To Make Academic Freedom Popular Once Again: A Review of Olivier Beaud, « Le Savoir en Danger»

April 2023

Olivier Beaud, Le savoir en danger. Menaces sur la liberté académique (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, October 2021), pp. 348.

Lawyer and university professor in public law (specializing in constitutional law) at the University Panthéon-Assas Paris II, Olivier Beaud undertakes in this essay a reflection on academic freedom. This reflection follows the multifaceted attacks of which it has been the victim throughout the world under both authoritarian and liberal regimes in recent years. Although this work initially had a comparative aim, recent events in France have led Beaud to refocus the discussion on the situation of academic freedom mainly in France and to a lesser extent in North America.

The objective of this reflection is twofold: to defend academic freedom as an idea, as a regulatory “principle” of the university rather than as a legal principle; the other objective, more militant by his own admission, is to make the members of academia in France aware of the importance of this concept, to “popularize” it among university professors in order to convince them to defend the principle and its exercise.

If this question of academic freedom is so important according to Beaud, it is because it constitutes the very condition for the realization of the university’s mission emanating from “the right of humanity to pursue somewhere the search for unconstrained truth”  (Beaud, 14). This is why, he asserts, anything that undermines academic freedom ultimately undermines the development of knowledge, hence the title of this essay.

The question of academic freedom had been the subject of a previous book by Beaud entitled Les Libertés universitaire à l’abandon? Pour une reconnaissance pleine et entière de la liberté académique  (Dalloz editions, 2010), in which he revealed two threats to the exercise of academic freedom, one emanating from the bureaucratic apparatus of the Ministry of Advanced Education and the other resulting from the dominance of what he calls “administrative micromanagement,” a threat emanating directly from the universities themselves.

Le savoir en danger is divided into three parts, a first more theoretical, conceptual and historical part, which synthesizes the conceptual history of academic freedom in the specialized literature mainly in English, while the last two parts propose investigative work based on case studies that respectively show the resurgence of old threats in the United States and France and the appearance of new threats based on singular cases and recent borderline cases, mainly in France.

The first part proposes a definition of academic freedom and the history of its exercise since the end of the 19th century. Firstly, Beaud traces the intellectual origin of the concept of academic freedom back to the philosophy of idealism in Germany and the theory of liberalism in the United States. These two sources are regularly cited in the literature on academic freedom.

Humboldt’s address to the King of Prussia for the creation of a university  (On the Internal and External Organization of the Higher Scientific Institutions in Berlin, 1810) and Fichte’s inaugural speech at the presidency of the University of Berlin in 1811 laid the conceptual foundations of academic freedom on which the modern conception of universities rests. According to this conception, the mission and purpose of universities to discover “the systematic unity of knowledge” or “science in its purity” defined by Humboldt must be guaranteed according to Fichte by academic freedom which applies as much to professors as to students in the freedom of teaching and that of research.

The creation of university research institutions in the United States is based on the “Millian” principle of academic freedom based on the general concept of freedom  (Mill, On Liberty, 1859). This includes freedom of research (freedom of inquiry) and freedom of expression (freedom of speech). It is the Millian principle of the enjoyment of these freedoms for the general interest (common good) that inspires the AAUP’s declarations of 1915 and 1940.

Secondly, Beaud returns to the discursive and conceptual elements that inform the literature on academic freedom. First, reflections on academic freedom report two forms of freedom, the negative protection against different forms of power, and the positive “freedom made of freedoms”. There are thus two conceptions of academic freedom that emerge: a broad, professional conception, which guarantees institutional protection and defines the freedoms attached to it; a narrow, individual conception, which guarantees the exercise of the academic profession in complete independence. One, Beaud reminds us, is inseparable from the other.

The freedoms associated with academic freedom as defined in the AAUP Declaration of 1915 include freedom of research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression. The freedom of research has been regularly threatened by external pressures from public or private decision-makers, or from public opinion and by internal pressures from the academic world itself. Academic freedom of teaching is essentially a pedagogical freedom that grants university professors great freedom in the choice of themes and texts to be studied in their courses. Finally, the freedom of expression is, in the context of the university, a freedom of profession governed by scientific norms and protocols for the production of knowledge which presupposes on the part of scholars the exercise of ethical behavior in carrying out the university’s mission of the search for truth without constraint. This latter freedom can also be threatened by restrictions imposed by knowledge institutions  (Joan Scott, Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom, 2019) or mainstream orthodoxy  (Jon Elster, “Obscurantism and Academic Freedom,” 2016).

In the footsteps of Max Weber  (Science as a Vocation, 1917), Beaud affirms on several occasions that academic freedom is inseparable from the university since it is the means that allows knowledge institutions to accomplish their mission of social utility. Professors can only avail themselves of academic freedom and the individual and professional rights that constitute it – the freedoms of research, teaching and expression – insofar as they have been admitted to the academic profession. Quoting Pascal Engel (2020), the very notion of freedom of expression, to which academic freedom is often wrongly reduced, is only understandable within the ethical constraints inherent in the profession, either based on justified knowledge and on expertise. A distinction should therefore be made between academic freedom of expression (intramural, “in the classroom”) and extra-academic freedom of expression (extramural, “outside the classroom”), the two not having the same legal basis.

Thirdly, Beaud returns, in chapters 3 and 4, to two dark moments in American and French history – McCarthyism and the events of May 68 –, during which academic freedom was seriously threatened from the outside by public authorities and internally by the student body. These two chapters will serve as the context for the discussions that will follow on the forms of contemporary external and internal authoritarianism that affect academic freedom in Part two and three of this essay.

In the American case, the obligation of political loyalty for the agents of the American federal State imposed by decree by Truman in 1947 had the effect of taking away the professors’ individual freedom of expression and opinion. A resolution written by the President of Harvard in 1949 and voted on at the National Convention on Education stipulated that being a member of the communist party threatened the intellectual integrity of academics and made them unsuitable for the academic profession. This led to the restriction of the freedom of research and teaching for academics in disagreement with the resolution.

In the French case, it is the demands and the sometimes violent student actions of occupying teaching spaces and restricting movement that have undermined the freedom of teaching of university professors. The student actions were made possible with the support, in Nanterre in particular, of a number of professors in the Faculty of Arts.

In part two of the book, Beaud sets out to analyze the threats to academic freedom which is the main reason behind the writing of this essay. Beaud undertakes in the last two parts the inventory respectively of the resurgence of ‘old’ threats and the emergence of new threats to academic freedom likely to affect the lives of professors. Based on a quick review of recent publications in the United States  (Carey Nelson, 2010; Geoffroy Stone, 2015; John Elster, 2016), Beaud identifies a number of external and internal threats to academic freedom, among which the rise of political and administrative orthodoxy, economic dependence, the multifaceted pressures of political correctness and economic correctness which will then be treated separately in the remainder of the book.

The first of these threats to the institutional guarantees of academic freedom and to the personal exercise of extra-academic freedom of expression is the interference of political power (local elected officials and political bodies) in university life. This is true in the United States, where the pressures exerted by supporters of “political correctness” and those of “patriotic correctness” have multiplied  (Henry Reichman, 2019). Beaud demonstrates that this is also true in the French context by analyzing several proven cases of political censorship. First, a special issue of Afrique contemporaine on France’s foreign policy in 2019 was prevented from publication by the French Development Agency; then, the dismissal of the sociologist and researcher at the CNRS Sébastien Roché from the National School of Police for his critical remarks on the management of public order; finally, and this is the case analyzed in more depth, the quarrel over “Islamo-leftism” which shook the academic world following the declarations of the Minister of the Department of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer and the Minister of the Department of Advanced Education Frédérique Vidal.

Following the assassination of teacher Émmanuel Paty in October 2020, a petition signed by a hundred academics – “Le Manifeste des 100” – denounced communitarian ideologies imported from the Anglo-Saxon world, intellectual conformism, political correctness, and cancel culture. The letter directly asked the minister to “put in place measures to detect Islamist excesses […] and to engage [the] universities in this fight for secularism and the Republic by creating a body”, arguing that “these values in the forefront of which, secularism, constitutes the base on which rest academic freedoms and the framework in which they are expressed”  (Beaud, 154-155). This controversy over “Islamo-leftism” showed the ideological rivalries within the institution itself and the attempted interference of political leaders who tried to control the opinion of professors.

The second of these threats is that of “administrative micromanagement,” which is manifested by the development of administrative power  (Ginsberg, 2011) whether by an increase in the number of intermediate decision-makers or administrative mechanisms in the universities. In France, this has taken the form of more frequent interference and pressure from university presidents and university administration, as well as pressure from heads of research centers, laboratories, and doctoral schools  (Beaud, 2010).

The third of these threats is economic. The specter of capitalism has haunted academic discourse since the beginning of the 20th century. Faced with the refusal or inability of States to fund scientific research, the intertwining of the academic world and the industrial world has been strengthened. This is how voices critical of the “corporate campus”  (James Turk, 2000) in Canada or detractors of the concept of “economic correctness” in the United States have made themselves heard. If the multiple “SLAPP suits” (or intimidation lawsuits) used as examples in Canada and France are clear proof that the increasingly private funding of research entails risks of limiting the freedom of research and publication, Beaud shows that, in the French context, public funding can also threaten the freedom of research, whether this funding comes from the State or from regional governance bodies, by imposing themes and favoring the financing of projects of public interest.

In the third part of Le savoir en danger, Beaud identifies the new threats to academic freedom, which are of several natures: state, group and technological. Beaud begins by evoking the propensity of states to take measures that interfere with freedoms, in particular that of research, when faced with terrorist threats or disturbances of public order. This was seen in the United States with the enactment of the Patriot Act following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and more recently in France where, after the terrorists attacks of 2015 and 2016, national historical archives on French Algeria were blocked for consultation.

The next two chapters are devoted to attacks on freedom of expression and education linked to the cancel culture movement and the woke ideology emanating from student groups and members of academia. Various censorship actions – the interruption of Aeschylus’ play Les Suppliantes at the Sorbonne in 2019, the cancellation of Sylvianne Agacinski’s conference in 2019, the study days of February 9 and 10, 2018 at the EHESS, the conference of March 14, 2019 at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne – made academics aware of the risks of “ideological censorship” as evidenced by the publication of a certain number of articles and books on the question  (Dubreuil, The dictatorship of identities, 2019; Carole Talon-Hugon, Art under control, 2019; Gérard Cahin, 2021; Marc Hersant, 2021).

Modeled on the movements for the defense of discriminated-against minority social groups in the United States, student groups mobilized against racism, patriarchy and homophobia have emerged in France. These groups plead for more “civility” such as the right not to be “attacked” by such and such a statement by establishing speech codes, “political correctness” charters, or even by placing “preventive warnings” (trigger warnings). Although Beaud recognizes the legitimacy of these “causes”, which are part of a social movement towards more equality and justice consubstantial with democracy, he nevertheless underlines their deleterious effects when these precautionary principles are considered as rights because they can potentially threaten directly academic freedom both in terms of educational freedom and freedom of expression. Not only does this have the effect of creating a climate of distrust that alters the pedagogical relationship between students and faculty, but the risks of authoritarian abuses and instrumentalization are also significant.

Some of the borderline cases exposed show the practices of certain groups which, in their appetite for justice, do not hesitate to resort to misinformation and intimidation for censorship purposes.

To conclude, Beaud offers in this essay a balanced and well-researched discussion on the issue of academic freedom which is worth the read. It makes a valuable contribution to a necessary conversation which, in the French context, is still marginal, unlike in North America where this notion occupies a more important place.

The only downside, in my view, is that the bibliographical references are often difficult to access. A proper bibliography would have been a plus.