Academic Freedom as Democratic Imperative

By Colson, Dan | Academe, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom as Democratic Imperative


Colson, Dan, Academe


Academic Freedom as Democratic Imperative DANGEROUS PROFESSORS: ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY CAMPUS Malini Johar Schueller and Ashley Dawson, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

REVIEWED BY DAN COLSON

In the wake of George W. Bush's two terms as president, Barack Obama's election, the rise of the Tea Party, an economic collapse, and the recent conservative landslide, Dangerous Professors: Academic Freedom and the National Security Campus offers a timely series of essays that collectively elucidate the intersections of state power and academic freedom, of right-wing propaganda and scholarly autonomy, of the university space and competing visions of democracy. With a title echoing David Horowitz's shrill warnings against rampant leftism in academia, the book, edited by Malini Johar Schueller and Ashley Dawson, assembles voices that provide both a counterpoint to the right wing's disingenuous and stultifying rhetoric of academic freedom and a historical-theoretical primer on progressive efforts to maintain higher education as a locus of critical thought.

After an introduction that signals the editors' postcolonial orientation and situates the book as a response to contemporary attacks on academic freedom, the articles are divided into four sections. The first section includes essays that define academic freedom from various historical and theoretical stances. The second focuses on culture wars, from Bill Mullen's analysis of W. E. B. Du Bois's writings on education to Sophia McClennen's examination of American studies after September 11, 2001. The third considers the effect of the increasingly corporatized university on academic freedom. The fourth section contains essays by Ward Churchill and Robert Jensen, who discuss the current climate of academic freedom through their personal experiences on state university campuses. The collection's divisions, however, are not indicative of major thematic differences. Each of the sections addresses the work's dominant concerns: the distinction between free speech and academic freedom; the effect of entrepreneurship and corporate-style administration on the modern university; the relationship between international events, US foreign policy, and contemporary threats to academic freedom; methods for protecting academic freedom; and the specifically democratic nature of academic freedom.

The last of these tropes is perhaps most compelling, because for academic freedom's advocates, its proper definition depends upon the reconciliation of academia's uniqueness with the desire for more perfect democracy. Since, as every contributor to Dangerous Professors seems to agree, education is a key component of a free society, the fight for academic freedom is a struggle to maintain an atmosphere in which unpopular views are speakable. For Cary Nelson, academic freedom is the right for educators to advocate for scholarly and political positions-which in his view are inseparable-within the bounds of disciplinary standards. In other words, academic freedom is a professional right that makes sense only in the context of a selfgoverning faculty. The practice of academic freedom and the practice of political freedom reinforce one another, because professors are free to create a space of scholarly (political) inquiry.

For Nelson, the AAUP's definition of academic freedom as a professional right is not only the most expedient means to achieve this but also the most logical. Susan Valentine and Michael Palm- both veterans of the New York University graduate student strike- seek to "redefine academic freedom as campus democracy," however. They see academic freedom not as a professional right achieved through disciplinary expertise but as a synonym for expansive shared governance, a radically democratic campus on which decisions are made through discussion, disagreement, and consensus instead of by administrative fiat. …

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