Academic freedom in the neoliberal university

Historically, in the West, they have been associated with the academy. Universities have a tradition of privileging certain categories of people by providing them with the place and space in which they could develop the intra- and inter-psychic freedom to exercise defiant imagination, either collectively or in isolation. This is academic freedom. Having this freedom does not, of course, mean that it will be exercised.

Academic freedom, however, has increasingly become a zombie category (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). We note an important double transition in universities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Historically the privilege of academic freedom was accorded primarily to a very restricted range of individuals – chiefly white, middle-class men. An accelerating process of change meant that by the end of the twentieth century the demographic profile of academics was more socially representative. But, the transformative potential of such an apparent extension of freedoms to hitherto excluded groups is, we argue in this paper, now threatened by the transformation of the overwhelming majority of universities into highly managed and controlled spaces that produce docile bodies with compliant imaginations. These threats are not blunt in the Galilean sense, but rather a nuanced governing of our souls (Rose, 1999) that limits and inhibits the imagination to such an extent that it is difficult to create socially and economically transformational knowledge.

This transformation necessitates the drawing of a careful distinction between organizational autonomy and individual academic freedom because universities have been translated from collegial collectivities, supporting intra- and inter-psychic freedom for community members, to managed power hierarchies that govern (a broader spectrum of) individuals through techniques of accounting, audit and surveillance (Boden and Epstein, 2006; Evans, 2004; Strathern, 2000).

This distinction is important because, as we argue below, universities are now direct agents of the state and of capital. In collegial systems academics could choose whether or not to align themselves with the status quo. In contrast, neoliberal governance modes endeavour to enforce the service of research and researchers to the needs of capital and the state, creating tensions between traditions of the freedom of academics and the requirements of new corporatized organizational hierarchies. A possible consequence of a failure to resolve these tensions is that academics become servants of universities rather than mistresses and masters of their own intellects, compromising their capacity to be defiant.

Boden, R. and Epstein, D. (2011) “A flat earth society? Imagining academic freedom”. The Sociological Review, 59:3, pp.478-479

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