"Academic Freedom": Creating Opportunities for the Subjugated

This is a guest post by Adria Battaglia, a contributor to the newest issue of the Journal of Academic FreedomProfessor Battaglia received her PhD in rhetoric and language from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010. She served as a visiting professor at Illinois College for one year before returning to Texas to join the communication and mass media faculty at Angelo State University where she teaches in the area of rhetorical studies. Her work has appeared in the scholarly journals Quarterly Journal of Speech, Text & Performance Quarterly, and Free Speech Yearbook (a National Communication Association publication now known as First Amendment Studies).

The absurd and embarrassing decision to fire Steven Salaita has rekindled dialogues and debates about academic freedom, conversations which inevitably result in a return to “free speech,” which in turn means a constant barrage of arguments about civility, decorum, and neutrality. As this latest case of violated academic freedom rights reminds us, the legal codification of “academic freedom” is just as ambiguous, and can be just as malleable and contradictory, as the laws of “free speech.”

In my essay, “Opportunities of Our Own Making: The Struggle for ‘Academic Freedom,’” I offer a historical analysis of the contemporary controversy surrounding the narrative of “academic freedom.”  Specifically, I examine David Horowitz’s “Academic Freedom” campaign, exploring how “academic freedom,” a narrative that appears alongside “free speech” discourse frequently since September 11, 2001, can be understood as a site of struggle, a privileged label that grants legitimacy to those controlling it. This analysis includes public debates, interviews, and blog postings spanning the 2003 launch of Horowitz’s campaign, discussions of the proposed legislation in 2007, and his publication in 2009 of One-Party Classroom. By exposing the various ways Horowitz’s campaign is framed in the media by interested parties, I demonstrate how the link between “academic freedom” and “free speech” becomes a rhetorical strategy still used today by institutions and a powerful elite to silence dissent, but also a rhetorical strategy by which the subjugated can gain political and economic legitimacy.

If I could add to my essay in light of recent events, I would like to think further about the opportunities for returning “academic freedom” to the subjugated, removing it from those who (mis)use it as a disciplining/policing narrative. I hope to raise more conversation not simply of the strategies of control, but the tactics for liberation—the ways in which we might flip the script of contemporary (mis)understandings of academic freedom as somehow synonymous with civility and collegiality (and political neutrality—like Howard Zinn says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”).

When I read over UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s e-mail about the decision not to hire Salaita, I, like AAUP’s John Wilson, notice the strategies for control in the appeals for “respectful discourse,” and the hypocritical appeals to community and tolerance. I am reminded of Michel de Certeau, who makes a distinction between the concepts of strategy and tactics in his work, The Practice of Everyday Life. One of the clearer explanations of Certeau’s distinction is found in Andrew Blauvelt’s edited book, Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life (2003):

Strategies are used by those within organizational power structures, whether small or large, such as the state or municipality, the corporation or the proprietor, a scientific enterprise or the scientist. Strategies are deployed against some external entity to institute a set of relations for official or proper ends, whether adversaries, competitors, clients, customers, or simply subjects. Tactics, on the other hand, are employed by those who are subjugated. By their very nature tactics are defensive and opportunistic, used in more limited ways and seized momentarily within spaces, both physical and psychological, produced and governed by more powerful strategic relations.

Although I use the concept “rhetorical strategy” positively in my essay, it is my hope, in the tradition of Certeau, we strive to think about tactics, too. I hope we learn to embrace evolving, changing, contradictory tactics that challenge and dismantle inequalities and oppression. And in the meantime, I believe that the fallacious, binary logic of civil and uncivil/ collegial/uncollegial that some continue to associate with “academic freedom” will continue to serve not as productive rhetorical tactics moving us toward a more just, educated, deliberative society, but rather as a causal factor in continued symbolic and material violence on college campuses and all democratic communities.

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the 2014 issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom in “Opportunities of Our Own Making: The Struggle for Academic Freedom,” an essay by Adria Battaglia.

3 thoughts on “"Academic Freedom": Creating Opportunities for the Subjugated

  1. This strategy/tactic distinction is perhaps why social media are of such concern to the power elites and why they object to their use by their perceived subordinates: Twitter, for example, does not lend itself to strategy — it is essentially pure tactic.

    That said, the onslaught to deny public university faculty “free expression” on social media like Twitter is not likely to go away: there are, after all, fifty states in the union and Illinois is but one of them. In the end, the “subjugated” must, for their own survival, prioritize their “tactics.” Is an “egalitarian” emotive tweet worth the penalty that faculty are increasingly made to pay for such speech in public institutions where the states are ultimately “sovereign”? There is, of course, more than one answer to that question, but that does appear to be the over-arching question.

    Unless and until Garcetti is clarified by the Supreme Court to “reach” the decision that academic freedom and First Amendment rights are absolute for faculty in the classroom and in their research, etc., then this is risky business, indeed. Let us remember that in that case the a public employee lost his job for objecting to corruption in the presentation of a public prosecution. If/because justice and the courts are subjugated thereby to state power, this struggle for academic freedom may indeed take long….

  2. One thing that is sorely absent in the campaign to overturn the UIUC Salaita decision is the employment of the very kind of speech that many in the American academy believe — passionately — to be acceptable, even laudable, from scholars.

    So, in addition to the all of the commentary about speech rights, encroachments by administrations and boards onto academic turf, employment policies, contract law, activist strategy and so on, to really establish the protection, and moreover, the advancement, of the emerging public intellectual paradigm, the campaign must include issuance of continuous short bursts of public statements like the following:


    I hate waking up only to realize that the UIUC Board of Trustees still exists.

    While Salaita’s future hangs in the balance, the UIUC BoT are engaged in protracted struggle over who can buy the biggest yacht.

    The UIUC spokesperson receives money to justify, conceal, and glamorize the firing of professors. Goebbels much?

    Supporting UIUC puts you in company of Republicans with sexual fantasies about killing Muslims. Enjoy your new buddies, employment contract literalists.

    I don’t give two fucks what the “UIUC” policy says. The BoT ALREADY destroyed academic freedom and is destroying Salaita right now.

    Chancellor Wise fires tenured hires and blames it on her Board. Psychiatry hasn’t yet accounted for this sort of derangement.

    Instead of whining–which, to be fair, is Chancellor Wise’s oxygen–trustees should be glad I called them “trolls,” the kindest word I can muster.

    Do you have to visit your physician for prolonged erections when you see pictures of fired professors from UIUC?

    What do you say to the children of the professors you have fired?

    The above pseudo-tweets are based on a selection (approx. one half) of Steven Salaita’s tweets of the single day July 16.

  3. “the opportunities for returning “academic freedom” to the subjugated,”

    What can this phrase possibly mean? Did “the subjugated” once have academic freedom? When was it taken from them? By whom?

    What Prof. Battaglia does not understand is that academic freedom is not a freedom that belongs to the subjugated. It is a freedom reserved to an elite. Ordinary working people do not have it; journalists don’t, activists don’t, doctors and lawyers and most working scientists don’t.

    Only academics do – people who are highly trained in specialized subjects, vetted by their peers, and paid by elitist institutions which are dedicated, in theory at least, to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge wherever it may lead.

    I say that Prof. Battaglia does not understand this. Of course that is my own rhetorical move; she certainly does understand it; but on the evidence of this blog post, she does not believe it.

    This isn’t surprising. Academic freedom is an expression of the liberal commitment to reason’s ability to discover objective knowledge. American conservatives generally don’t believe this; they believe in faith. And leftists don’t believe it; they believe that knowledge is relative, and that the claimed belief in objective knowledge is a front for the true goal of supporting existing power relationships.

    On the evidence, this is what Prof. Battaglia believes. When she claims to want to “return” academic freedom to “the subjugated,” what she means is that she wants to do away with academic freedom altogether.

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