Academic Freedom, Academic LivesAn Introduction
Academic freedom is currently highly public and highly contested terrain. What academic freedom actually means has become an urgent question, as alt-right activists have turned the tenets of academic freedom to their own ends, whether on college and university campuses, or through the actions of right-wing governments as they move to suppress dissent. We want to reclaim the concept of academic freedom for the left and for academic activism, not through a debate about the concept as an abstraction, but in connection to what we see as the radical potential of academic lives. Thinking of academic lives as interpretation and critique is a way to disrupt the current alt-right control of public discourse about freedom of speech.
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," American Association of University Professors
My tweets might appear uncivil, but such a judgment can't be made in an ideological or rhetorical vacuum. … You tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of children or using impeccable manners to justify their murder.Steven Salaita, "Why I Was Fired"
Academic freedom is currently highly public and highly contested terrain around the world. What academic freedom actually means has become an urgent question, as alt-right activists, most of whom are not associated with academic institutions, have turned the tenets of academic freedom to their own ends, opening college and university campuses in many places to the work of hate groups in the name of "free speech," and according to an idea of academic freedom as the right of any individual [End Page 721] or group to say or do anything it wishes in an "academic" context, loosely defined. At the same time, newly elected or newly empowered right-wing governments in Central Europe, South America, Asia, and North America are using some of the language (but not the principles) of academic freedom as a way to restrict free speech on campuses, and move institutions of higher learning away from ideological commitments that do not serve those governments' own agendas. Academic freedom, ironically, has become the rallying cry of those who want to censor the work of educators who speak out against Islamophobia, racism, and the culture of white supremacy, antisemitism, sexism, and misogyny—or deny educators employment altogether. Such a position coalesces in the controversies surrounding Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, who has argued in favor of academic freedom for himself and others who espouse center-right or alt-right positions, but who then in 2017 attacked academic freedom in the name of free speech when he threatened to create a list of courses and names of professors working in women's studies, English literature, sociology, anthropology, and what he calls "racial studies" or "postmodern neo-Marxism," with a view to eliminating courses and their teachers from his own institution, and then all institutions.1 Views like Peterson's see critique as an untenable threat to the status quo, and freedom of speech as the way to limit academic freedom.
At the same time, some institutions of higher learning and academic associations have backed away from the original ideals of academic freedom that they appear to otherwise endorse, within the logic of the exception, which in legal terms refers to the exceptions to an offense set by a statute (Williams 262). In other words, the exception has the power of cancellation in its specificity, while leaving the general understanding of the offense intact. We can see this at work in the case of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on university and college campuses, which has been called "the Palestine exception to free speech" (Palestine Legal). Free speech is endorsed, except when the BDS movement advocates for Palestine on campuses, or critiques what the state of Israel does with respect to Palestine. The logic of the exception is not confined to this one instance. Theresa Smalec's contribution to this cluster shows how the academy's ongoing tolerance of rape culture and sexual harassment, even in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, constitutes another attempt to maintain convenient fictions about the "freedom" of students to consent to sexual relations with professors, fictions that work to obscure the class and gender issues that structure the power relations at work in academic settings. What does academic freedom mean if it becomes impossible to speak out within and without academic institutions without fear of reprisal? What does it mean to speak about academic freedom through the framework of academic lives?
As the fight against the work of alt-right pundits and groups heats up around the world, academic freedom is often invoked by both sides as a critical concept. In this cluster of essays for Biography, we want to reclaim the concept of academic freedom for the left and for academic activism, not through a debate about the [End Page 722] concept as an abstraction, but in connection to what we see as the radical potential of academic lives. In her book Academic Lives, Cynthia Franklin already called attention to such a potential for memoir writing of professors in the American academy, because the confessional nature of such memoirs leads some of their writers to reflect on the problems of the academic institutions of our time, including challenges and threats to academic freedom (3). But beyond the genre of the published memoir, autobiographical writing in other registers, including scholarly ones, has the ability to bear witness, within the discourse of testimony, to the impact and meaning of the attacks on academic freedom within individual lives and circumstances. Sometimes, but not without reference to specific conditions that render personal testimony capable of facilitating political change, life stories can make a difference beyond the terms of their enunciation. As Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly say in their introduction to the collection We Shall Bear Witness, "the life story as a human rights story cries out for emotional recognition and mourning, the compensation of public remembrance and education" (5). Understanding life stories within a rights framework does not necessarily mean an automatic return to enlightenment values of freedom and individual autonomy, particularly, as Gillian Whitlock reminds us, when "testimony travels on the backs of narratives of trauma and suffering, and it is opportunistic" (86). Testimony is sometimes repurposed within what Sara Ahmed has called the economy of affect, where it can accrue (or lose) value within a larger politics of recognition, and where the appeal to emotion "sticks" individuals to communities or bodies to social space (119). How a "life" becomes legible so that it can even become testimony is a political process. Thinking about the politics of legibility and the circulation of testimony can help us to move beyond assuming that "lives" are ever simply represented and that the category of "experience" has political valence on its own, without a history and politics of legibility. Thinking of "life" as a circulated product within a liberal discourse of freedom can help us to oppose the assumption that "everyone" in the public sphere has the right to share their views, even when they constitute hate speech, and that there is ever a level playing field for the representation of "lives" on the world stage. Which lives count? Which do not? What does it mean to think about academic freedom through the lives of individuals without recourse to the rhetoric surrounding freedom of speech? If academic freedom is to be separated from freedom of speech and reclaimed, the idea of experience itself as more than simple evidence is one key way to think about the personal testimony of academic lives in this moment. We suggest that thinking of academic lives as interpretation and critique is a way to disrupt the current alt-right control of public discourse about freedom of speech.
Keeping interpretation and critique in mind, we also think of these lifewriting essays on academic freedom as literature of witness. Here, we reference Carolyn Forché's elegant phrase "poetry of witness" to describe the relationship of writing to both political trauma and conflict, and to the role of self-reflection and self-writing in recording that trauma. Most often, "witness" is used in lifewriting [End Page 723] criticism as a term that calls attention to those who have first-hand knowledge of atrocities, and witnesses are most often thought of as "vulnerable subjects," in G. Thomas Couser's terms, who need to be heard and respected by scholars and others who collaborate with them and who are committed to "being otherwise" with those who witness (Stumm 763, 768). But it is less common to understand the writing of academics themselves as part of the literature of witness, because academic lives are often written (and lived) from spaces of relative security and safety. The literature of witness emerges in academic writing when the ability of an academic to speak publicly is curtailed, and when there are serious repercussions involved when academics do speak. This, we believe, is what connects issues of academic freedom with academic lives. Testimony emerges from lives under pressure. When academics begin to use the forms of testimony and witness, they connect the events of their lives and their work to larger forces that demand scholarship be severed from public life if it is not immediately connected to economic utility. Academic lives that track mounting opposition to academic freedom reject that demand.
The narratives collected here, in recounting backlash against public speech, underscore the latent violence and potential danger inherent in the use of public voices to critique and challenge hegemonies—of patriarchy, Zionism, Trumpism, or state power in general. Life writing in such circumstances becomes more than an expression of the self; it becomes a means of articulating the self as constituted in the crosshairs of political expression and political repression.
In a slightly different register, our lifewriting cluster also invokes the political essays of the late, great James Baldwin, who in weaving together the personal and political seemed to invent survival autoethnography, well before there was a language for it.2 For Baldwin, the act of seeing and representing one's life experience clearly was its own prismatic way out into the world at large—and a way of staying alive as a presence in it. And like the writers included here, Baldwin was a direct or indirect target: his FBI file grew to more than 1,700 pages as the American Federal Bureau of Investigation attempted to censor his books and prevent his public voice—his life writing—from entering the public arena. In this cluster of essays, we see contributors Malaka Shwaikh and Rebecca Ruth Gould threatened with stigma, personal attack, and loss, including the potential loss of employment, for making public their critiques of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories (a topic Baldwin, ironically, also wrote critically and defiantly about). We see Amanda Gailey speak of the real threat of academic ruin caused by defying state power in conservative Nebraska. We see Elżbieta Klimek-Dominiak describe the rise of far-right discourse in Poland, and its threat to scholars and other intellectuals who stand against it in their own autobiographical work. We see Theresa Smalec think critically about what consent actually means in academic settings when power relations between students and professors are unequal. And, because of the circumstances we discuss in the conclusion of this essay, Nida Sajid's essay about recent student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi could not be published in [End Page 724] this collection. To honor her efforts to talk about neoliberalism and education in India, Nida Sajid's essay is "represented" as ten blank pages. And so, we see the blank pages, where Nida Sajid's words should be, as witnesses in their absence to a different kind of threat to academic freedom.
What we see, in other words, in these examples of witness and survival autoethnography is the self when it is reconstituted through the act of writing what happened, how it felt, and what it means. Writing produces a defiant legibility against the prospect of being misread, or read out of, a history of free expression. I write and speak, therefore I am. Therefore, we are. Therefore, this happened, could happen, is happening right now. Witness is about being there, and so it is about being. The connection between witness and academic freedom is an important one to make now, because it acknowledges how and why personal accounts move outward and become public. Lifewriting scholars have been noticing for some time the connection between private writing and public thinking. This cluster follows in that tradition and asks us to connect the operations of micropower to the larger issues of academic freedom in our time.
Within testimony, experience is not simply evidence of a position or an anchor for a set of identifications, but is an important part of recording and thinking through affect as a public feeling with a politics, much as Ann Cvetkovich understands certain forms of testimony in Depression: A Public Feeling as capable not only of naming the kinds of feelings that circulate about political situations, but of mediating "between the personal and the social" to move through affect to explanation. She calls this testimony "performative writing," even saying it is "a call to memoir that I'm still trying to answer," as part of a developing analytical method (15). We see this move as a way to think critically about experience as neither fully social nor fully personal, but somewhere in between, and that the "betweenness" of experience here is what makes recounting personal experiences part of critique. Experience, and a rethinking of experience, is key to this kind of writing. Our source for this thinking is the work of Joan Scott, who writes that "experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political" (797). The work of discussing an event within the frame of personal experience is itself an interpretation that must be thought within interpretation. When we are talking about academic freedom, then, it is not desirable to disentangle it from the accounts of lives that are not entirely free themselves. For one thing, advocates of "freedom of speech" discourse, particularly on social media, make use of ad hominem attacks to discredit what advocates for academic freedom have to say. The reason this happens is clear: "narratives that castigate individuals for having the wrong emotions or feelings, or for lacking them altogether, stand in for and distract from an engagement with their ideas" (Franklin, "Eichmann" 80). One way to respond to personal attacks is with and through the discourse of the personal. We see this strategy as having radical potential, because it foregrounds experience as an interpretation, and it responds to the accusation of "wrong" [End Page 725] feelings or beliefs. The liberal discourse that made the foundational idea of academic freedom possible can be—and we think should be—disrupted by individual accounts of the failure of liberal political discourse in this moment.
In their recording of attacks on academic freedom, academic lives have the potential to bring us back to discussing what "academic" and "freedom" might mean, especially now. As early as 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued its first declaration of principles on academic freedom and tenure, and described academic freedom as having been under threat by ecclesiastical authority in the past, and at the time by government agendas, corporate interests, or the "tyranny of public opinion" ("AAUP's 1915 Declaration" 7). Most statements on academic freedom for colleges and universities understand it as a way to balance individual and group rights to expression and just treatment (Axelrod), free from attempts by universities and colleges (and donors) to censor or otherwise obstruct what professors, researchers, and instructors think, say, teach, and write, so that knowledge for the public good can be produced.3
More contemporary ideas about academic freedom connect it to labor conditions: those who "profess" within academic structures should be able to do so without fear of losing their jobs. But such ideas, if they remain in a pure or abstract realm constantly under "threat" or "attack," can obscure the real-world conditions in which scholars (tenured and contracted) work, where—as we have seen recently and will detail later in the introduction—BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) professors who critique white supremacy or stand up for human rights—particularly for Palestinians—can and do lose their jobs (Dea). At the same time, appeals to free speech on campuses via the Chicago principles in the US or other calls for freedom of speech can pave the way for alt-right groups to operate with impunity, as they claim that all expression should be allowable in universities, including hate speech (Beauchamp; Uyehara), or limiting what can be researched and taught, as is the case in Hungary, Poland, and India.
In such an environment, personal accounts of the attack on academic freedom in different sites around the world can alert us to the importance of academic freedom, not as a pure and disinterested way to protect scholars from outside attacks, as was imagined in 1915, but as an ideal designed to prevent tyranny and censorship from within and without the academy, and to protect those educators who choose to stand against tyranny in all its forms. Without academic freedom, as contributor Elżbieta Klimek-Dominiak points out, Polish academics were (and could be again) forced to adopt what Czesław Miłosz called "Ketman" as a way to disguise their true beliefs and so to keep their university positions. By speaking out from their own experiences of backlash, academics in Poland reject "Ketman" and confront the work of far-right ideologues directly. As Malaka Shwaikh and Rebecca Ruth Gould discuss in their accounts of far-right pressure and persecution, academic freedom means little if college and university administrations do little to support or defend students and professors when they speak out on political matters and are trolled and made the subject of merciless personal attacks in the public sphere. [End Page 726] Shwaikh and Gould therefore write from their own personal experiences to resist ad hominem attacks on their identity and values. They reclaim the category of the personal, and the individual, to reveal how appeals to abstract ideas of freedom offer little protection from the alt-right's version of what the personal means.
Personal stories have radical potential because the liberal conception of the public sphere as open to all is itself under serious attack by the alt-right and its version of freedom of speech discourse. As contributor Amanda Gailey writes, in a time when groups such as Turning Point USA conflate academic freedom and freedom of speech to attack those who do not agree with them, the appeal to abstract ideas of justice within academic freedom depends on a public sphere that may not in fact exist in an ideal way. Theresa Smalec's discussion of "coercive intimacy" suggests that sexual harassment in colleges and universities continues because of the persistence of idealized interpretations of consent and equality, which assume disinterested liberal subjects who are equal and free to choose intimacy, or to reject it. But students and professors simply do not have the same level of agency and freedom in academic settings. Informal, silent economies of exchange are at work all the time in colleges and universities, as they are in other institutions, and they affect the meaning of consent. Invariably, students are not free to say yes or no to sexual advances in the murky world of professor and student relationships, for a host of reasons.
The personal stories collected here answer Cvetkovich's call to create memoirs that mediate between the personal and the social, arguing for academic freedom, but also showing that academic freedom itself has its limits everywhere in the academy. Shannon Dea points out in University Affairs that it is time to start assessing the state of academic freedom, and whether postsecondary educational institutions actually want to defend it, because "universities, like states, are not ideal, and scholarship about core university values like academic freedom ought to start by taking that fact seriously." Part of the purpose of academics recounting their own experiences is to bear witness to the problems inherent in abstract ideas of justice and freedom, and to call for more radical responses to the attacks of the alt-right on who they are as activists and as academics.
One instructive (and chilling) example of how academic freedom as an ideal has run headlong into the reality of activist academic lives in the United States is the case of Steven Salaita. On September 11, 2014, Salaita was effectively fired from his tenured professorship he was about to assume at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for tweets critical of Israel's bombing of Gaza and its slaughter of more than 2,000 Palestinians, 495 of them children. In firing Salaita, University Chancellor Phyllis Wise released a statement that UIUC would not "tolerate… disrespectful words or actions" (qtd. in "Academic Freedom" 1). On the same date, the UIUC board of trustees and UIUC President Robert Easter issued a joint statement supporting Salaita's firing, declaring UIUC "a community that values civility as much as scholarship" (qtd. in "Academic Freedom" 1). UIUC's invocation of "civility" captured the double bind not just of academic freedom for [End Page 727] university faculty, but also of the liberal subject in western modernity. Salaita's "right" to free speech was delimited by an imagined "civil society" that could be invoked at any moment to remove that right. It is this conception of civil society Michel Foucault had in mind when he described it as "the correlate of the liberal art of government" (291). For Foucault, government—and governmentality—was the rationality that subtended the rights discourse. That rationality both necessitates and animates the conjunction "but" in the excerpt of the AAUP's 1940 statement on academic freedom at the beginning of this introduction: "When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations" (italics added). Salaita was referring most specifically to supporters of Israel—including the US government—when he alluded to the "ideological and rhetorical" forces contouring civility discourse, but he could just as easily have been referring to the university as a "correlate of the liberal art of government."
What specific type of governmentality was at play in the firing of Steven Salaita? For Joseph Massad, it was "a form of racial and class denouncement, both in Western Europe and the United States," previously used to mark Jews beyond the pale of civil society, and now, Arabs and Muslims. Massad recalls that Edward Said, once the most prominent voice for Palestinians in the academy, was referred to by Edward Alexander as a "Professor of Terror," a designation that both parodies and instantiates the university and university professor as governable subjects. Massad also argues that in the case of Salaita, Palestinian human rights, and the right to speak on behalf of them, become
An entry point to suppress dissent inside the walls of the academy … because once successful, it would take away key aspects of faculty governance and transfer them to neoliberal university administrations, and would set a precedent and an ensuing chilling effect on other, perhaps even more dangerous, kinds of dissent that command larger public support than do the Palestinians.
Massad here suggests, in Foucault's terms, that Salaita's extramural utterances exposed a more expansive comprehension of civil society as "the great fantasy … of a social body constituted by the universality of wills."
The idea of the university as a "universality of wills" gives political momentum to today's far-right and alt-right movements, which seek to seize control of university campuses by aggressive defenses of free speech rights. In 2004, a group calling itself the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a manifesto about free speech on college campuses:
The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE's core mission is to protect the unprotected [End Page 728] and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.
FIRE's mission statement attempts to resurrect an abstract, "universal" subject in history. In invoking but not naming that subject, FIRE reveals that it is one defined by yet other universals no less historically specific: freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, and religious liberty. We are back in the time before difference, the mythic space of the Enlightenment that produced the primordial free "self." Indeed, FIRE's only supporting textual argument for its four freedoms is the First Amendment of the US constitution, itself a marvel of what Foucault would call "sovereignty," understood as the capacity of the state to bind its subjects to itself, and in so doing to make them.
Yet just as there was no Palestinian freedom struggle at the birth of the nation, there was no need to worry about universalism's correlate: exclusion. There was of course colonialism and slavery, suffrage for free white propertied men and no others, as well as genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America and Australia, anticipated by its precursors in Latin and South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. FIRE's putative commitment to universal free speech pretends to create a level playing field for free expression where in fact no such playing field exists. Just as the "universalism" of human rights at the nation's founding coincided with restricted or absent rights for slaves, women, and the poor, so today free speech is still created unequally. FIRE may support Steven Salaita's right to free speech, but as a Palestinian he can still lose his job for exercising that right (Shibley). Here we run up against a second constitutive problem for liberal modernity: its impatience with contradiction. Confronted by the uneven and unequal practice of free speech in liberal capitalist civil society—its contingency, by another name—it can redound and resolve to autocracy. The monologue of difference-extinction in the name of the universal is its praxis. In 2017, under pressure from right-wing groups, the University of California, Berkeley opted to host a "Free Speech Week" featuring a number of right and far-right voices: the anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller; Milo Yiannopoulos, who taunts transgendered people in his public addresses and threatens to name undocumented immigrants; and the misogynist conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. The unstated but implied theme of the event was to be this: free speech is only true (universal) free speech when it is mobilized to eradicate particularities—of subjectivity, of perspective, of lived experience, of "life narratives." This eradication would in turn resurrect the difference-less universal subject. Indeed, it should not surprise us that FIRE has named "mandatory diversity training" as a threat to campus free speech. Nor should it surprise us that "Free Speech Week" at UC Berkeley became a focus of attack for the alt-right.
"Free Speech Week" was the brainchild of the Berkeley Patriots, which had pushed UC Berkeley to host it by claiming that right-wing perspectives were not allowed on campus. This claim of exclusion, of course, was meant to mask the attack [End Page 729] on difference. Yet the so-called "crisis" of free speech heralded by alt-right groups like Berkeley Patriots is both manufactured and heavily monetized, a reminder that civil society is ever embedded in capitalism's political economy. It is inseparable from that economy. For example, in September 2017 The Washington Post published an op-ed headlined "A chilling study shows how hostile students are to free speech" (Rampell). The op-ed reported polling results showing that 20 percent of college students supported the use of violence to repress speech it opposed. Yet as Chris Ladd wrote in Forbes magazine, the Post op-ed failed to report that the poll cited was funded by the hard-right Koch brothers, and conducted by someone outside the field with no polling experience. The Koch brothers have previously made their financial influence on academia felt by donating money for professorships at George Mason University with a proviso that they have a say in who is hired for the positions (Green and Saul). Here we can see the intersection of academic freedom and academic life stories most profoundly: restraint on the former being a curb on the very kind and type of people who are allowed access to academic work itself. The Koch brothers example reminds us that the right to live and to write—to write an academic life—is a permission tied to the material conditions of life and expression.
All this returns us to Joseph Massad's point: "free speech" is now a monetizing strategy not just to undermine faculty governance, but to privatize the space in which speech occurs—to privatize speech. This distorts the pitch of the AAUP's 1940 formulation on faculty and free speech: that faculty should "make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution." The neoliberal university increasingly speaks for itself. It has achieved something like "corporate person-hood"—that is, an economic entity bearing the same rights as an individual. Embracing "free speech" thus logically becomes a corporatizing strategy. Here we invoke our colleagues Purnima Bose and Laura Lyons, and their 2014 Biography special issue on "corporate personhood." As Bose and Lyons note in the introduction to that issue, "The near universalization of the corporate form lends urgency to the task of understanding its impact on the quotidian experiences of people, and also on newly emergent conceptions of subjectivity" (xvi). Just as Bose and Lyons argue in that issue that life writing is one way of assessing "emergent conceptions of subjectivity," we argue that the corporatized restriction of free speech in the university seeks to produce a new university subject shaped by a conservative understanding of free speech itself.
University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer has ardently embraced FIRE principles, has invited the likes of Steve Bannon to speak at the university, and told the Wall Street Journal he would allow neo-Nazi (and UChicago alum) Richard Spencer to speak on campus if invited (Belkin). Donor contributions are often tied directly to the university's championing of conservative viewpoints under the rubric of "free speech." As Osita Nwanevu has reported of the University of Chicago, the school's free speech messaging has been central to its fundraising success. This has cemented a distinct identity for the university not just in the press [End Page 730] and among the general public, but among donors as well. At least one billionaire donor has explained that his gift to the university owes to Zimmer's dedication to preventing "safe spaces and trigger warnings":
In September, the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin advised readers against making contributions to any other elite university. "[T]hose wishing to support universities' core missions can donate instead to institutions such as the University of Chicago," he wrote, "whose president has stood firm against the social and political trends buffeting so many other elite campuses."(Nwanevu)
The American Enterprise Institute is a right-wing think tank with ties to the Trump administration; its trustees include Dick DeVos, husband of current US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. AEI's support for "free speech" principles that push against the "trend" of liberal sensitivity to racism, sexism, and homophobia in the name of enabling conservative politics dovetails with the Trump administration's own approach to the matter. In April of 2019, Trump signed an executive order, which in the US has the force of law, declaring that the federal government would withhold federal funds from any public university that in any way limited free speech on campus (McGuire). Yet as University of Miami Law Professor Caroline Mala Corbin was quick to point out in the Washington Post, the executive order was clearly intended to signal-boost right-wing politics. Trump previewed the order at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Its signing was attended by the founder of the conservative watchdog group Turning Point USA, flagged in our special issue by Amanda Gailey for its role in the firing of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln adjunct professor. Corbin noted, "The way the order was unveiled makes clear that this administration's focus is on the free-speech rights of only some citizens—namely, conservatives."
Since issuing the executive order in March 2019, the Trump administration has made more explicit, or manifest, the politics behind the order. In December 2019, it issued another executive order threatening to pull federal funds from universities that don't reject antisemitism. The order uses a broad definition of antisemitism which defines Jewish people as a distinct racial group to whom protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be extended. The order uses a definition of antisemitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that includes criticisms of the state of Israel as antisemitic. The order thus makes vulnerable the "free speech" rights of students and organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine. Indeed, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, prior to the order, had described Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists as "bullies" and called the movement "one of the most pernicious threats on campuses" (Green).
Trump's executive orders authoritarianize the liberal art of government while instantiating exceptions to free speech that challenge a radically conservative hegemony. This autocratic dispensation, using money as the carrot and reactionary politics as the stick, is now the modus operandi for authoritarian states globally. In [End Page 731] Hungary, for example, Central European University was forced to relocate from Budapest to Vienna. The move was precipitated by government efforts to withdraw credit for gender studies programs and impose a tax on programs for migrants and refugees, a material enactment of difference-extinction. In Brazil, the far-right Bolsonaro administration has promised to cut 30 percent of the federal budget for three federal universities accused by Bolsonaro of "left-wing" indoctrination of students. Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, says the situation in Brazil especially should be "a canary in the coal mine" for American academics. "This is not some exotic thing," he said: "This is an international, worldwide far-right attack on the universities that is if anything more mainstream in the United States than in Brazil" (qtd. in Redden).
Perhaps the most pointed example of the repressive nexus among academic freedom, monetization, and liberal—or in this case, neoliberal—governance comes from India. In 2015, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi protested the elimination of a fellowship that they saw as linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government's attempt to open up higher education to the international market by placing it under the WTO General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS). This was perceived as part of the ruling party's efforts to neoliberalize and privatize the public sphere to produce what BJP head Narendra Modi has called "India Shining." In response, students enacted an Occupy-style protest on campus. The government sent police with batons and water cannons to smash the demonstration (Crowley). It was this episode, and other recent crackdowns on student freedoms at JNU, that Nida Sajid had hoped to write about in a contribution to this cluster of essays. Yet because Sajid had formerly held an appointment at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) that falls under the Indian education ministry, thus making her a federal employee, she had to request permission from the ministry to publish anything in an academic venue that included autobiographical information or used institutional names. Because she could not be guaranteed when—or whether—she could get that permission, she was forced to withdraw the piece from consideration.
To honor Nida Sajid's efforts, and to commemorate the very essence of what this issue is about, we are including ten blank pages where her essay would have appeared. Those pages represent the ongoing silencing of the voices of so many academics who, at this juncture, cannot or will not speak for fear of retribution, disciplining, punishment, firing, or other structural determinants. We also hope the blank pages serve as a reminder that even the space of an academic journal can be constructed by the consequences of governmentality. If academic freedom is a concept that should be taken out of the realm of the ideal, then it becomes important to detail what its material conditions and its limits are, and what is at stake when academic freedom ceases to be a core value in academic settings around the world. Such an approach asks us to consider the work of academic lives and how academics choose to represent their lives as political and in opposition to liberal ideas of self-autonomy. These are signals that writing about one's experiences in the name [End Page 732] of academic freedom constitutes a critical intervention in and assessment of the possibilities and limits of freedom. The essays collected here—and the essay that appears here as an absence—provide some ways to think about whether, how, and why academic freedom continues to matter as the penalties for speaking truth to power accumulate.
The word does not yet run free—in these pages or anywhere else.
Bill V. Mullen is Professor of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (Pluto Books, 2019) and co-editor with Christopher Vials of The U.S. Antifascism Reader (Verso, 2020). He is a member of the organizing collective for the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Julie Rak is Henry Marshall Tory Chair of English at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is the author of Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2013) and her latest book is the forthcoming Social Climbing: Gender in Mountaineering Nonfiction (McGill-Queens UP, 2020). She is a member of the organizing collective for the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and the Palestine Solidarity Network - Edmonton.
1. For an account of Peterson's threat to create a course and professor watch list, see Currie. For an analysis that considers Peterson's fight for free speech as an assault on academic freedom, see Silverstein. For an account that discusses other attempts Peterson has made to attack left-wing professors or the humanities more generally, see Wells.
2. The term "autoethnography" has entered mainstream critical discourse, but was first coined by Mary Louise Pratt. In her essay "Arts of the Contact Zone," Pratt writes, "if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), autoethnographic texts are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts" (35). The term has been extended to many other writers and writing situations, including Latinx, Asian, and postcolonial writers in multiple contexts.