No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom

No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom

No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom

No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom


The modern university is sustained by academic freedom; it guarantees higher education's independence, its quality, and its success in educating students. The need to uphold those values would seem obvious. Yet the university is presently under siege from all corners; workers are being exploited with paltry salaries for full-time work, politics and profit rather than intellectual freedom govern decision-making, and professors are being monitored for the topics they teach.

No University Is an Islandoffers a comprehensive account of the social, political, and cultural forces undermining academic freedom. At once witty and devastating, it confronts these threats with exceptional frankness, then offers a prescription for higher education's renewal. In an insider's account of how the primary organization for faculty members nationwide has fought the culture wars, Cary Nelson, the current President of the American Association of University Professors, unveils struggles over governance and unionization and the increasing corporatization of higher education. Peppered throughout with previously unreported, and sometimes incendiary, higher education anecdotes, Nelson is at his flame-throwing best.

The book calls on higher education's advocates of both the Left and the Right to temper conviction with tolerance and focus on higher education's real injustices. Nelson demands we stop denying teachers, student workers, and other employees a living wage and basic rights. He urges unions to take up the larger cause of justice. And he challenges his own and other academic organizations to embrace greater democracy.

With broad and crucial implications for the future,No University Is an Islandwill be the benchmark against which we measure the current definitive struggle for academic freedom.


The history of academic freedom in some respects predates the use of the term. The need for the concept grew out of the long history of universities and their struggle for freedom from church and state. The medieval university had sought a degree of independence from the church, but that did not entail doctrinal independence for the faculty. Nor was the chance that faculty might spread uncertainty among the general populace tolerated. It took later cultural changes—from developments in science and philosophy, to increased exposure to national differences, to wider commercial contacts—to prepare the ground for the modern university and its essential freedoms. Academic freedom thus embodies Enlightenment commitments to the pursuit of knowledge and their adaptation to different social and political realities. The term akademische Freiheit was in use in Germany by the early nineteenth century and gradually gained acceptance there over the following fifty years.

Transplanting the concept to the United States, however, required significant adjustment. Although German professors were effectively state employees, German universities were essentially self-governing. But it would be an error to assume that nineteenth-century German faculty members had full academic freedom as we understand it today. American universities on the other hand were governed not by faculty but by nineteenth-century versions of boards of trustees. As denominational institutions in the United States began to be replaced by secular ones, religious boards became less common. Secular institutions had governing boards . . .

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