freedom has long been designed to avert. But now the enemy is often within the gates of the academy. Bureaucracies and those who staff them try to restrict the scope of academic self-governance in order to pursue their own agendas, or, more insidiously, those of outside agencies. Trustees can no longer always be trusted to safeguard academic autonomy, especially when they believe they answer to politicians or the voters who stand behind them. And when university leaders are politically appointed, their mandate is never to expand or even protect the freedom of researchers and teachers. That freedom can become yet more fragile when academic authorities conspire with corporations, the media (including social media), and the market more generally to commodify academic work or to subject scholars to judgments of utility or profit at the neoliberal university. And the greatest threat of all may be when these same forces – the products of bureaucratization, politicization, and marketization – find support within the academy itself, among other academics or even students, pitting disciplines against disciplines (the humanities and “soft” social sciences against the “hard” sciences, for instance, as in Hungary of late), or “de-platforming” individuals, for instance.

After specifying the subject of academic freedom and identifying its many and multiplying enemies, the next task is to determine who might be allies in its defense and protection. Finding friends in such a cause is not always easy: some can be ambiguous and others contingent (or insufficiently universalizable), so that not all can be truly reliable and therefore effective. University administrations and the state can be flexible friends, ready to stand alongside the defenders of academic freedom under some conditions or against particular threats. However, as colleagues from Hungary to India can attest, they can easily turn into enemies as well. The law can be more dependable, but not in all times and places. Human rights frameworks do not uniformly or even generally protect academic freedom, while particular national legal systems may not recognize it at all or, if they do, might still be open to political interference. Within specific national settings, unions, open to researchers at all stages, from graduate students to tenured professors, may be the best defenders of academic freedom, but on a broader stage, international solidarity and cooperation – of just the kind represented by this initiative and the institutions standing behind it – may be the best bulwarks of all.

Authoritarians and other enemies of academic freedom are clearly learning from each other’s tactics. For example, in Brazil and Hungary, attacking gender studies has provided a wedge issue that the Bolsonaro and Orbán regimes have used to undermine the autonomy of universities at large. Dictators in Egypt and Turkey have moved in parallel to throttle academic freedom by parachuting loyalists into the upper echelons of university administration. And even in apparently more resilient democracies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, assaults on critical race theory have proved to be useful rallying points for the Right. Yet if our enemies can learn from one another how to coordinate their strategies regionally and even globally, then so can those who stand in defense of academic freedom wherever it may be under threat. The repression of academic freedom is an imitative practice; its protection must be, too. Comparative and connective research on its enemies and their activities will also be essential to building global solidarity with our fellow academics, wherever they may be and whatever dangers they face.

David Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University and an Affiliated Faculty Member at Harvard Law School. He is also an Honorary Professor of History at Queen’s University Belfast and at the University of Sydney, and an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Among his publications are The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (2000), The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007), Foundations of Modern International Thought (2013), The History Manifesto (co-authored, 2014) and Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017). He was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2018–19.

Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021

Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, 07 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I), 14 April 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II), 21 April 2021

Sari Hanafi, The Pen and the Sword: The Narrow Margin of Academic Freedom in the Arab World, 05 May 2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (III), 19 May 2021

Citation: David Armitage, Threats to Academic Freedom — A Comment, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 26.05.2021

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