Academic freedom is an individual right

People defending the right of universities to hold an institutional position are a threat to academic freedom

11th June 2024
Jim Butcher

Everyone now seems to agree that academic freedom is important. But not everyone defines it in the same way. While many argue it is an individual right, others suggest it is an institutional right. But defending the rights of the university often means silencing the free speech of individual students and academics.

Which academic freedom?

Which definition of academic freedom wins out has consequences for generations of students and for the future of higher education. In the UK right now, the Office for Students is consulting on academic freedom in the light of new legislation but, elsewhere, too, defining academic freedom is very much a live issue.

Advocates for the individual

Academic freedom, like its underpinning, free speech, is seen by many of those campaigning for it – a growing movement including Academics for Academic Freedom, the Campaign for Academic Freedom and the London Council for Academic freedom in the UK, with parallels in other countries – as fundamentally an individual right. It is individuals who have a conscience, a mouth to speak and hands to write with. We may choose to speak, organise or research with others, but when we do, that choice, if meaningful, is freely made. That academics and students have this freedom is fundamental to historical understandings of what a university is for.

Without individual conscience and freedom as the base line, talk of ‘shared values’ in a university, faculty or department can easily involve compelled speech, or at least a sense that some views are, a priori, welcome and others unwelcome in the seminar, lecture hall and essay. This can chill free speech (few with a mortgage, or in search of a career or degree, want to speak against the stated view of their employer or educator) and lead to a damaging conformism, wholly antithetical to the spirit of higher education.

Advocates for the institution

Not everyone agrees. People once openly critical of free speech on campus, particularly around the expression of gender critical views, for example, have recently appeared to have a change of heart. They increasingly argue for something that goes by the name of ‘academic freedom’ but is entirely antithetical to its principles, both formally and in spirit.

The new academic freedom defenders argue that academic freedom is fundamentally a collective rather than an individual right. They champion the freedom not of lecturers and students but of the institution, through subject groups, departments, or most frequently, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) officers. This directly contradicts the academic freedom of individuals. In fact, individuals can have their free speech curtailed in the name of defending institutional ‘academic freedom’.

There are plenty of examples of advocacy for academic freedom as a collective, rather than individual, value or right, using arguments that see the university rather than the individuals within it as sovereign.

The theorist

One exponent of the argument that academic freedom is a collective right is social theorist Jana Bacevic. She emphasises that historically academic freedom has often referred to the independence of universities from the state, and that it is important to defend the university, as a collective, from state incursions into academic life. There is great merit in this position. The freedom of universities from state control is an important principle. In many dictatorships academics will be persecuted for expressing views contrary to the government.

But it is the ideas held by individual academics that authoritarian states fear, rather than ‘the university’ as an institution. It is dissenting individuals’ rights that they seek to undermine. While governments should not dictate to universities, the formal freedom of universities from state diktat would mean little if anything if the individuals within the university were not afforded their right to research and speak according to conscience by the universities themselves.

But for Bacevic, the collective freedom of the university includes its ‘freedom’ to police the speech of individual academics. The academic freedom of the institution is invoked precisely to contradict the academic freedom of dissenters. So, she argues that a department no-platforming an invited speaker is ‘an act by which the institution confirms its autonomy’ and that this ‘is an assertion of institutional sovereignty consistent with the pairing of academic freedom with university autonomy: it is the institution who grants the right to exercise free speech on its grounds’.

Here, the collective ‘right’ of the university does not build upon, but takes precedence over, the individual. The community of scholars – or more likely in practice various committees often distanced from actual teaching and research – can legitimately decide that certain ideas are favoured institutional positions, whilst others are frowned upon or even disallowed. This in turn discourages the open and frank discussion of differences that is a pre-condition for universities playing their role in advancing knowledge.

By Bacevic’s reasoning, if I want to exercise my academic freedom to invite a gender critical speaker, or an opponent of ‘decolonise the curriculum’, to campus to speak, the university can invoke its collective academic freedom to censor or censure this. The institution, not the individual, is sovereign. In this formulation, research, invitations and teaching, are the collective responsibility of the university, and as such can be subject to collective regulation, institutional approval/disapproval and sanction.

This, or something as close to it as they can get away with, is the version of ‘academic freedom’ that many influential committees, groups and academics inside universities are rooting for – one that preserves their own authority, as representatives of the collective over the individual. These bodies, and the collective constituency they claim to speak for, would include: EDI departments (the university community), UCU (the staff community), student unions and ‘student voice’ (the student community), staff groups (e.g. the LGBTQ community) and AdvanceHE (the professional/academic community as a whole).

None of these have anything approaching a strong claim to truly represent the opinion of staff or students. They are, for the most part (including the organisations with ‘union’ in their title) small cliques and committees of people, unaccountable to others.

But whether they do or not truly represent the views of staff or students is irrelevant. Even if they did represent a majority view, that would in no way justify intolerance towards dissenting, minority opinion. And even if you consider that majority view to be wholly correct and proven beyond doubt, the protection of received wisdom from challenge can turn it into JS Mill’s ‘dead dogma’ – mantras that need not justify themselves, that are placed above question. The recent Cass Report into the care of gender confused children revealed how dangerous this can be.

The trade unionist

Another example of the view that academic freedom is a collective over individual right, is the national lecturers union, University College Union (UCU). Matilda Fitzmaurice and Dion Georgiou, UCU Commons members (the faction supporting the current general secretary, Jo Grady), assert that: ‘Academic freedom is a collective right that depends on us exercising it well and not taking advantage of it for our own agendas.’

Perhaps predictably, the people deemed not to be ‘exercising it well’ and ‘taking advantage of it for [their] own agendas’ by Fitzmaurice and Georgiou are gender critical feminists such as Kathleen Stock and Helen Joyce. They argue that ‘it is important [no-platforming] exists – and can be wielded – as a countervailing force, to create an environment with more genuine academic freedom (by reducing the power of those who’d threaten the freedom of others)’.

According to this argument, individuals threaten academic freedom. The collective must stop them by curtailing their freedom of speech. This, in the name of academic freedom, and from an organisation charged with defending employees rights, is doubly ironic and perverse.

UCU commons, like Bacevic, would no doubt hold to the ideal of a democratic university, rather than the corporate version we have, as arbiter of speech rights and research deemed legitimate. But their stance is squarely behind the authority of EDI and the various committees to speak – collectively – for the university. Their defence of academic freedom involves the freedom of universities to limit the academic freedom of the individual.

The educationalist

Educationalist Jonathan Grant, author of ‘The New Power University’ (2021) and contributing editor of the UK university website WONKHE, also holds that academic freedom is fundamentally an institutional right. He claims that those who disagree ‘make a big deal about freedom of expression which is framed as an individual right, but in the same breadth claim that such a right does not exist for the institution’. The casual dismissal of an individual’s right to free expression as no ‘big deal’ underpins his cavalier approach to the main guarantor of that right within universities – institutional neutrality.

For Grant, institutions should have, and use, their academic freedom to take political positions in favour of ‘social justice’. This is something universities and departments do currently, through, for example, their relationship to Stonewall on the issue of sex and gender, or through their adoption of ‘decolonise the curriculum’ in line with AdvanceHE’s advice. Perversely, Grant states that demands for institutional neutrality are an ‘attempt to homogenise […] diversity and silence universities’ (my italics). Grant fears all universities will become the same as one another on the basis that they might all start to affirm the value of viewpoint diversity. He seems to be confusing universities with political parties, where collective decisions and a ‘party line’ on the issues of the day is appropriate.

Grant’s view is that universities have historically adopted institutional positions on issues such as the admittance of women and working class people into universities. He describes this as ‘social justice’ to draw a parallel with today’s contested institutional political stances. But admitting more people from excluded backgrounds on an equal basis is inclusion in a true sense. It involves the extension of the right to education, and greater freedoms for individuals. It makes no assumption about what those women and working class men should think, write and research when they reach the university. The issue today is whether the descendants of those women and men who gained the opportunity to benefit from education are able to decide for themselves what a woman is, or whether they regard white people as privileged and black people as oppressed.

Grant covers himself from accusations that he places individual’s employment and academic freedom at risk by claiming there is no contradiction between a university taking an overt stance on an issue and the academic freedom of dissenters. One can only assume has never held a view at odds with the stated values of his employer or educator! Of course, career-focused academics, or ambitious students seeking good grades, are less likely to speak or act in ways at odds with the institution that pays their wages or presides over their degree classification. If anyone doubted this, the steady stream of cancellations, no-platformings and disciplinary hearings against people critical of university policies on sex and gender is all on public record. The university should remain neutral precisely so that the individuals within – of all backgrounds and varied opinions – can express themselves, write and research, without fear of censure or restricted by a sense that they may be taking a risk by thinking contrary to the values of their university.

The individual comes first

I have a lot of time for the notion of the university as a collective, as a community. I value it. It can involve inspiring conversations, learning from each other and developing knowledge in ways that surpasses our individual talents. There is far too little of this collective sense and it is something we should aim to build.

But the university community I aspire to is a community of scholars and scholarship, with a shared commitment to pursue truth. That depends upon the confidence of members of the community – staff and students – to question received wisdom openly and without a sense that they may be contravening the limits of what is deemed acceptable or recommended by the university, with all the attendant, and well justified, fears for one’s career or treatment.

Academic freedom is, first and foremost, an individual right, and must be defended on that basis.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK. He writes on tourism, free speech and education. Jim edits the substack Tourism’s Horizon: Travel for the Millions and blogs at Politics of Tourism. He is on the advisory board of Academics for Academic Freedom, and co-convenes the Canterbury and Kent Universities’ branch.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash