Sometimes when speaking to people who work outside of academe, they say incredibly patronizing things like
You people in your ivory towers. You have no idea how the real world works. Money is what makes the world go round.
Gee friends in the “real” world, thanks for the information. We would never have any idea how money controls knowledge here in academe. It’s not like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch here in the tower, but then again, it ain’t exactly free of the influence of dollars on discourse, is it?
I suppose there was never an actual university that was free of the power of money. That ideal space of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is really just that—a Weberian ideal type that we can compare to our own universities—but not an actual place that ever existed. Still, I have the sinking feeling that universities today are less ideal than they used to be. The problem began with neoliberalism, as most of our problems do.
As neoliberal economic policies set everything from prisons to schools to compete in the market, and took away a heck of a lot of public funding in the process, universities had little choice but to rely more and more on corporate and individual donors.
And rely we did. The result? The rich now directly shape academic inquiry. I have heard of universities where wealthy donors literally get to dictate the name of a program and the shape of the curriculum. At Brooklyn College last fall,
A wealthy alumnus said he was cutting the college out of his will because all incoming freshmen had been asked to read How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor there.
But it’s not just that being set “free” in the market means that wealthy donors can directly shape knowledge. It’s also that the neoliberal university must constantly be careful that the knowledge it produces doesn’t rock the boat too much. After all, if you rock the boat, your wealthy sponsors might jump ship.
An example of this happened just this week when a Brooklyn College adjunct was fired (and then apparently rehired) because a number of people, including State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (a Brooklyn Democrat), thought his work was too critical of Israel. The instructor, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a graduate student in political science at the Graduate Center, was told by the administration that he was not qualified to teach a masters level course because he himself does not have a doctorate. Ten professors in the political science department responded with a letter of protest, saying
the college’s decision “undermines academic freedom and departmental governance.”
And academic freedom is really what is at stake here. Because academic freedom is increasingly undervalued in the neoliberal university. Like a university outside of the market, academic freedom is an ideal type—but NOT an unattainable ideal. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defined academic freedom in 1940 as
fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.
The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.
If we understand that academic freedom—like a news media free of the direct influence of conservative billionaires—is necessary for democracy, then we can decide that it’s worth protecting. In the case of Brooklyn College, a coalition of academics and journalists willing to stand up for an ideal made academe a more ideal place. Because standing up for academic freedom—and by extension democracy—matters more now than ever. In the real world and in the ivory tower.Return to Top