Review of Henry Reichman, The Future of Academic Freedom

January 2020

Henry Reichman, The Future of Academic Freedom, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019, 357 pages.

Henry Reichman is very well placed indeed to tackle the troubling and complex issue of academic freedom. Since 2012 Reichman has been an elected officer of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the chair of its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. So, he has had a front row seat in probably the most dramatic and contentious decade of the AAUP’s century-long history of defining and defending academic freedom. Given the prominence and dominance of the American university system this book will undoubtedly be of interest to Canadian academics and members of the public concerned about the question. The book combines Reichman’s theoretical insights and accounts of directly practical cases with which he has direct experience. In the book’s ten chapters he explores a sweeping range of fundamental questions such as: What is the theoretical basis for the justification of academic freedom? What is the role of unions in universities? What is the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech? Do faculty members have the right to speak as private citizens? Do students have academic freedom? How has social media affected the question of academic freedom? What is the impact of on-line education? What effect do economic developments – cuts in governments funding to universities, aggressively sought-after corporate donations by university administrations, escalating tuition costs, the increasing and ubiquitous use of part-time faculty, the bloating of university administrations have on the question of academic freedom?

Reichman describes his approach as that of a scholar, advocate and activist. He is a committed defender of the foundational principles of academic freedom as conceived in 1915 by the AAUP. Academic freedom in this classic formulation comprises three key elements: 1. Freedom in research and in the publication of the results; 2. Freedom in the classroom in discussions of their subjects; and 3. Freedom to speak or write freely as citizens and professionals (p. xiv). Reichman champions academic freedom as a discrete good appropriate for the goals of higher education. But he also indicates that he supports the perspective that academic freedom as a value cannot be artificially separated from that of freedom of speech. In his view, the best position is to “embrace the internal tensions and paradoxes of academic freedom by rooting it in professional autonomy, but linking that autonomy to broader expressive rights in the service of the common good that provides the necessary justification for professional authority” (p. 50). Reichman’s book grapples with the current tumultuous and divisive political climate and challenges posed by, for example, the rise of social media platforms. The scope of the book is vast. A short review cannot possibly do justice to its range so here I focus on the basic framework he uses to guide his exploration and defense of academic freedom. It should also be kept in mind that the American context ensures that the issue of constitutional rights is always in the foreground.

In the foreword, renowned historian Joan Wallach Scott concisely describes Reichman’s position in the following way: “His approach is critical: he rejects the notion that the university is a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ insisting instead … on the importance of professional expertise; he embraces the idea that education exists to advance the common good, measured not in economic terms but as an enhancement of the human spirit; and he is adamant about the importance of protecting the political rights of students and faculty alike to protest inequality and injustice on campus and in the larger society” (p. x). Reichman’s analysis is broadly framed by the view that there are powerful forces intent upon undermining academic freedom. The greatest threat is from corporate capitalist forces (enabled by university administrators hungry for financial support and prestige) that seek to replace the true mission of the university – the quest for the common good, human enlightenment, political protest against inequality and injustice – with the crass vision of the university as a profit making enterprise with a mission to produce elite workers committed to this vision of the world.

For Reichman, then, the deeper story, the real story about threats to academic freedom involves not the headline-catching episodes of campus faculty and activists protesting and de-platforming speakers. Rather, academic freedom is most threatened by “academic capitalism.” In other words, the battle for academic freedom is one between right wing and left wing forces with the right posing the true threat. For example, in Chapter 5 he cites the aggressive efforts of rich Republicans such as the Koch family to tie donations to universities with the expectation of politically inflected results such as the foundation of right-wing research centres and the provision of platforms for right wing speakers. Reichmann also sees government cut backs to education and efforts to privatize the university system and institute economic imperatives into all university activities (e.g. conceiving of students as consumers, evaluating research according to market criteria, administering universities along business lines) as part of a right-wing assault. It is this orientation, in Reichman’s view, that poses the most dire threat to the values of the AAUP. For Reichmann, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 is the ominous culmination of this trend towards academic capitalism. Indeed, the final chapter’s title and discussion captures this anxiety, “What is the Future of Academic Freedom under the Trump Regime?”

In this way, Reichman tries to reclaim academic freedom as a central issue for the left against the right. Unfortunately, Reichman does not explain the basis of these categorizations and they are taken to be self-evident. To this end, he is at pains to debunk the idea that university faculty overwhelmingly skew left on the political spectrum. According to Reichman the media have simply pushed this false narrative (p. 200). He writes, “The charge that universities are somehow dominated by “the Left” is now and has always been false and fantastical. Repeating it over and over may comfort some ideological conservatives, but that doesn’t make it true” (p. 106). But at another point he concedes the opposite, “To be sure, the widespread complaint from the Right that faculty in the humanities and social sciences are overwhelmingly liberal, while highly exaggerated, is not entirely without basis. And it would be foolish to deny that this preponderance may sometimes inappropriately narrow the scope of discourse in these disciplines” (p. 192). I am not sure what the reader is to conclude from these contradictory statements.

Reichman does recognize that the left has been associated with illiberal calls and actions, for example, to cancel talks, fire faculty, and suppress research deemed to be politically retrograde. However, his treatment of the left is rather gentler than that of the right. For example, he argues that the crisis in academic freedom on campuses has been grossly exaggerated by the right in order to undermine the left. And when he does cite examples of repressive arguments emanating from left-wing students and faculty his tendency is to underplay their significance. For one thing, the attacks by the right are worse so the missteps of the left are cancelled out, as he says, “The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization” (p. 164). Also he emphasizes that the left (students and faculty) are motivated by noble goals which mitigates their errors. So, in terms of the concerns of leftist students who seek to limit free expression on campuses Reichman states, “Are student demands to removed monuments or rename buildings more dangerous to free expression than the increasing power that donors, granting agencies, and governments have in how colleges and universities make use of the resources they provide? … Do a small number of highly publicized efforts to silence racist and misogynist speakers, no matter how misguided pose a greater threat to free expression than well-funded blacklists of faculty members and orchestrated campaigns of racist and misogynist harassment?” (pp. 152-153). One of the problems here is that Reichman too readily accepts the tidy narrative that student activists (and faculty) simply identify the bad – sexism, racism, etc. – and valiantly protest it. Their missteps are minor but well-intentioned. We need only to think of the hysterical treatment and harassment of Lindsay Shepherd and Jordan Peterson to doubt this scenario.

However, what I think Reichman misses are the ways in which the commitments of activist faculty and students precisely coincide with the goals of universities. As many have noted, increasingly university administrations – in the United States and certainly in Canada – have embraced ‘progressive’ political agendas. For example, in Canada university bureaucracies have explicitly adopted the notion that universities should be “indigenized” in order to engage in a process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. Frances Widdowson is one scholar who has carefully followed and analysed this development and argues that this policy is a threat to academic freedom. Widdowson consistently points out that it is entirely unclear what “indigenization” of universities means in any practical sense. But what is clear is that the federal government and university administrations across the country are committed to contributing considerable funds, hires (even explicitly race-based hires), and resources to ensure that this explicitly political process unfolds. This is but one case in which the political goals championed by faculty and students coincide with those of university administrations.

In the United States the case of Bret Weinstein may also be seen in this light. Weinstein was driven out of his tenured position at Evergreen State College in 2017 by mobbing and harassment by students who deemed him to be an enemy of all that is good. The super-woke students were directly enabled by the College administration as their political sensibilities coincided with the university’s aspirational image as an anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc. etc. safe space university. Reichman does not mention this dramatic case.

The implementation of these political agendas in the university requires the expansion of its bureaucracy – human resources experts, diversity officers, counsellors are required to implement and monitor new policies to increase “diversity,” to “indigenize” – often at the expense of open, academic enquiry. Reichman’s failure to engage with these significant threats to academic freedom weakens his otherwise cogent defense of this basic principle.